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Hard Apple Cider

Published October 2014

How we tested

Most of us associate cider with the unfiltered apple juice that appears in supermarkets every fall, but before Prohibition the word “cider” meant what we know today as “hard cider,” an alcoholic drink made from fermented apple juice. Hard cider was once the most popular beverage in America—in fact, colonial settlers (even children) drank cider in place of water because public wells were considered unsanitary. But cider’s popularity sharply declined as immigrants brought over beer from Europe, and by the early 1900s, hard cider had all but disappeared. But after this century-long dry spell, cider is having a revival—sales have been growing by more than 50 percent a year. Could we find a comeback-worthy hard cider?

To find out, we invited 21 America’s Test Kitchen staffers to sample four nationally available ciders straight up and in cider-glazed root vegetables.

Right off the bat, tasters preferred sweet ciders to dry. Ciders perceived as sweeter were rated highly for being “fresher,” “fruitier,” and “more drinkable.” We examined nutritional labels and found that, while all the ciders contain the same 5 percent alcohol, our preferred ciders have more than twice the sugar of our bottom-ranked product. Tasters thought that ciders with more sugar had stronger apple flavor and a crisp, refreshing taste and found dry ciders more muted, with pear-like notes and a puckering tartness.

Sweetness was also important when we cooked with the cider. The cider with the least amount of sugar lent a “boozy,” “sour” bitterness to cider-glazed root vegetables, while ciders with more sugar pleasantly rounded out the dish with a “balanced” “apple-forward” juiciness.

While our preferred ciders have more sugar, we also noticed that they contain less sodium. But none of the ciders list salt as an ingredient and apple juice (the primary ingredient in cider) doesn’t contain salt either. So what’s the source of the sodium? According to our science editor, sodium in cider comes from chemical preservatives called sulfites that are added to protect the drink from spoiling. Ciders with higher levels of sodium usually have more sulfites, which can cause an unpleasant, bitter taste. While the amount of sodium in all the ciders wasn’t enough to make them taste salty, our bottom-ranked offering contained the most sodium, and tasters thought that it was too “bitter” and “medicinal.”

This effect could also be exacerbated by how the cider is packaged. Exposure to light, particularly if the cider contains sulfites, can cause chemical reactions that produce a skunky, sour taste. Unlike cans or tinted glass, clear glass bottles provide no protection from light, making the cider more vulnerable to these unfavorable reactions. Our bottom-ranked cider is packaged in a clear glass bottle and tasters found that it had a “slightly sour,” “funky aftertaste.” One of our recommended ciders is also bottled in clear glass, so while we won’t write off ciders packaged this way, bottles should always be stored in the fridge to minimize exposure to light.

Ultimately, one product won the top spot for its strong apple sweetness and refreshing, juicy complexity. For rounding out our cider-glazed root vegetables or sipping plain on a crisp fall day, we’ll reach for our winner.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*