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Mascarpone

Published July 2017

How we tested

Mascarpone is a soft, creamy cow’s-milk cheese from Italy that’s both slightly sweet and slightly tangy. It’s versatile enough to be used in sweet applications (in tiramisù or tarts, dolloped on berries, or drizzled with honey) and savory dishes (stirred into pasta or risotto or served alongside baked or roasted potatoes). It’s an acid-set cheese, which means that the cream and/or milk is coagulated using acids such as citric or acetic acid instead of rennet. It’s then cooked until it reaches a thick and spreadable consistency similar to that of crème fraîche or sour cream. Mascarpone used to be available only in Italian markets and specialty shops, so when we started seeing it in our regular supermarkets, we took notice. We found four nationally available products, including both Italian and domestic versions, priced from $3.99 to $10.89 per pound. A panel of tasters sampled each plain, in tiramisù, and in a fruit tart and rated them on flavor, texture, and overall appeal.

The plain tasting revealed some minor differences in flavor. Some tasters found one sample slightly “sour” and another a bit too “mild,” but those differences were subtle. And when we used the mascarpones in recipes, they were tough to tell apart. Most tasted both “tangy and bright” and “lightly sweet.”

The real differences were in texture. Straight from the container, the cheeses ranged from as loose as yogurt to as firm as brick cream cheese. When we used them to make tiramisù and fruit tart, the textural differences evened out a bit. The firmest mascarpone yielded cream fillings that were “thick and dense,” which translated to desserts that felt rich and decadent. We liked these samples, but the thickest ones also tended to have a slight “graininess” or “chalkiness” that was less appealing. Our favorites were supersmooth and, though noticeably less dense, still firm enough to slice neatly.

Ultimately, we liked the cheeses enough to recommend all of them. But what explained the differences we’d noticed? First, we identified the likely source of that firm, stiff texture in our third-place finisher: It contains nonfat milk solids, which are likely added to make a thicker product. Meanwhile, the soft texture of our second-place cheese might be due to its coagulant. It’s the only product in our lineup to use glucono delta lactone, an acid-forming substance that’s slower-acting than the citric acid used in the other cheeses and thus is the likely cause of that cheese’s less-dense texture.

We also realized that our slight flavor preferences were due to the ratio of cream to milk. When milk is skimmed, it loses some of its natural sugar, lactose. Mascarpone made mostly with skim milk (and nonfat milk solids) contained very little natural sugar per serving. Our favorites, which are made with more cream than milk, contained a small amount of natural sugar, just 1 gram for every 2 tablespoons. It was enough to make the cheese taste pleasantly sweet without overwhelming its tangy flavor.

Although we recommend all these products, the sole Italian import emerged as our new winner. Polenghi Mascarpone ($5.99 for 8.8 ounces) boasted an especially “luscious” texture and yielded ultrasmooth desserts that sliced neatly but weren’t too thick or heavy. It’s made entirely with cream, no milk, and thus contains a small amount of naturally occurring sugar, so it strikes the perfect balance between “slight sweetness” and the “bright,” tangy flavor our tasters liked best. It’s a mascarpone that we’ll use for tiramisù, fruit tarts, and much more.

Methodology

Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staff members sampled four nationally available mascarpone cheeses plain, in fruit tart, and in tiramisù. At each tasting, we evaluated the samples’ flavor, texture, and overall appeal. Ingredients and nutritional information were taken from the product packaging and, when necessary, converted to a standard serving size of 30 grams (or roughly 2 tablespoons). Products were purchased in Boston-area supermarkets and appear in order of preference.

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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.)*