How we tested
No midcentury diet book was complete without mention of cottage cheese, a soft, lumpy fresh cheese with slightly tangy flavor. Consumption peaked in the early 1970s, when the average American ate 5 pounds a year. But like Jane Fonda, cottage cheese is so much more than a bygone health fad. And it's having a resurgence in popularity. New products are on the market, some touting the cheese's protein levels and the “live and active cultures” that purportedly promote gut health.
Cottage cheese is a tasty snack when eaten plain, and it's also a useful ingredient: In the test kitchen we use it in baked pastas because it stays creamy, and we add it to pizzas, dips, and desserts, where it contributes moisture and richness. But what exactly is cottage cheese, and does it matter which product you buy?
How Cottage Cheese Is Made
Cottage cheese—so named because it was first made in farmhouses, aka cottages—is produced by acidifying pasteurized skim milk and sometimes adding rennet (enzymes that promote curd formation). Curds form after several hours, and then they're cut into pieces and cooked until the desired firmness is achieved. The curds are drained and rinsed, and finally, salt and cream are added to them. (The amount of cream determines the fat content of the product; fat-free cottage cheese is the curd without any cream.) A key difference in modern cottage cheese manufacturing is the possible inclusion of additives such as xanthan gum or guar gum, usually to prevent liquid from separating.
To find the best product for both snacking and cooking, we selected five top-selling, nationally available cottage cheeses, priced from $0.17 to $0.36 per ounce. We excluded our previous winner, Hood Country Style Cottage Cheese, because it's available in only 12 states, and we focused on full-fat (4 percent milk fat) products since that's what we call for most often in our recipes. (We generally don't recommend cooking with fat-free cottage cheese because it can break and create a grainy, watery texture, so we call for it only in certain reduced-fat recipes.)
Why You Should Look for a Short Ingredient List
After sampling the cottage cheeses plain and in lasagna, we analyzed our rankings and found that texture was critical: Our highly rated cottage cheeses were drier and less liquid-y, while our least favorite products were watery. However, we noticed that wetter products had more additives such as xanthan gum, guar gum, and locust bean gum—all meant to bind ingredients and make the cottage cheese less watery. Our winner and runner-up had no gums at all and the shortest ingredient lists in the lineup.
Curious as to why the stabilizer-free products were less liquid-y, we turned to Dr. Dana Wolle, senior scientist at Chr. Hansen, a Danish bioscience company that specializes in developing cultures, enzymes, and probiotics. He explained that “the best way to get a thick, rich dairy product with plenty of body is to use a lot of dairy solids,” which are composed of protein, fat, carbohydrates, and minerals. The rest of milk, about 87 percent of it, is made up of water. Stabilizers, which are typically less expensive to add than dairy solids, “can make the product thicker but can't exactly match the texture of dairy fat and protein,” Wolle told us. “Your favorite undoubtedly has a lot of dairy solids, since it has no stabilizers in it to thicken up the dressing.”
In addition to our tasters' preference for drier, less-liquid-y cottage cheese, our favorite products were bold and tangy, while lower-ranked products were milder and dull. Differences were most noticeable when we tasted the cottage cheeses plain and were somewhat muted (but still discernible) when we evaluated them cooked in lasagna. To find out why some products were brighter and tangier than others, we examined fat and sodium levels and sent samples to an independent lab to have pH levels tested; none of these factors tracked with our results. Ultimately, the flavor of cottage cheese is dependent on numerous variables, including the quality of the milk and the time between production and consumption.
To make cottage cheese, culture is added to milk; however, when the curd is heated, that culture is killed. Still, three products in our lineup included either “live and active cultures” or “acidophilus and bifidus cultures” on their ingredient lists. The latter are probiotic species often touted as “good bacteria,” the many strains of which are now commonly encapsulated and sold as health supplements.
We contacted all three companies to ask if the probiotics were added to contribute a health benefit. Two said yes, though neither had clinically tested the levels present in their products. The third company told us that the “live and active cultures” were included for “production purposes only” but wouldn't specify further. As Dr. Wolle explained, stating that these cultures are in a product doesn't necessarily mean they're present in “therapeutic amounts,” the levels clinically proven to provide specific health benefits. Bottom line: Take these claims with a grain of salt.
The Best Cottage Cheese
Daisy Regular Cottage Cheese ($3.99 for 24 ounces) had the highest score and the shortest ingredient list, with just three items: cultured skim milk, cream, and salt. And based on what our experts said, the luscious, creamy texture of our winner was likely the result of an abundance of dairy solids, given that there were no stabilizers added. Besides its pleasing consistency, we enjoyed this cottage cheese's “tangy, fresh, dairy flavor,” evident when we tasted it plain and even when it was combined with other ingredients in lasagna. It was our clear favorite, and it was the least expensive per ounce—not that we needed any more convincing.
Twenty-one America's Test Kitchen staffers sampled five nationally available cottage cheeses, ranging in price from $0.17 to $0.36 per ounce, tasting each one plain and in Cheese and Tomato Lasagna. We purchased the cottage cheeses in Boston-area supermarkets. Ingredient lists were taken from product labels. We averaged the scores from both tastings and products are listed below in order of preference.