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Packaged Stuffing

Published October 2005

How we tested

Each year, Americans spend almost $300 million on supermarket stuffings. We figured that these products, much like frozen pie crusts, are purchased for the sake of convenience (just add water and butter and serve), shoppers knowing all the while that they're sacrificing taste and texture. But $300 million is a serious vote of consumer confidence, so we decided to hold a blind tasting to fairly judge the quality of store-bought stuffings.

We purchased eight popular brands of herb-flavored stuffing, and it was immediately clear from the ingredient list that fresh, natural flavors had been discarded for the usual suspects: MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, yeast, partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oils, caramel color, BHT, propyl gallate, and the like. Chicken stock appeared in just three brands, and flavorful herbs were few and far between. Only one contained herbs other than parsley (rosemary, thyme, sage, and basil), but they came in at the bottom of the ingredients list. Although the labeling on another bag promised that its contents were seasoned with "five savory herbs," only "spices" were listed as an ingredient.

So how did they taste? Well, every brand was a far cry from the real thing. In addition to poor flavor (from bland and murky to strongly objectionable), the stuffings suffered from textural extremes—all were panned as either "pasty" and "gummy" or "dry" and "chewy." Why not buy a packaged stuffing and doctor it up with fresh, high-quality ingredients? A nice idea in theory, but why try to fix something that is so obviously broken? With just a little extra work, you can a make stuffing from scratch that will turn out a lot better.

In the end, the stuffings that made it to the top of our list were put there not because of their great flavor or texture but because they were "not objectionable." As one taster wrote, "The best, but so what?"

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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.)*