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Orange Liqueurs

Published September 2006

How we tested

The suave Suzette sauce derives her elegance, at least in part, from the dynamic duo of cognac and orange liqueur. When making crêpes Suzette, should you shell out big bucks for a name brand or will something cheaper, like triple sec or Curaçao, work just fine? And does the same choice serve as the best blend in a mixed drink like sangría and margaritas?

To find out, we started by tasting different brands of the two relatively inexpensive orange liqueurs, triple sec and Curaçao. Sweet, clear triple sec is, like most flavored cordials, a generic, vodka-based spirit. It is a simple mixture of vodka, artificial orange flavors, and fructose (a form of sugar found in fruits) flavored with the peels of both sweet and bitter oranges (and sometimes lemons, too). We tasted eight brands.

Curaçao is flavored only with the peel of bitter oranges, specifically those native to the Caribbean island of Curaçao. Manufacturers may tint their Curaçao blue, green, orange, or amber, but color does not affect the flavor. We tasted two brands.

Orange-infused cognac is well known to most home cooks as Grand Marnier, but there are other brands, which are usually less expensive. Oranges of various types are harvested, pulped, and laid out to dry and ferment in the sun, which preserves the pungent oils in the skins. This orange essence is combined with cognac, a brandy made from grapes and aged in oak barrels. We tasted Grand Marnier and six lesser-known orange-infused cognacs.

The other prestigious name in orange liqueurs is Cointreau, made by combining the peels of bitter Caribbean and sweet Spanish and Brazilian oranges with neutral spirits, cane sugar, and water. This mixture is distilled in steam-heated copper stills and filtered of any impurities before bottling. The result is a clear orange liqueur that is higher in alcohol and drier in flavor than the contemporary spirits.

First we sampled each straight up and then in sangría and margaritas. For these mixed drinks we found a winner. Then we turned to cooking. We tasted three winners of our straight tasting against the two premium choices in crêpes Suzette. Our conclusion? Although the high-priced liqueurs might be better for sipping, for cooking we found that the cheaper choices were just fine.

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The Results


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.)*

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.)*