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Mail-Order Parmigiano

By Cook's Illustrated Published September 2007

How we tested

While conducting our review of Supermarket Parmesan Cheese (see related tasting), we ordered Parmigiano-Reggiano from four gourmet website to test more-expensive waters. As we learned in that tasting, the making of Parmigiano-Reggiano in Italy is highly codified. The process is laborious and time-consuming, which explains the high price tag for this cheese.

Parmigiano-Reggiano’s unique flavor comes from several factors other than manufacturing. What the cows eat affects the flavor of their milk and the resultant cheese. In Italy, the cows designated for Parmigiano-Reggiano are pastured, grazing outdoors rather than eating a concentrated feed. In addition to the cows' diet, there are different and unique microflora and yeasts in the milk. Since Italians use raw, not pasteurized milk to make Parmesan, these microorganisms add unique flavor components to the cheese (pasteurization kills microorganisms). However, using raw milk also leads to a less consistent product; you can get extreme highs and lows of flavor.

And it's not just the milk that's different between the two countries. American cheese makers often use nonanimal rennet to curdle the milk; Italians use animal rennet. And the starter cultures differ, with Italians using the whey left from the cheese-making of the day before, while Americans generally purchase starters from enzyme manufacturers.

One of our four cheeses included a type new to us, Vacche Rosse Parmigiano-Reggiano or "Red Cow" Parmesan. It comes from the red-colored Reggiana cows that were the earliest breed native to northern Italy. Due to their lower milk yield, these cows were edged out by modern high-yield cows just after World War II. A few traditionalists are bringing them back to make cheese the old-fashioned way. Their milk has a naturally higher fat content, and the cheese is usually aged at least 30 months.

Our Results? Two of our mail-order cheeses won by a landslide, ranked significantly higher than the other mail-order cheeses for complexity of flavor and appealing texture. They also easily won against our supermarket cheese.

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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.)*