The prompt for this taste test sparked wild debate across our team, particularly around what cheese belongs on burgers to begin with. After two hours (!) of back and forth (we are nothing here at Serious Eats if not unfailingly thorough), we…didn’t even reach a consensus. How could we have slept soundly that night knowing we’d declared American cheese—the gummy-but-meltier option—correct? How could we have shown our faces in the kitchens the next day had we instead ratified cheddar—the objectively better-tasting but inferior-melting selection—as the winner?
So we didn’t. But because Kenji did this exercise with American cheese quite some time ago and because we all just wanted to eat a fair amount of cheese, we went the cheddar route. Little did we know, it wouldn’t be an entirely American cheese-less day.
You know the shtick: The SE team has pulled together eight brands of cheddar cheese slices you’re likely to find in your local supermarket and methodically, empirically, scientifically! tasted its way through them all in a quest to identify the very best one to put atop all your forthcoming cheeseburgers. We had a blast! We needed to take a few deep breaths and a few long walks! We all took a lot of grease-tinged pictures of piles of cheese!
(I have no skin in this game; I love cheeseburgers, but I sat in the corner taking meticulous reaction notes and enjoying three slices of what ultimately became Genevieve’s strawberry rhubarb pie. Enjoy!)
- Stop & Shop Sharp Cheddar
- KRAFT Singles Sharp Cheddar
- Boar’s Head Vermont Cheddar
- Sargento Cheddar (Creamery)
- Tillamook Sharp Cheddar
- Cracker Barrel Wisconsin Extra Sharp Yellow Cheddar
- 365 Sharp Cheddar Cheese
- Applegate Organics Cheddar Cheese
Cheddar cheese for cheeseburgers needs to be tangy and sharp. Like, sharp and distinct enough that you could eat it as a standalone snack without having to wonder what you just ate. It should also be just salty enough that once you’re done with said snack, you shouldn’t immediately need water—you should just kinda want a few sips.
The addition of heat should not mitigate the integrity or flavor of the cheese (see: slices should converge to evenly coat the patty; it should not create any kind of sideways cheese drippings that require you to remove a hand from your burger to catch or clean). Proper meltability also means there are no non-melted sections of the slice that eat dryly. Mid-slice stretch is important, too! A few bites per burger should yield a fine, thin string of cheese that breaks gently of its own accord. Finally, there shouldn’t be much slick cheese grease. Grease is best as a patty’s thing! We added two slices of each cheese to each burger for the best gauging of flavor and meltability.
…And while we didn’t ultimately include a criteria for color, we just for funsies verbally agreed that orange cheddar felt more correct in this context.
Tillamook Sharp Cheddar (3.5/5)
The only cheese among the contenders to be unanimously described as having a “distinct cheddar flavor.” Some called it “nice,” others called it “very nice,” one called it “really nice,” and so on and so forth. In fact, Daniel declared, if flavor is most important to you when choosing a cheddar for cheeseburgers, Tillamook’s should be your top choice. Jake whooped when he learned it’d been his top pick. He is to Tillamook cheddar as Genevieve is to Häagen-Dazs strawberry ice cream, I suppose.
KRAFT Singles Sharp Cheddar (3.5/5)
Listen. Just listen! These slices sat there and took endless admonishment from the team before a single member had even taken a bite. “Psh,” they scoffed. “We know exactly what this is,” they huffed. “OBVIOUSLY KRAFT AMERICAN CHEESE SINGLES,” they pooh-poohed. They then promptly gave the stuff near-top numbers for both flavor and meltability. They took note of the glorious, thick coating and its unequivocal nostalgic yumminess when paired with meat, all while attempting to disqualify the cheese’s participation in the ranking because they were so convinced it really was an American cheese entry snuck in. Maybe it was? (It’s not quite, but it’s not not. KRAFT cheddar goes a little heavier on whey and has fewer preservatives than its American counterpart childhood dream-stuff does. Daniel says this doesn’t matter.) Regardless, ya know, if color or congealment over time had been a consideration, you’d be reading a different set of rankings.
Sargento Cheddar (Creamery) (3.4/5)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the rest of Daniel’s top-pick thoughts: “If flavor is most important to you, [choose Tillamook]. If melting is your priority,” he continued, «[Sargento] is the pick.” That thinking was consistent across the whole team. Yasmine, who gave no fives anywhere else (…except in her KRAFT meltability score) gave them across the board here, noting the all-encompassing melt two Sargento slices gave was “perfect for cheeseburgers.” Alas, there was no tang to be detected here—the cheddar flavor was lovely but far from potent.
Cracker Barrel Wisconsin Extra Sharp Yellow Cheddar (3.25/5)
Would you expect anything less than a bold and salty, salty, salty entry from Cracker Barrel? In fact, the salt level is what knocked this entry out of the top three. Everyone deeply enjoyed this, especially in the context of a burger topping. Genevieve explained “this tasted like cheese. Like, Velveeta-y?” But nobody enjoyed how they felt after they ate it. If you’re a human who craves the salinity of cheese more than you do its participation in a larger meal, this is the move.
Stop & Shop Sharp Cheddar (3/5)
Again, unanimous feedback. Great meltability! Near top-tier! It “blanketed” the burger, wrote Jake. Flavor, though? Slightly lacking. Or, as Yasmine so perfectly encapsulated, “not very cheddar.”
Applegate Organics Cheddar Cheese (3/5)
I now understand there to be a point in every taste test where the tides begin to turn…and for this undertaking, Applegate is where the SE team began to sense a change in the winds. Just like Stop & Shop’s cheddar, people were happy with the slices’ initial spreadability when the burgers were hot. Upon closer inspection and after a few minutes had passed, however, a few tasters noted a stiffness to the cheese that wasn’t exactly tempting. The flavor was fine!
Boar’s Head Vermont Cheddar (3/5)
Like its competitors in this range, it melted decently, but this was probably the only contender that tasted more “what kind of cheese is this?” than a recognizable cheddar, so it lost points for sharpness (…to be fair, this is not a sharp cheddar). TL;DR: When melted onto a burger, Boar’s Head cheddar gave us a burger with cheese and not a cheeseburger. You get it, yeah?
365 Sharp Cheddar Cheese (2.4/5)
It brings me no joy to write “plasticky” anywhere in the body of a cheese-related article, but here we are. The Whole Foods brand started as a good time! The slices were thick, the color was a bright bell pepper-type orange, it smelled like all the other cheddars. And then we applied heat, it got translucent and greasy and…plasticky. Three of four tasters went back for second bites, but all those second bites did was cement this cheese as very much not their favorite. They may have all just been so full from crushing KRAFT singles by this point though, idk idk.
Our Tasting Methodology
All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.