TASTE TESTS A panel of four people compare dozens of different packaged foods to determine which brands taste best

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THEY'RE BACK!!! Oscar Mayer Smokie Link Hotdogs!!!

Big ham test
Orange Soda
Orange Juice
Beef Stock
Hot Dog Buns
Lemon Cake
LEMON FROSTING AND LEMON CURD
NON-DAIRY ICE CREAM
WATER
WHITE CAKE MIXES
SPICE CAKE MIXES
BATTER BLASTER
Meat Ball Test
Canned Chicken
Fig Newtons!
Sweet Italian Sausage
Good and Fruities vs Mike and Ikes
Eleven more root beers tested
Cream Cheese Frosting
Margarine Tests
Vanilla Frosting
King Arthur scone mixes
Eight turkey gravies compared
5 beef gravies compared
Oreo Cookie Shakes
Mozzarella cheeses compared
Nine Types of Whole Wheat Spaghetti (and a couple of others) compared
Chedder cheese comparison
Huge Hot Dog Test IMPORTANT UPDATE!!!
Pound cake comparison
Eleven clam chowders compared
French Vanilla Cool Whip topping
Four ready-to-bake pie shells compared
Betty Crocker butter Cream frosting
Domino's Steak Fanatic pizza IMPORTANT UPDATE!!!
Coldstone's cake batter ice cream
The 'Better Tasting' Doritos
Five 'whole grain' flours compared for bread making
Three egg substitutes compared
Baked versus regular Doritos
Frozen Ravioli test
Ham test
Battered Fish Fillets!
A new root beer tested
Chicken noodle soups!
Costco vs Sam's Club apple pies
Lays stackable potato chips
Walnut Acres Blueberry juice
4 ketchups tasted
Grape Juice
Grape Jams and Jellies
Blueberry Preserves
Huge root beer test
Junior mints vs York mini-mints
Maraschino Cherries!
Coconut-pecan frostings!
Frozen lasagnas (with photos)
Ding Dongs versus Ho Hos
Rose's versus Jones' Canadian Bacon
Nathan versus Oscar Meyer hot dogs
Vanilla Pudding
Florida Crystals Organic Sugar
The new and improved Baby Ruth tested
Nine vanilla creme-filled cookies compared
Six non-dairy milks compared
Betty Crocker versus Duncan Hines Peanut Butter cookie mixes
Boston Brand Cinnamon-Pecan Coffee Cake
Nestle versus Swiss Miss Fat Free Hot Chocolate
Southern Fried Chicken
Quizno's meatball sub sandwiches
Chocolate Pudding
Milk Chocolate Frosting
Meatball Subs
Root Beer
Magic Shell Syrups
Eleven clam chowders compared
The best frozen meatballs
Spice cake mix comparison
The best pitted dates
Pizzas
White chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies
Animal cookies
Frosted Animal Cookies
Oatmeal
Krispy Kreams Donuts
Jelly Beans
Tater Tots
Nutty Bars
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Restaraunt Apple Pies
Peanut Butter
Brownie mixes
Cheese puffs
Frozen pizzas
Tomato soup
Carmel corn
Ice cream sandwiches
Hot fudge topping
Dry cereal
Potato chips
Barbeque chips
Peppermints
Frozen blueberries
The Best Bacon Cheeseburger in the World!
Raisins
Canned Baked Beans
Vanilla ice cream
Sausages
Cinnamon
Salt
Vanilla frosting
Cool whip toppings
Peanut brittle
Orange Juice
Dry beans
The best Store-bought cookie ever
Diet, caffiene-free colas
Vanilla extract
Strawberry preserves
Best Pepperage Farms cookie
The Best Steak!
Eggs
Kellog's treats
Apple juice
Butter mints
Ginger snaps
Vanilla wafers
Summer sausage
Mozzarella
Parmesana Regiana cheese
Blueberry Muffin Mixes
Breakfast sausages
Butter toffee nuts
Shortbread cookies

THEY'RE BACK!!!
Oscar Mayer Smokie Link Hotdogs!!!

After several years, Oscar Mayer has re-introduced their famous smokie link hotdog. This little sausage packs more flavor bite-for-bite than any other hotdog or sausage available. It has won many taste tests and deserves to be on everyone's shopping list.

Since this great little sausage was discontinued, hotdogs have come into their own with many new brands and varieties becoming available. Our family conducted a taste test to see how well smokie links held up against these newcomers and several old favorites. We compared:

Oscar Mayer Smokie Links
Farmer John's Smoked Polish Sausage
Johnsonville Beef Brats
Hillshire Farms Smoked Bratwurst
Hebrew National Beef Knockwurst
Hillshire Farms Polska Keilbasa
Johnsonville Statium Brats
Hillshire Farms Smoked Beef Sausage

Once again, Oscar Mayer's Smokie Links were the clear winners by a large margin with Hillshire Farms Smoked Bratwurst and Smoked Beef Sausage distant seconds.

So everyone, please give these great hotdogs a try! You won't be sorry.

 

BIG HAM TEST!!!

Ham is by far the most common lunch meat in grocery stores... which is odd because most of it tastes horrible. The reason so many brands get away with marketing such poor products is that few people take the time to taste and think about what they are eating. This is a shame because not only are they subjecting themselves to bad tastes, they're also denying themselves the pleasure they could have by selecting better tasting varieties. I hope the following test helps some people overcome both of these problems:

Hormel Deli Cut: Offensive off-putting oder, very salty

Carl Budding - ground meat, not sliced, poor texture, chemical smell

Albertson's Low Salt Ham - Excellent texture but the flavor was a little sharp

Albertson's Premium - weak flavor, peppery notes overpowered ham flavor

Danola - The best texture but salty and harsh

Oscar Mayer - weak flavor with an odd, off-putting tang

Farmer John - salty with a slight edge

Hillshire Farm Deli Select - good texture, moist, not too salty with just a slight sharpness

Oscar Mayer Baked Cooked Ham - sweet and mild but with a hint of chemical artificiality

Tyson Premium Black Forest Ham - an aromatic chemical note and a slight edge

Tyson Premium Applewood Smoked Ham - very edgy

Land O' Frost Black Forest Ham - very salty

Stator Bros' Deli Sliced - extremely salty

Hillshire Farm Smoked Ham - good, but with a slight edge

Stator Bros' Cooked ham - harsh edge to the flavor, very salty

Stator Bros' Valuetime Cooked Ham - sharp flavor and overpowering saltiness

Hillshire Farm Low Sodium Smoked Ham - Very good in every way, one of the best

BarS Smaked Ham - tasted like it came from a can

Great Value (Walmart) Cooked ham - edgy, rubbery, sharp and salty

Great Value Baked Ham - same as above but even saltier, one of the worst

Columbus Applewood Smoked Ham - dry, sharp, astringent with a hint of sweetness

Essential Everyday Premium Deli Ham (Albertsons) - harsh chemical flavor

Sara Lee Lower Sodium Virginia Brand Ham - excellent, almost identical to Hillshire Farm Low Sodium Smoked Ham but slightly milder. We rated this as the best.

Sara Lee Lower Sodium Ham - Excellent, slightly sweeter than above.

 
For cold sandwiches Sara Lee Lower Sodium Ham is the best. For grilled sandwiches Sara Lee Lower Sodium Virginia Brand Ham is hard to beat.

 

 

Orange Soda

While most of the taste comparisons on this page are completed by a panel of adults, I thought for this test I'd call some experts: my grandchildren ages three to nine. Here's what they collectively had to say:

Fanta: A strong lemon or lime taste weakened the orange flavor and made it taste too acidic.

Orange Crush: Sharp, too orangy.

Sunkist: The best. Pure, sweet, orangy flavor.

Orangette: Tasted strongly of grapefruit.

 

After they'd passed the little ones passed their judgements the adults had a go and agreed with the children's ratings. So, for our three families Sunkist is what we'll be drinking.

 

 

Orange Juice

The winner of an orange juice test several years ago (Tropicana with calcium and extra vitamin C) is no longer available so we decided a new test was called for.

Orange juice is available in so many brands and types that jumping a comprehensive test would be economically prohibitive unless there really was a significant difference between all the options. To see if a broader test is called for, we started with a sampling of seven different types. Here's what we found:

 

Great Value (Walmart): Sweeter than most but it had a sharp edge to it.

Great Value (Walmart) with Calcium and Vitamin D: Creamier and lighter than the first with none of the first's unpleasant edge.

Florida's Natural with Calcium and Vitamin D: Very sharp flavor.

Minute maid Original (made from concentrate): Clean and sweet flavor. Judged the best even though it was made from concentrate and all of the others claimed to be "fresh squeezed."

Stator Bros. Orange Juice: Odd, obnoxious chemical taste. Rated the worst.

Tropicana Pure Premium: Slightly sharp.

Simply Orange: Rich flavor but sharp acidic sting.

 

With the exception of the Stator Bros brand, all the orange juices tasted so much alike that the differences could only be noticed in a side-by-side comparison. This result suggested that further testing isn't likely to turn up a vastly superior product.

The question now is: How do these compare to real fresh squeezed orange juice made at home? The answer is that there is no comparison. Home squeezed juice is vastly superior to all of the store bought brands. Home squeezed Valencia orange juice is sweeter, milder, richer and has a pure orange color. Store bought varieties, even those claiming to be freshly squeezed, all tasted harsher and had an odd milky color and thick texture, even if pulp-free.

 

Beef Stock

Beef stock, or broth, should have a strong, beefy taste with a minimum of other flavors. This is because herbs and seasonings can be added by a cook to enhance its flavor, but when already added to a ready-made stock these flavors can't be removed. Excessive herbiness or mushroom notes trap the cook into incorporating these flavors into a dish whether he or she wants them there or not. For this reason the primary judging criteria was a pure, clear beef flavor with no additional flavorings. The following eleven stocks were compared to homemade beef stock made with only browned beef, water, bay leaves and just enough salt to bring out the flavor of the beef:

Swanson 100% Fat Free with 50% Less Sodium: Odd chemical odor with a musty flavor tainted by chemical notes.

Swanson 99% Fat Free: Identical in aroma and flavor to the first Swanson's stock above.

Ralphs Hearty Beef Broth 99% Fat Free: Strong herby aroma with a sour herby flavor, as if the herbs had spoiled during the cooking process. This stock had a sharp foul taste that was one of the worst.

Ralphs Hearty Beef Broth: Same as above.

Hy-Top Beef Broth: Hint of mushrooms and herbs. Not good but the best of the stocks tasted.

Stator Bros Beef Broth: Strong herby aroma and a taste similar to the Swanson's.

Progresso Beef Flavored Broth: Burnt aroma and taste.

Pacific Beef Broth: Slightly burnt aroma and a strong spoiled-mushroom taste.

Pacific Organic Beef Broth: Odd tan color looks like turkey stock. Odd chemical odor and very off-putting chemical taste.

Wolfgang Puck Beef Flavored Stock: Very strong herb and mushroom notes completely mask the beef aroma and flavor.

 
The winner was Hy-Top, though it must be understood that it came out on top not because it was good but because the rest were so bad.

 

Hot Dog Buns

For years the best hot dog bun we'd ever tasted was Orowheat's Country White Hot Dog Bun. In 2009 this excellent product was discontinued and we had to find a substitute. I regret to inform hot dog affectionades everywhere that after tasting ten different brands and varieties, we discovered that none were very good. The least offensive was Sara Lee's Classic White, but it too falls far short of the sweet, tender richness of the Country White buns.

 

Lemon Cake

Betty Crocker was the best tasting cake with a bright, clean lemon zing. Duncan Hines was second because it had practically no lemon flavor. Pillsbury was last with a strongly sour, edgy, chemical note. These cakes taste better and have a lighter texture if made water and oil as directed rather than milk and margerine, which is the opposite of the case with vanilla cake.

 

NEW!!! LEMON FROSTING

Betty Crocker was the best tasting lemon frosting with a bright, lemon flavor and smooth texture. Pillsbury was a close second with a grainier texture and a weaker lemon taste, particularly in the aftertaste. Duncan Hines was very poor with practically no lemon flavor.

 

NEW!!! LEMON CURD

We compared Robertson's to Dickenson's and found Robertson's much better, though not great. Dickenson's had an odd grayish color, strange gelatinous texture and offensive chemical flavor.

 

NON-DAIRY ICE CREAM

Rice Dream Organic Vanilla: Color was an offensive translucent gray. It tasted strongly of soy milk even though it was sold as a rice product.

Soy Dream French Vanilla: Good golden-creamy color just like real ice cream. Vanilla flavor was very harsh and too strong. Even though the label said natural vanilla was used, it tasted like artificial vanilla.

Tempt Vanilla: Gray, ice milk appearance was disgusting. Flavor was overly caramely with a foul, chemical aftertaste.

None were good so I can't say there is a winner. Rice Dream Organic Vanilla was the least offensive. The panel decided going without ice cream is better than eating any of these. But, if you are dairy intolerant go with Rice Dream.

 

 

WATER

Sixteen different waters were compared to see which tasted best. The big surprise is that all of them,including tap, Brita filtered tap and distilled water all ended with a sour after taste. I suspect this is the unavoidable result of a chemical reaction to the secretions in the human mouth. The goal of this test was to find the mildest,sweetest tasting water for making coffee and tea.

 
Southern California tap water: not as bad as expected but a little sharp with a metallic tang and a souring after taste

Tap water sent through a Brita carbon filter into a glass: plasticy taste that soured more than plain tap water

Great Value (Walmart) distilled: sour after taste that faded quickly

(Note: since all the waters tested had a slightly sour after taste this comment will not be included with the rest of the reviews.)

Nursery: Sharp, harsh flavor

Great Value (Walmart) drinking water: no initial flavor, not bad

Nestle' Purified Drinking water: mild. Rated the forth best tasting.

Great Value (Walmart) Spring water: high chemical tang

Sparklets Crystal Fresh: sharp stinging taste rated the worst tasting of all the waters tested

Stator Bros' Pure water: strong chemical notes

Crystal Geyser: mild intitial flavor, slower to sour in the after taste Rated the third best tasting.

Aquafina: tangy and sweet with a sharper than usual after taste

Fiji: mild but with a strongly souring after taste

Glace' Au Smart Water: very sharp and sour

DejaBlue: average flavor

Arrowhead: very mild with very little souring. Rated the second best tasting.

Evian: extremely mild intitial flavor with the least amount of souring to the aftertaste. Rated the best tasting of all the waters tested.

 

WHITE CAKE MIXES

Watch many cooking shows and you're bound to hear one of the celebrity chefs state that boxed cake mixes are tasteless. I decided to let the tasting panel test this claim by having them try six different boxed white cake mixes. Each was mixed and baked according to the instructions on the box. The cakes were tested unfrosted because frosting is so powerful that it would overpower both the best and worst tastes. Whole eggs were used because we were looking for the best tasting cake, not the whitest. All of the cakes rose so close to the same height that the differences were insignificant. In spite of displaying varying hues of white on the boxes, they all came out with the same whitish-yellow color. They were all equally moist and tender.

Betty Crocker Golden Vanilla: The richest, deepest flavor of all the cakes. By far the best and better than most made-from-scratch cakes.

Betty Crocker White: Bland, uninteresting flavor.

Betty Crocker French Vanilla: Very good flavor but not quite as deep as BC's golden vanilla cake.

Pillsbury Classic White: The second most popular choice. Excellent balance between sweetness and depth of flavor.

Duncan Hines Classic White: Foul chemical flavor assaulted everyone's taste buds at the first bite. Vile. The batter was extremely thick and difficult to level in the pan. It rose a fraction of an inch higher than the others.

Duncan Hines French Vanilla: Bland initial flavor quickly followed by a baking soda aftertaste. Very bad.

 
All the testers were surprised at how bad both Duncan Hines offerings were. The classic white mix was so bad I'm tempted to obtain a second box from a different store to see if the one we tested had been incorrectly formulated at the factory. It's had to believe anything that bad would last long in the marketplace when much better mixes are available. It may be that no one knows how bad it is because it's only served frosted and the frosting masks its foul flavor.

In an experiment to improve the flavor of the winning Betty Crocker Golden Vanilla mix, I made a cake using whole milk instead of water and butter instead of oil. To my great surprise it was virtually indistinguishable from the water and oil cake. I also tried adding vanilla pudding. This didn't improve the flavor and made the cake objectionably heavy.

If you have a problem with dome shaped cakes, try using Wilton baking strips. These cloth strips are soaked in water prior of being wrapped around the cake pan. The water slows the cooking of the outside of the cake so it raises and bakes at the same rate as the middle of the cake, yielding a flatter top.

 

SPICE CAKE MIXES

Unlike white cakes, which had many varieties, I could only find two makes of spice cake mixes. Betty Crocker was the clear winner with a good balance of sweetness and sprightly spiciness. Duncan Hines was bland in comparison.

 

BATTER BLASTER

Batter Blaster is a can of pressurized pancake batter. Like whipped cream, you turn the can upside down and press the nozzle to extrude a stream of batter onto a griddle. While the flavor was acceptable, the texture of the resulting pancakes was terrible. Because most of the raising comes from the expansion of gas trapped in the batter, when the pancakes are flipped most of the bubbles pop, with the result that the pancake collapses flat. Normal pancakes have baking powder that starts creating new bubbles when the batter comes in contact with the hot griddle so the pancakes immediately start to rise again. This doesn't happen with Batter Blaster pancakes. They remain so flat that they are hard to stab with a fork and pick up. Making things worse, the batter is extremely thin so it does a poor job of hanging onto bubbles. I carefully followed all the instructions and used up two cans trying to get a decent pancake and still couldn't do it. This is not a product that any of the tasters could recommend.

 

Meat Ball Test

The taste testers all admitted to a preference for hearty, meaty meat balls that weren't too spicy. They were looking for a meat taste, not a spice taste. With that in mind, here are the results of this taste test:

Armour - doughy, bready, tasted almost raw.

Rosina Homestyle - meaty flavor, not too spicy but a slightly hot burn in the after taste.

Rosina Italian - Noticeably hot, spicy burn.

WINNER!!! Dining in Flame Broiled - twice as large as the others, good meaty texture, just a slight hint of spiciness that enhanced the meat flavor.

Farm-Rich - very mild but good.

Great Value Homestyle (Walmart house brand) - very mild flavor.

 
The winner was "Dining In Flame Broiled" meat balls. Walmart's "Great Value" brand was very good and by far the cheapest. Rosinas Homestyle came in third.

Canned Chicken

In theory canned chicken, though expensive, should be a convenient way to get high quality, good tasting protein. In this case theory fell far short of expectations.

Valley Fresh (both bagged and canned), Swanson's, Albertsons and Hormel canned white meat chicken were tested and all were universally rejected as being some of the most horrible tasting foods the testers had ever endured. The assault on the senses began when the containers were opened. The odor that issued forth was a disgusting blend of bad tuna and tinned cat food. Disgusting. None of the brands tasted the least bit like chicken, or anything else the tasters had ever encountered. Heaping insult on injury, the texture of four of them was very dry in spite of being packed in liquid. The canned Valley Fresh was the worst offender. It was so unbelievably dry that it quickly broke down into a powdery mass. Only Swanson's was moist, but even there it's moistness had an odd creamy texture which wasn't at all like the texture of real chicken.

I assume preserving a meat product so that it can be stored without refrigeration for months before opening is so demanding that flavor and texture fall victim to processing. Whatever the reason, these products are so disgusting that the taste test panel unanimously suggests avoiding them.

(Note: If you are a first time visitor to this page, please don't be put off by the first product test being so negative. That is an anomaly. Virtually all the other tests end with an enthusiastic endorsement for a great tasting product.)

 

Fig Newtons!

The taste-test team tackled 14 different Fig Newtons in the hopes of discovering which was the best. They are grouped according to type.

 

Regular Fig Bars

From left to right: Nabisco, Stator Bros., Walmart, Healthy Valley Fig Cobbler.

Nabisco Original Fig Newtons: very dry with a weak fig flavor.

Stator Bros.: Moister, but still too dry. They also had a faint aromatic note of strawberries.

Walmart: (house brand) the moistest with the strongest, purest fig taste. Best in this group.

Healthy Valley Fig Cobbler: Moist, grainy with a hint of oatmeal.

 
Whole Grain/Whole Wheat


Left to right: Nabisco Whole Grain Newtons, Eating Right Whole Wheat,
Eating Right Whole Grain, Barbara's Whole Wheat

Nabisco Whole Grain: Very gritty with a weak fig flavor.

Eating Right (Von's House Brand) Whole Wheat: Tough, bland.

Eating Right Whole Grain: Not too dry and the fig flavor was okay but overall this isn't a great cookie. Best in this group.

Barbara's Whole Wheat: The moistest but they had a strong molasses flavor that developed into a sour aftertaste.

 

Low Fat


Newman's Own Fig Newman on the left, Barbara's Low Fat on the right

Newman's Own Low Fat Fig Newmans (Not Newton): Moist, but it had an odd non-fig note that was a put off. Best in this group.

Barbara's Low Fat: Too moist, almost soggy, and it tasted overly sweet with a strong apple flavor.

 
Fat Free


Nabisco Fat Free left, Eating Right Fat Free right

Nabisco Fat Free: Good flavor but very dry. Best in this Group.

Eating Right Fat Free: Hard, tough, harsh after taste.

 
Wheat Free


Newman left, Barbara's right

Newman's Own Wheat Free and Dairy Free: A little dry with an odd chemical note.

Eating Right Wheat Free: Doughy, weak fig flavor. Best in this group.

 
Conclusions:

Comparing the winners from each group showed that the plain Walmart house brand was the over-all winner. Everyone agreed that all of the Fig Newtons left much to be desired. It seems that Fig Newtons taste best as a memory than in reality.

 
A LATE ARRIVAL!!!

The day after the taste teste I happened to visit a new Super Target store. There I discovered a 15th Fig Newton brand and promptly bought some to add to the comparison. I'm happy to report that the Market Pantry brand of Fig Newton (the Target house brand) is far and away superior than all of the other varieties. It's lusciously moist without being soggy and has a clean, pure, strong fig flavor that leaves you with a great aftertaste. This is the Fig Newton of sweet youthful memories. The other tasters agree. Our collective advice: buy some Market Pantry Fig Newtons, eat them, smile, Ahhh.... life is good.

One note about this brand is that the cookies are slightly smaller than the average. At first this is a bit of a put-off but turns out to make them perfectly bite-sized.

One way to improve Fig Newtons, except for the Market Pantry variety, is to cut the bottoms off two of them...

...and gently mush the tops together to create a double-filled Newton:

The result is very moist with a strong fig flavor.

A technique to perk up dry Newtons is to place them in a gentle humidifier, the type used to replump raisins, for several days to rehydrate the cake-like covering.

Note: A year after writing this review I noticed that Market Pantry seamed to change their recipe. Now their fig newtons have a slightly citrusy taste, as if ascorbic acid had been added as a preservative. I would now rate the Walmart house brand as superior to Market Pantry, particularly if they are rehydrated.

 

Sweet Italian Sausage

I was surprised to discover that after visiting five different supermarket i could only find two brands of sweet Italian sausage: Johnsonville and Villa Roma. Johnsonville was the clear winner with a deeper, richer, sweeter flavor than the Villa Roma.

 

Good and Fruities vs Mike and Ikes!

Good and Fruities were one of the great memories of my youth: sweet, bright, and spritely flavored fruit chews that flirted with but never crossed the line into sweet-tart territory. Sadly, they disappeared from wherever I lived and I had to get by without them. Then to my delight they recently reappeared in Target stores. I'm happy to report that they are every bit as good as I remember.

In their absence I had to get along with the widely available Mike and Ike candies. With the return of Good and Fruities I felt obligated to post a comparison of these candies.

Mike and Ikes are a thin, watery pastel color and have a flavor that's mostly sweet with only a hint of citrusy fruitiness. They are larger than Good and Fruities and very tough to chew.

Good and Fruities are more brightly colored and have a much brighter, livelier, more citrusy flavor. It's almost impossible to eat them without feeling a smile tickle the corners of your mouth. The individual candies are much more tender and succulent than Mike and Ikes.

The tasters agreed that Good and Fruities were clearly superior to Mike and Ikes.

 
Eleven more root beers tested!

 

This is the fourth root beer test posted on this page. For your convenience I've copied and pasted the three previous ones immadiately below it.

Black Jack's: Sharp, acidic flavor.

Jacksonhole: Very strong cinnamon taste overpowered any root beer flavor.

Hanks: Watery, reminded the tasters of cream soda.

Fitz's: Too sweet. Several testers stated that it tasted like it was trying too hard to be root beer.

Sparky's: Minty with a strong chemical aftertaste.

Waialua: Tasted of bad maple syrup. Vile. The worst of this group.

Triple XXX: Sharply flavored with hints of maple and vanilla.

Faygo: Very strange. Sharp, but with no identifyable flavor.

Empire: Sharply spicy. It doesn't taste like root beer but three of the testers stated it was interesting in its own right and wouldn't mind drinking it again..

Stephan's: Extremely dark. Not bad, but cream soda notes challanged the root beer flavors.

Desert Sage Root Beer: Ghastly. This one had such a sickenly strong herbal taste that it sent two of the testers running for water to wash the taste away.

 
Root Beer Test #1

  After comparing A&W, Barq's, Shasta, A+ (Albertson's), Stewart's, Henry Weinhard's and IBC brand root beer, the clear preference of the taste testers was IBC. Most of the family-name brands or designer brands used spices and flavorings to give their sodas a unique, although not root beer-like, flavor. I can only assume that they succeed because some people prefer the prestige of unique to simple quality.

 

Root Beer test #2

On January 20, I held a taste testing of 16 of the more exotic root beers (Please see further down this page for a taste test of common root beers.) and one Sarsaparilla drink that was advertised as being the grandfather of all root beers. Here are the results:

Sioux City Sarsaparilla: strong root beer taste but it left a sharp aftertaste. Two of the four testers rated this as the best.

Sioux City Root Beer: I thought it tasted the same as above but one tester thought it had a noticably molasses flavor.

Root 66: had a strong cream soda aftertaste.

Boylan: very herby.

Frostie: very strong cinnamon note. Very much different than all the others. Interesting.

Dad's: sweet, herby, and rich, but oddly watery.

Olde Philadelphia: very smooth and mild, my favorite.

Tommyknocker: very spicy and woody.

Rat Bastard: very sweet with a caffiene edge. (has caffiene added)

Abita: foamy. Odd, salty flavor.

Henry Weinhard's: Fine foam. Sweet, a little harsh, oddly watery. Strong cream soda flavor

Virgil's: Biggest head but it had a sugary, medicinal taste.

Bedford's: cough medicine.

Mason's: woody and harsh.

Americana: dry tasting.

Hires: good clean root beer taste. One judge rated this as the best.

Sprecher: vile, alcohalic note.

 
So, the winners were Sioux City Sarsaparilla, Olde Philadelphia, and Hires. Please note that all of these were bottled. Plastic or canned beverages may have a significantly different taste. All of these were purchased from Galco's Old World Marget in Highland Park, southern California.

 

Root Beer Test #3

Mr. Gregg Baker sent me an email about his favorite root beer: Thomas Kemper. I got some and all but one taster voted it the best of all 35 varieties tried in the four tastes tests. (That one dissenting vote rated Henry Weinhard's cream soda flavor slightly better.)

Thomas Kemper is everything a root beer should be: rich, full-bodied, with a perfect balance between sweetness and root beer kick. It's satisfyingly hearty with a very fine bubble that creates a creamy head. You simply can't do better. (Thanks for the suggestion, Gregg! I owe you.)

 
Cream Cheese Frosting

Cream Cheese frosting is one of the great flavors of all time. The question is: "Who makes the best tasting frosting?" To answer this I purchased all the varieties I could find and compared them. Here are the results:

Brand.........color....texture.....aroma...............................taste

Pillsbury...,,,,biege....average..chemical edge....gritty, sharp cream cheese aftertaste

Stator Bros..white.....firmest..strongest, sweetest...smoothest texture, richest flavor

Duncan
Hines
Whipped...,,white........firm........no aroma....weak cream cheese taste, harsh aftertaste

Duncan
Hines
Homestyle . white.......soft.....chemical edge..............unpleasant musky flavor

Betty
Crocker...,,,white......softest.....no aroma.................sharp chemical aftertaste

 
For me the winner was Stator Bros. However, none of these was really very good. For a easy to make and vastly tastier frosting simply whip together 1 cup (2 sticks) of room temperature butter, 4-ounces of room temperature cream cheese and half a box of powdered sugar. This makes a frosting that's smoother and far richer than any of the brands tested. If you want the frosting to have a lighter texture, add 1 to 3 tablespoons of water to it one at a time, whipping thoroughly after each addition.

 

Margarine Tests

For two decades my family's favorite margarine was Fleischmann's Original. Then in November, 2007 they started whipping it to sell less product at the same price. We collectively decided it was time for a taste test to find the best-tasting margarine.

We found 13 different types and compared them for color, texture and taste.


Color comparison

From left to right: top row

Gold N Soft, Brummel and Brown, Canola Harvest,
Land O Lakes, Smart Balance, Promise, Country Crock

bottom row

Move Over Butter, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, Blue Bonnet,
real butter, Fleischmann's Original, Imperial, Nucoa

 

Spread on bread, all but Gold N Soft looked pretty close to butter. Gold N Soft was noticeably yellower but not objectionable.

Comparison Chart

Name________________Price__Weight_Price per ounce_Texture_______Flavor________

Gold N Soft.................$1.12....16 oz........$.07.........../ soft.......rich, salty, edgy

Brummel and Brown......$1.72....15 oz........$.11...........very soft......salty, sharp

Canola Harvest............$1.14....16 oz........$.07.........greasy, soft..strong salty burn

Gold N Soft.................$1.12....16 oz........$.07........medium soft....rich, salty, edgy

Land O Lakes............$1.37....16 oz.......$.09.............firm.........rich and mellow

Smart Balance.............$1.76....16 oz........$.11...............firm..........slightly salty

Promise Regular...........$1.54.....15 oz.......$.10...............soft.........weak flavor

Country Crock Churn....$1.22.....16 oz.......$.088...........very soft.....salty, weak

Move Over Butter........$0.88.....16 oz........$.06...........soft, foamy.. very salty, harsh

I Can't Believe It's
Not Butter..................$1.72.....15 oz.......$.118...............firm..........slightly salty

Blue Bonnet...............$0.62.....16 oz.......$.048...........medium soft........bland

Fleischmann's Original...$1.74.....11.8 oz.....$.158.........whipped, soft..salty, little edgy

Imperial.....................$1.49......15 oz.......$.138..........medium soft..........mild

Nucoa.......................$1.79......16 oz.......$.118.....very firm, like Crisco....mild

 
Repeated side-by-side taste comparisons identified Land O Lakes as the best tasting variety with Smart Balance a close second. Fleischmann's, Imperial and Blue Bonnet tied for third. These last three were better than the rest not because they tasted good but rather because they didn't have an objectionable saltiness or texture.

In comparison to real butter, Land O Lakes and Smart Balance had a slightly stronger buttery flavor with a very slight edginess to them.

Whipped or foamed margarines like Fleischmenn's have another downside. Because they contain so much air, measuring them by volume for cooking doesn't always work very well. You may start with half a cup but end up with only a third of a cup after the margarine melts.

 
Vanilla Frosting

Because Pillsbury discontinued its outstanding French Vanilla frosting in 2007, I decided it was time to retest the three main brands to see which of them was the best.

Betty Crocker's was very thin, almost liquid and tended to droop off the sides of cakes. It was excessively sweet. Pillsbury's was slightly thicker and not quite as sweet. Both of these frostings had a fine grittiness. Duncan Hines was the smoothest and although it was still easy to spread, the firmest texture. It also had the best flavor.

While Duncan Hines was the clear winner, it still doesn't come close the matching the depth of flavor of Pillsbury's French Vanilla frosting.

The Duncan Hines can be improved by adding one drop of yellow liquid food coloring, 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of imitation butter flavor and 1 teaspoon of real vanilla extract. This still isn't as good as Pillsbury's French Vanilla but it's clearly better than the others.

 

King Arthur Scone Mixes

I found the King Arthur raisin scone (upper left) and apple cinnamon scones (upper right) not overly sweet and in general good. However, I noticed a slight baking soda taste and couldn't taste the raisins or apple bits at all.

 

Eight turkey gravies compared!

One of my family's favorite meals is a large round loaf of warm, fresh bread torn into chunks and dipped in hot turkey gravy. Though simple, it has a rustic heartiness that's the epitome of comfort food. Essential to the success of this meal is using the best turkey gravy. Here's the results of a taste test we used to find our preference:

Campbell's was a little salty but not bad. We rated this as the second best-tasting gravy.

Franco American had an odd off flavor and a hint of herbiness that detracted from the turkey flavor.

Heinz had a very unpleasant sharp edge to it.

Boston Market was very sharp and herby.

Albertson's was rated the best overall with a pure rich turkey flavor.

Lawry's (mix) was extremely sharp and sour.

Knorr (mix) was very sharp and oniony.

McCorrmick (mix) vile! The worst tasting of all eight.

5 beef gravies compared

While developing a recipe to copy Domino's Steak Fanatic Pizza, which uses beef gravy instead of tomato sauce, I tried several beef gravies to see which was the best. Here are the results:

Albertson's: A burnt aroma and a burnt, harsh, bitter flavor.

Boston Market: Little aroma and a sharp, salty, harsh flavor.

Heinz: The beefiest aroma and flavor, though the strong herby note was distracting.

Campbell's: Smelled and tasted more like mushroom gravy than beef gravy, bland.

Campbell's Fat Free: Odd chemical note in the aroma and flavor. Like the regular Campbell's it tasted more like mushroom gravy than anything else.

While the Heinz was the best, none of these gravies had the deep, rich, mellow beef flavor I was hoping for.

 

Oreo Cookie Shakes!

For five years Jack in the Box had a lock on the Oreo Cookie shake. Then in mid-2006 Carl's Jr. started offering a "Hand Dipped" Oreo Cookie Shake. Since this happens to be my favorite shake I decided to subject them to a side-by-side comparison.

Carl's Oreo cookie shake is 14 ounces by weight, 16 ounces by volume and costs $2.89.

A medium Oreo cookie shake from Jack in the Box weighs 16 ounces, is 22 ounces by volume and only costs $2.29. Clearly, the Jack in the Box shake wins the quantity/cost comparison. But, what about taste?

The Jack in the Box shake has a good balance of ice cream-to-Oreo taste so that you can clearly differentiate and enjoy each. The Carl's Jr. shake has much more Oreo bits in it, so much that it almost looks like a chocolate shake, and tastes almost completely like an Oreo. If you want chocolate and don't mind paying for it, Carl's is the way to go. (The Carl's shake also comes with a penny's worth of whipped cream on it.) If you want a larger drink with a more interesting flavor, try Jack in the Box.

Texturally, the Jack in the Box shake is much thicker and the Oreo bits come in larger chunks so from time to time you're rewarded with something to chew. The downside to this is that the shake is really too thick to drink even with the extra-large straws available. The larges Oreo chunks also tend to jam in the straw.

For myself the Jack in the Box Oreo Cookie Shake is the clear winner: it's bigger, cheaper, thicker, and tastes better.

 

Mozzarella cheeses compared

When Kraft changed the formula for their fat free mozzarella cheese (my previous favorite) from rich and hearty to sour and bland, I decided a new taste test was in order. Albertson's, Stator Brothers, and Ralph's collectively provided 11 different types. Here's how they fared:

Precious Low Fat Tough, rubbery, unpleasant translucent color, slight sour note

Precious Reduced Fat Softer but still a little rubbery, sharper edge, creamier color

Precious Low Moisture-Part Skim The trend continues: softer, edgier, whiter

Precious Whole Milk Softest so far, weak flavor, bland, very white and creamy

Stator Brother's Low Moisture-Part Skim Meatier flavor than the Precious, smoother but oddly a little too dry, powdery

Organic Valley THE WINNER!!! Very soft and creamy, smooth flavor with no edge, pleasantly rich, best color of all the cheeses tested. This wasn't just the best mozzarella cheese, it was one of the best cheeses of any type I've found. Great even for snacking.

Cicique Low Moisture-Part Skim Mild, better than most of the others but it had a very slight sour aftertaste

Albertson's Low Moisture-Part Skim Mild, with a sharp aftertaste

Sargento Low Moisture-Part Skim Not bad, but it had a slight chemical taste

Kraft Low Moisture-Part Skim A little sharp, edgy

Frigo Low Moisture-Part Skim Sharper than Stator Brother's

All the cheeses tested improved when melted, they tasted richer, milder, meatier and had a creamier texture. The only problem was that the Precious whole milk and Organic Valley mozzarellas were so soft they tended to melt to much even at low heat and turned into translucent puddles. They need to be treated carefully when melting them.

 
Nine Types of Whole Wheat Spaghetti
(and a couple of others) compared

I tried nine different whole wheat, or whole multi-grain, types of spaghetti: Westbrae, Hodgson Mills, Ronzoni, Ezekiel 4:9 (multi-grain spouted), DeBoles, Eddies, Racconto, Nutrition Kitchen (soybean), and Dreamfields. All had had about the same fiber content (6 grams for 2 ounces of dry noodles, 3 times that of regular spaghetti) and from 7 to 9 grams of protein. One exception was Nutrition Kitchen's soybean spaghetti, which had 11 grams of fiber and 23 grams of protein. All but two produced cooked spaghetti that was course and grainy. They also tended to be very slippery and difficult to serve and had the bad habit of breaking up into small pieces, especially after cooling. Dreamfields and Racconto were every bit as smooth as the best regular spaghetti and tasted just as good. Dreamfields also claims that their spaghetti is formulated with special types of fiber that reduce the glycemic index by two-thirds. Nutrition Kitchen's soybean spaghetti was the least pleasing of the group.

 
Chedder cheese comparison!

Three people compared Borden, Tillamook, Albertson's, Sargento, Kraft, and Land-O-Lakes mild (or medium) cheddar cheeses and found that the two winners were Sargento and Kraft. Both had rich cheesy flavor with just enough edge to make things interesting. All of the others were too sharp and had harsh aftertastes that quickly soured on the palate.

 

Huge Hot Dog Test!!!

Since I was having most of my extended family over for my birthday I decided to use them as test subjects for a hot dog comparison test. Six agreed to participate. I cut up samples of 14 different types and brands of hot dogs (3 not shown in picture above) and labeled them only with numbers so no one could see what variety they were tasting. The samples were warmed up and each person asked to state whether they liked or disliked each variety and then decide which was their overall favorite. Only one variety got a majority nod of approval. One other brand was rated as acceptable and the remaining 12 languished in various levels of disapproval. Here are the results:

Farmer John Beef Franks: everyone disliked them

Oscar Mayer Beef Franks: half liked, half disliked, 0 favorite votes.

Dodger Dogs (all pork): five disliked them, one liked it, 0 favorite votes.

Oscar Mayer Smokie Links: 4 liked, 2 didn't, 4 favorite votes OVERALL WINNER!!!

Ball Park Beef: 6 disliked this brand.

Oscar Mayer Beef Smokie Links: 2 liked, 4 disliked, 0 favorite votes

Albertson's Turkey and Pork Franks: 6 disliked them

Nathan's Beef Franks: 4 liked, 2 disliked, 2 favorite votes

Oscar Mayer Turkey, Pork, and Chicken Franks: 6 disliked them

Farmer John Pork and Turkey Franks: 6 disliked them

John Morrell Chicken and Pork Franks: 6 disliked them

Bar "S" Beef Franks: 1 liked, 5 disliked, 0 favorite votes

Hoffy Beef Franks: 2 liked, 4 disliked, 1 favorite vote

Hebrew National Beef Franks: 2 liked, 4 four disliked, 0 favorite votes

 
The most interesting result of this test was how bad many of the hot dogs tasted. Everyone was surprised that out of 14 varieties only one (Oscar Mayer's Smokies) got a majority "thumbs up."

 

UPDATED!!! In 2008, Oscar Mayer stopped making Smokie Links. In an effort to find a suitable substitute, we expanded the hot dog test to include the following:

Hillshire Farms Beef Smoked Sausage: Very good. Almost the same as the Oscar Mayer original, but the beef flavor isn't quite as good.

Johnsonville Smoked Brats: Bacony, smokie flavor with a very odd taste the most people thought was a real put-off.

Farmer John's Classic Smoke Sausage: No one liked these.

Hillshire farms Smoked Brats: another one with an odd flavor that no one enjoyed.

Stator Bros. Polish Sausage: Odd poultry taste even though it didn't list chicken or turkey as ingredients.

Trader Joe's Beef Franks: Herbiness was a major distraction.

Hebrew National Beek Knockwurst: Too spicey.

Hillshire Farms Polska Kelbaso: Very good. Half way between Nathan's and Hillshire Farms Beef Smoked Sausage. This was the second most popular variety.

 

Several Internet searches revealed that Nathan's consistently wins more taste tests thanh any other brand.

 

Cooking hint: many people heat hot dogs by dropping them in boiling water. It's fast and allows the dogs to be kept hot for a long time without drying out. But, I found that grilling them makes so that the outsides are lightly browned, not charred, enriches their meatiness and gives them a "pop" when you bite into them. It's important to keep the dogs turning so they don't burn. I use a small commercial hot dog cooker ($99 from Amazon) that cooks 12 dogs at once on five constantly rotating stainless steel rolls. Once they are done, the temperature can be reduced to keep them warm without over cooking them.

 

 
Pound cake comparison

When I went looking for ready-made pound cakes I was surprised when I could only find two: Sara Lee (frozen) and Entemmen's (fresh.) After trying both all the taste testers agreed the Sara Lee's was the clear winner. It was rich and buttery, with solid gold color, dense, solid, with a very fine grain. Delightful!

Entemmen's was tasteless in comparison. It had a texture more like an angel food cake than what one usually thinks of as a pound cake and the color was a pale, insipid yellow.

 

Clam Chowder

  The best clam chowder I ever tasted was served up in a sourdough bread bowl at Rapa's at the end of Fisherman's Warf in Montery, California. It was so delicious; meaty, hearty, and not overly salty like most clam chowders, that it inspired the following taste test:

(Note: condensed soups were reconstituted with milk.)

 

Campbell's Chunky - the thickest tested and the second-best tasting. It was too salty.

Campbell's Select, 98% fat free - too salty, herby, and weak clam taste.

Campbell's Condensed, 98% fat free - watery, salty, ugly gray color.

Campbell's Classic - watery, salty, ugly gray color, better tasting than the Campbell's Condensed.

Homestyle - strange chemical off-taste like sour cream. Very bad.

Progresso - BEST TASTING!!! Outstanding in every respect: very rich with a solid clam flavor. (Note: The Progresso "Chunky" style is best for eating straight. The "Traditional" style is slightly thinner and better for bread bowl serving because it provides more sauce for the bread. Both have the same superb flavor.)

Pepperage Farms - very thin and so salty it burned.

Healthy Choice, 99% fat free - tasted more like potato soup than clam chowder and was too salty.

Snow's - gray color, too salty but good clam flavor.

Wolfgang Puck - too herby and salty, weak clam flavor.

Book Binders - salty, strange sour taste.

 
For a knock-out soup, try mixing in one small (6-ounce) tin of chopped or minced clams without the juice into a one-serving can (18-ounces) of the Traditional Style Progresso. Serve steaming in a bread bowl made from a warmed sourdough round loaf, eat and smile... ah, life is good.

I prefer adding chopped clams over minced clams because chopped clams have large pieces that increase textural interest.

(It may sound odd but a glass of cold milk goes very well with clam chowder because its coolness and sweetness provides interesting contrast to the soup's warmth and saltiness. For the same reasons, vanilla ice cream makes a perfect desert.)

 

French Vanilla Cool Whip topping

Both my wife and I rated this product as poor because it tasted more like margerine or buttery Crisco than a desert topping.

 

Four ready-to-bake pie shells compared

Pillsbury: The thinnest of the three, almost too thin to support a pie filling. Cooks the fastest and may burn if not watched. Not much flavor.

Albertson's: The lightest of the three. Acceptable thickness and was very tender. Like the Pillsbury shell it didn't have much flavor.

Marie Calendar's: The thickest and somewhat less tender than the other two. Takes the longest to bake. Because of its thickness, thorough baking is necessary to avoid chewiness. A very slight buttery flavor makes this crust the best tasting, but still not great. This crust also tended to melt the most so if you're baking it blind you might want to fill it with beans to prevent the sides from caving in. The other two shells held their shapes without support.

Mrs. Smith's: Medium thickness, slightly chewy, not flaky, a little greasy and salty.



Betty Crocker butter Cream frosting

Unless you enjoy the taste and texture of raw Crisco I recommend you avoid this frosting, because that's about what it tastes like. Yes, it's sweetened and has a slight vanilla flavor (but strangly little butter flavor considering its name) but overall I'd have to rate it as very poor.

 
Domino's steak pizza

In Fall of 2005 Domino's Pizza advertised the Steak-fanatic Pizza, a pizza with thin slices of grilled steak. Simply put, this is the best pizza I have ever tasted. There is something about the mellow rich beefy flavor that satisfies in a way no other pizza can. in general I prefer Pizza Hut pizzas but in this case Dominos walks away with top honors. In a frustrating and, in my opinion, rediculous move Dominos stopped offering this delicious pizza in early April of 2006.

IMPORTANT UPDATE!!! Want a Steak-fanatic pizza but can't find one? Make your own! I developed a recipe that very closely matches the great flavor of the original. To see how to make it click on COOKING and see how easy they are to make!

 

Coldstone's cake batter icecream

Coldstone's is a chain of icecream parlors where you select a flavor of ice cream and any added ingredients you want and they hand mix it to your order. One of the stand-out ice creams is called "cake batter." This ice cream has the most unique flavor and texture of any in my experience. You swear that you're eating fresh, cold cake batter: rich and sweet with that special something only cake batter has. Better still, the texture of the ice cream is different in some indescribable way. It actually feels a little like cake batter. This ice cream is so good that it's the one I order plain. Toppings or mixings would only serve to distract my taste buds from perfection.

 


Three egg substitutes compared

BETTER & EGGS: Very light and foamy texture. Slight.peppery taste.

EGG BEATERS: Best color and appearance. Okay texture. Flavor and aroma hints of.onions.

EGG PRODUCT: The clear winner. The color and appearance was almost as good as.Egg Beaters but the flavor was far superior. In a blind text I could not.tell the difference between these and real eggs. (Available in Stator.Brother's stores.)

(Note: all three egg substitutes have around 225 milligrams of salt per serving already mixed into them.)

 

Five 'whole grain' flours compared
for bread making

More and more pressure is being put on people to eat whole grain products. Since one of the easiest, most flexible and healthiest ways to do this is in the form of homemade bread, I decided to compare bread made from five different whole grain flours. Some of these stated that they were 'whole grain,' others said 'whole wheat' and I had to read the ingredient list or description to learn that they were whole grain. (Regular flour contains only the endosperm or starchy part of the grain, whole wheat flour contains the endosperm and the outer bran layer that's rich in fiber and nutrients, whole grain flour contains everything in the entire seed: the endosperm, bran and the nutrient rich germ. Because the germ also contains a small amount of oil (the healthy kind) these flours can go rancid and it's usually recommended to keep them in a refrigerator. However, the fact that all these flours are typically marketed on unrefrigerated shelves and have expiration dates of around three months suggests that unless they are in the tropics the rancidity issue may not be an immediate issue. Consumers are recommended to conduct their own research and use their own judgement in this regard.) I verified that all five of the flours I tested were 100 percent 'whole grain.'

All the breads were made using the exact same recipe.

 

From left to right:

Bob's Red Mill Stone Ground: Slightly grainy, slightly sharp flavor

King Arthur Traditional: Finest grained of all five flours, rich yet mild flavor. The Best.

Arrowhead Mills Stone Ground Whole Wheat Flour: Very heavy, coarse texture

Arrowhead Mills Kamut Whole Grain Flour: Grainy, mealy texture; yellowish, normal flavor

Bob's Red Mill Spelt Flour: slightly grainy, normal wheat bread flavor.

 

The 'Better Tasting' Doritos

In April of 2005 I noticed the bags of Nacho Cheesier Doritos were sporting a new label claiming that they were now Better Tasting. Since these are my favorite chip I got a bag to see what had changed.

The new chips are much spicier and remind me of tacos. The cheese flavor is all but overpowered. I've had five people try them and they all agreed that the older chips were better. The biggest complaint was that the Nacho Cheesier name suggestes that they are going to taste like cheese. Since these new Doritos have very little if any cheesiness to them, the name of this product should be changed or better still, they should go back to the old recipe.

 
Baked versus regular Doritos

The baked Doritos, on the left, have an odd salmon-pink hue that wasn't as appealing as the original Doritos on the right. Everyone agreed that the regular Doritos had a richer, better flavor and firmer crunch. The baked Doritos were extremely light and foamy textured and had a sour after taste. The regular Doritos had a much stronger "cornmeal" aroma.

 

Frozen Ravioli test

Comparing Stater Brother's house brand fozen ravioli to Rosetto showed that the Stator Brother's was meatier and milder. Rosetto's had a spicy edge to it that got annoyingly hot after eating ten raviolis.

 

Ham test

This turned out to be one of the most disappointing taste tests I've ever conducted. Not one of the hams I tried had a clean rich flavor, good texture, a pleasant aroma. In the end I couldn't honestly declare one as the best, merely the least offensive.

Hormel Deli-cut: Off odor and very salty. Good texture.

Carl Budding: Ground ham product, smelled chemically, poor texture.

Albertson's Low Salt: Okay flavor but a little sharp. Excellent texture.

Alberton's Premium: Weak taste, peppery note. The Albertson's Low Salt was better.

Danola: Best texture, a little salty and sharp.

Oscar Mayer: Weak flavor with an off tang.

Farmer John: Salty, good texture, slight edge to the after taste.

Hillshire Farm Deli Select: Very Moist, good texture, not too salty, very slight edge to the after taste but over all the least offensive of them all.

 

 

 

Battered Fish Fillets!

Albertson's: Very small fillets, weak flavor, unsatisfying.

Gorton's: Lightest, crunchiest coating, best fish flavor, beautiful golden brown color.

Va de Kamp's: Thickest coating, but it never got crunchy, okay flavor.

Van de Kamp's Breaded: Gritty texture, insipid flavor.

 

As frozen fillets heat in the oven they give off a lot of steam, which can make the batter coating soggy. Turning halfway through cooking helps crisp both sides but the side that's down last is sure to lose its crispness. To get the batter coating crisp all around, place the fillets an a rack several inches above a foil-lined cookie sheet to catch drips.

This allows free air circulation around the portions, which prevents any steam from making the coating soggy.

A new root beer tested!

In early March of 2004, Mr. Gregg Baker sent me an email about his favorite root beer: Thomas Kemper. He said I could find it in Starbuck's coffee shops so I ran out and got some... and discovered a new favorite. Thomas Kemper is everything a root beer should be: rich, full-bodied, with a perfect balance between sweetness and root beer kick. It's satisfyingly hearty with a very fine bubble that creates a creamy head. You simply can't do better and it is well worth the price. (There are two other root beer tests comparing many different brands farther down this page.)

(Thanks for the suggestion, Gregg! I owe you.)

 

Chicken noodle soups!

When colds laid my wife and I low, our first thoughts were for that classic comfort food: chicken noodel soup. "But," our cold-fogged minds asked, "which brand?" Ah... this looks like an opportunity for another taste test!

The local supermarket provided the following brands:

Albertson's Chunky: Best looking, okay flavor.

Progresso: A little herby and peppery.

Wolfgang Puck Chicken and Egg Noodle: Greasy looking, herby, thin.

Wolfgang Puck Honey Roasted Chicken with Penne: Weaker flavor than the Egg Noodle soup, very little chicken.

Healthy Choice: Very peppery, best meat texture, greasy.

Campbell's Classic Homestyle: Watery, thin, mild flavor, almost no chicken, tiny, thin short noodles.

Albertson's: A lot like the above, but thinner.

Campbell's Healthy Request: Mild, bland, I could hardly taste chicken.

Campbell's Chunky: Thickest, meat was very dry, slightly herby.

 

And the winner was... none of the above. Not one of these soups filled the soul with the rich warming sensation we expect from chicken soup. They were all too peppery, which masked the chicken flavor. They all skimped on chicken.

 

Costco vs Sam's Club apple pies!

Five tasters agreed that the Costo apple pie (above left) had dry, tart apples with a runny brown liquid on the bottom that oozed out when the pie was served. The pie had a harsh chemical edge and wasn't sweet enough. Sam's Club (above right) had moist sweet apples suspended in a thick creamy delicious binder. The pie had a perfect sweetness level was the hands-down favorite.

 

Lays stackable potato chips!

Lays, which normally produces an outstanding chip, really missed the boat with this chip that comes in a blue plastic tube. Inside I found the chips to be Pringles clones of inferior quality. The chips are thicker than Pringles, heavier and have a coarser texture. The single-curve shape is boring and the real killer is that the chips I tasted had a burnt flavor. Maybe I got a bad batch, but for my money I'll stick with Lays real chips or buy the much better Pringles.

 

Walnut Acres Blueberry juice!

Walnut Acres' grape juice was so good I decided to try their blueberry juice: a mistake. It didn't even taste faintly like blueberries. When I read the ingredients the first item listed was apple juice, that means there was more apple juice in it than blueberry juice. I can't recommend this product.

 

4 ketchups tasted!

Hunts: sharp acidic flavor

Albertson's (Stator Brother's): Sweet, vinegary (Half the tasters preferred this one)

Del Monte: Mildest flavor (The other half preferred this one)

Heinz: spicy

 

Grape Juice

From left to right:

Welches: a little tart, but it had the purest grape flavor. It was also the darkest purple.

Juicy Juice: watery, with a sharp chemical taste.

Robert and James: sweet, with a strong woody note.

Albertsons (same as Stator Bros.): Sweeter and slightly drier than Welch's, very good.

 

The first four samples are the brands available in grocery stores for $1 to $2 per quart. The next four are high-end ($5 per quart) grape juices from a gourmet store:

Walnut Acres: Excellent. Perfect sweet-tart balance with a pure grape flavor. The lingering aftertaste hints at being watery, but I'd rate this as the best of all eight juices.

Lakewood: Contained a lot of sediment. Sour, foul taste. Vile.

Santa Cruz: Very similar to Welch's, but a little drier and sharper

R. W. Knudsen: Slightly sour with a sharp edge.

 
And the winner is... none of the above. I couldn't find any that had a strong grape flavor with a good taste punch that wasn't also too sharp. But, I dicovered that if I mixed 2 parts Welch's and one part Walnut Acres I got the perfect taste I'd been looking for.

 

 Grape Jams and Jellies

Grape jelly is the quintessential jelly, but which is the best tasting? I tried six grape jams and jellys and discovered that none of them had a clean, pure grape flavor. This surprised me because many grape juices are excellent. I suspect that something in the process to turn grape juice into grape jam or jelly sours the grape flavor.

Tropical: Terrible. Vile. Sour chemical odor and taste.

Stator Bros. Grape Jam: Coarse, doesn't taste like grapes. Sharp edge to flavor.

Stator Bros. Grape Jelly: Typical smooth jelly with all the negative flavors as their jam.

Welch's Concord Grape Jelly: Tart, acidic, sharp flavor.

Welch's Concord Grape Jam: Not as sharp as above. Not good, but the best I tasted.

Smucker's Concord Grape Jelly: Too sugary.

 

Blueberry Preserves

The results of this test were almost as disappointing as the Grape Jam test. None of the brands tasted had a pure clean blueberry flavor, I assume because many use grape juice as a sweetener and its flavor overpowers the blueberry essence.

Harry and David Wild 'N Rare Blueberry Preserves: Lots of whole blueberries, clean taste, good sweet/acid balance, pleasant aftertaste. My pick for the best.

Dickinson's Organic Blueberry Fruit Spread: Blueberries were a little hard and the jelly runny, the taste was sharp and only weakly blueberry-like.

Dickinson's Pure Pacific Northwest Blueberry Preserves: Thicker than the first Dickinson's, but the blueberry flavor was still weak.

Knott's Blueberry Preserves: Lots of whole blueberries, taste was a little sharp, but good. This would be my second choice.

Smucker's Simply Fruit: Texture was more like jam, no whole blueberries. The taste had a sharp chemical edge.

St. Dalfour Wild Blueberry Spread: Very chunky, almost solid blueberries, but they were broken or pulped - not whole. Sharp edgy flavor.

Huge root beer test!

On January 20, I held a taste testing of 16 of the more exotic root beers (Please see further down this page for a taste test of common root beers.) and one Sarsaparilla drink that was advertised as being the grandfather of all root beers. Here are the results:

Sioux City Sarsaparilla: strong root beer taste but it left a sharp aftertaste. Two of the four testers rated this as the best.

Sioux City Root Beer: I thought it tasted the same as above but one tester thought it had a noticably molasses flavor.

Root 66: had a strong cream soda aftertaste.

Boylan: very herby.

Frostie: very strong cinnamon note. Very much different than all the others. Interesting.

Dad's: sweet, herby, and rich, but oddly watery.

Olde Philadelphia: very smooth and mild, my favorite.

Tommyknocker: very spicy and woody.

Rat Bastard: very sweet with a caffiene edge. (has caffiene added)

Abita: foamy. Odd, salty flavor.

Henry Weinhard's: Fine foam. Sweet, a little harsh, oddly watery.

Virgil's: Biggest head but it had a sugary, medicinal taste.

Bedford's: cough medicine.

Mason's: woody and harsh.

Americana: dry tasting.

Hires: good clean root beer taste. One judge rated this as the best.

Sprecher: vile, alcohalic note.

 
So, the winners were Sioux City Sarsaparilla, Olde Philadelphia, and Hires. Please note that all of these were bottled. Plastic or canned beverages may have a significantly different taste. All of these were purchased from Galco's Old World Marget in Highland Park, southern California.

 

 

Junior mints vs York mini-mints

The York company introduced a new mini chocolate covered peppermint so I decided to compare it to that old standard, Junior mints. Three testers unanimously agreed that Junior mints' softer, creamier, milder texture and flavor made it preferable to The drier, harder York mints. But, we all agreed that the mintiness of the York's was stronger.

 

Coconut-pecan frostings!

Pillsbury - pale beige color, very thick - hard to spread, lots of small soft nuts, weak coconut flavor. The best tasting of the three but still not great.

Dincan Hines - gross middle brown in color, few nuts, too sweet, gummy texture.

Betty Crocker - rich dark brown color, thinnest texture, lots of firm nuts, strongest coconut flavor but still very weak, the sweetest but with a chemically-sour note.

 
  I love coconut pecan frosting on top of German chocolate cake, hence the motivation for this test. The results were disappointing: none of the three frostings tasted were outstanding. Pillsbury won the taste test by default, not because it was good. The Betty Crocker frosting looks great, but proves the old cliche' that looks aren't everything.

  Both the Pillsbury and Duncan Hines brands were guilty of the infamous "downsizing" that is the producer's way of cheating consumers. "Downsizing" consists of reducing the contents in a full-sized container so that the buyer thinks he or she is getting more than they really are. In Pillsbury and Duncan Hines cases, they've reduced the contents from 16 ounces to 15 ounces... but kept the price the same. From all outward appearances nothing has changed. The small print reflects the truth, but how many of us take the time to read it?

 
Frozen lasagnas NEW!!! Three more types tested!

  The four intrepid taste testers decided to run eight frozen lasagnas through the testing mill to see which were the best and if any competed with homemade. We assigned +1 point for each thumbs up, -1 for each thumbs down, and +1/2 for marginal votes. The testing was skewed because three of the judges prefer mild, as opposed to spicy, foods. The only time this was an issue was with the Prego lasagna. Three of the judges rated it as too spicy because of the inclusion of Italian sausage, but otherwise conceded that it was by far the best in looks and texture.

  The second column of photos show what each brand looks like after baking.

NEW!!! (+3) This larger size of the terrible lasagna by Michael Angelo's tested further down is much better than most. Italian saugage perks it up without getting too spicy. Meatier than many.

NEW!!! (+2) Cheesy with a coarse texture.

NEW!!! (0) Spicy, with a strong herby aromatic essence.

(-2 points) Zesty, spicy, best-looking and the only one close to homemade quality. Italian sausage gives it a lively kick.

(+2) Mild, very little cheese, very liquidy.

(-4) Offensive aromatic herbiness.

(+1 & 1/2) Nothing good, nothing bad.

(-4) Vile, sour taste and loose texture.

(+2) Had an almost spoiled aroma but the taste was okay.

(-4) The worst! Lasagna leather. Thin, tough, and flavorless. Merely two thin layers of noodles with a thin layer of something else (cheese?). Altogether it's thickness was less than 1/4-inch. The photo greatly emphasizes the amount of sauce. In reality there was practically none.

(+3 & 1/2) Not really lasagna, but rippled noodles and some sauce that you have to mix together after baking. No cheese at all. So, how did it get such a high score? Well, it wasn't good but taste-wise it wasn't as bad as most of the others.

The bottom line? None of these eight lasagnas, with the exception of Prego if you prefer it spicy, is worthy of the name.

  Anyone out there with a good lasagna recipe? Please send it to me so I don't have to eat one of these ever again.

 

Maraschino Cherries

Pennant: very sharp chemical flavor. Bad.

Cherryman: sour and chemically tasting. Bad.

Star: Bland, with an odd moldy taste. (Some stems were caught under the seal and the
  cherries may have starting going bad, although there were no signs of mold.)

Reese: Fruitiest and sweetest. The best, but still not great tasting

 
  After conducting this test I had to ask myself why anyone would want to eat these things. True, they look great but by themselves these Maraschino cherries were not pleasant to eat.

 

Ding Dongs versus Ho Hos!

Although these snack cakes are made by the same company and with many of the same ingredients, there are features about each that may recommend one over the other depending upon your tastes. Ding Dongs (on the left) are slightly larger (38 grams) than Ho Hos (32 grams) and have a higher percentage of cream filling. More importantly, the filling is all in one place instead of distributed through the cake. This gives Ding Dongs a more interesting texture. It's also easier to taste the cream. But, many of the Ding Dongs in the box I got had tears in the foil wrapper or the wrapper wasn't properly closed so the cake would be more prone to drying out than the plastic enclosed Ho Hos. Another problem with the Ding Ding wrapper was that the wrapping machine invariably crushed the bottom of the cake slightly. Ho Hos' shape is easier to eat than Ding Dongs and Ho Hos taste slightly sweeter. Ding Dongs have a sharp after taste similar to Oreo cookies.

My recommendation would be to go for the Ding Dongs if you tend to empty the box in a few days. If long-term storage is desired, definitely go with Ho Hos.

 

Rose's versus Jones' Canadian Bacon!

Jones' was the clear winner with its deep rich flavor. The Rose brand tasted more like plain ham.

 

Nathan's versus Oscar Meyer hot dogs!

I saw a "Best Of" television show that featured hot dogs at the World-Famous Nathan's fast-food restaurant. When they mentioned that these supposedly outstanding dogs were available in grocery stores, I got some and compared then to that old standard: Oscar Meyer. The Nathan dogs were rich, meaty, and had just enough spice to give them a little kick. Very good! The Oscar Meyer dogs were terrible: they had a sharp, sour, chemical taste and a bland texture that combined to make them grossly unpalatable. My hot dog preference remains Smokey Links (not the turkey kind) but Nathan's dogs are very tasty

 

Vanilla Pudding!

This stuff is great: it's rich, sweet, creaming, doesn't require chewing, and best of all, unlike ice cream, doesn't give you a brain freeze if you eat too much of it. Over the years the test panel has tried many different ready-made brands and the one that always wins is Swiss Miss. (For an in-depth review of ready-made, instant mixes, cooked mixes, and made-from-scratch vanilla pudding recipes please see THE VANILLA PUDDING PAGE.)

 

Florida Crystals Organic Sugar!

This is a minimally-processed organic sugar. It is light amber in color and and has a slightly caramel flavor that, unlike regular white sugar, does not leave a sour after taste. The crystals are very slightly larger than refined white sugar. I tried it in sugar cookies and it imparted an extremely mild brown-sugar note that was delicious, but may get in the way in baked goods that should not have any molasses flavor. In recipes that also call for brown sugar and other strong flavorings, the difference may be un-noticeable. Oh yes, it's three times as expensive as regular white sugar.

 

The new and improved Baby Ruth candy bar is tested

Baby Ruth's have a note on their wrapper that the caramel filling is "New and Softer." I tried one and decided that it wasn't noticeable softer than the original. What was noticeable was that the caramel flavor was significantly weakened. Baby Ruth's used to be one of my favorites, now it's hardly worth the effort to unwrap.

 

Nine Vanilla Creme Filled Cookies Compared

True Blue: Vanilla flavor okay but can turn mushy if dunked too long.

Good Day: This Albertson's house brand had the best vanilla taste, didn't turn mushy when dunked, and was a pleasing size and shape. They are also cheap.

Manning's: Thick filling but little vanilla flavor. Turns mushy when dunked.

Stauffer's: A small cookie with no flavor. It quickly dissolves in milk.

Mother's: Odd chemical taste and turns pasty or gummy in milk.

Keebler Vienna Fingers: Very little filling, toasty off-taste, gummy in milk.

Nabisco Cafe Cremes: Fair vanilla flavor, smooth, has a sharp flavor when dunked.

Nabisco Snackwells Creme: Flavor okay, good dry, stays too crunchy in milk.

Stator Brother's Best Value Creme-filled Cookies: Identical to Good Day.

 
  I'd rate the Good Day or Stator Brother's Best Value as the best. They have a good flavor and don't fall apart when dunked. What was disappointing was that none of the cookies tested were outstanding.

 

Five non-dairy milks compared

My wife recently developed an intolerance to milk products. Since she drinks a lot of milk we decided a taste test of milk substitutes was a good idea. After comparing Westsoy nonfat plain, Westsoy nonfat vanilla, Harmony Farms light soymilk, Vitasoy light original, and Pacific rice lowfat plain, she decided that the Pacific lowfat plain was the best tasting even though none of these products tasted very much like milk.

NEW!!! My wife has continued trying new varieties and announced she found one that tastes better than the winner of the initial comparison: 8th Continent Low Fat Soymilk. Not only does it taste better than Pacific Lowfat Rice, it also has calcium and protein, which the rice milk doesn't.

 

Betty Crocker Versus Duncan Hines Peanut Butter Cookie Mixes

The Betty Crocker mix produced weakly-flavored cookies that were tough and crumbly even if cooled in a plastic bag. The Duncan Hines mix produced rich, peanut-buttery cookies that where soft and chewy if cooled in plastic bags. If air-cooled, they were still soft and succulent on the inside but developed a very light, delicate crunchy outer layer that provides a great textural contrast with the soft inside. Hands-down, Duncan Hines was the winner!

Let's be honest, half the reason of making cookies is not for the cookies but to steal snacks of the dough. Betty's dough tasted insipid. Duncan's was rich and creamy with a flavor that makes you glow. I hate to admit it but the Duncan Hines mix is better than my own home-made recipe. The only improvement you might want to try is to add some peanut butter chips to the recipe... but that might lead to too strong a peanut butter flavor.

In my "cooking" page, I mention an experiment where I made two batches of peanut butter cookies: one with vegetable oil and one with peanut oil. Since this taste test relates to mix modifications, permit me to repeat the result here, which was that there was no significant difference.

 

 Boston Brand Cinnamon-Pecan Coffee Cake

  The television series "Snacks Unwrapped" aired a show on coffee, in which they did a segment on the world-famous Boston Coffee Cake Company. Intrigued, I got on-line and discovered this company had a website. Although I balked at spending $27 + $10 shipping for a three-pound cake, I decided to try it to see if it was as good as the raves on the television show.

  The cake arrived in five days, carefully wrapped in a beautiful box and in excellent condition. It tasted great, but left a chemical aftertaste that quickly soured. In spite of this, I'd have to say that it was a very good mass-produced product that stands up well against other pre-made cakes. But that price... good lord!

 

 

Nestle versus Swiss Miss Fat Free Hot Chocolate

 Fat free hot chocolate mixes are fortified with non-dairy creamers so that they can be mixed with hot water and still taste like something. To my palate the something they taste like is a Hershey bar melted in water: not very good. So, I cheat and use milk instead of water and the result is very good. Now comes the comparison. Hot chocolate made with fat free milk and Swiss Mix fat free hot chocolate mix is rich, creamy, and thoroughly delicious. The result using Nestle fat free mix is thin and watery, in spite of the milk.

 

Southern Fried Chicken

  My good friend and brother-in-law Robert Beyer and I compared Popeye's regular southern fried chicken to KFC's crispy and original southern fried chicken. Here's what we found:

Popeye's: very yellow-golden and the crispiest. The coating looked like it had been plastered with corn flakes. This one had the best taste to me.

KFC Crispy: It wasn't that much crispier than the original KFC. The problem with it is that the crispy KFC was so heavily doused with pepper that it was almost impossible to taste the chicken. The pepper made my lips burn for ten minutes. If you like pepper, this is the one for you but if you prefer to taste you chicken when you eat... go elsewhere.

KFC Original: Very good. Not as crispy as Popeye's but Bob preferred it over the other two.

 

Quizno's Meatball Sub Sandwiches

  Three tastes tests down, Subway meatball sub sandwiches where found to be the two-to-one favorite. Continuing the tests, Quizno's were found to be better. Quizno's' meatball subs where larger, meatier, and not quite as sweet. The sauce was spritely without burning. Excellent!

  Update! I've had several meatball subs from Quizno's since writing the review above. They continue to be the best I've ever had. But, I've noticed that their policy of sending the sandwich open-faced through their conveyer-griller tends to char any unprotected corners of the bread. The resulting burnt flavor can ruin what would otherwise be an outstanding meal. My recommendation is the ask them not to send it through. The meatballs and sauce are hot enough to warm the sandwich and melt any cheese on it.

 

Chocolate Pudding

Hunt's Snack Pack - Smooth texture but sour, sharp flavor

Jello Pudding Snacks - Sour, harsh, chemical taste

Swiss Miss - Fowl aromatic chemical note

Jello cooked Mix - Rubbery, sharp but better than first two

Jello Instant Mix - Sweetest, mildest, best overall.

 

Milk Chocolate Frosting

Both Duncan Hines and Pillsbury milk chocolate frostings were harsher and grittier than Betty Crocker milk chocolate frosting.

 

Meatball Submarine Sandwiches

Gino's - Sharp and too spicy

Amici's - Hot spicy flavor

Numero Uno - rich meaty, cheesy flavor. Delicious!

Subway - the winner by a two-to-one vote margin from six people. Uniquely sweet, almost sugary, sauce. What this says is that even if you don't have access to the other three sub sources, Subway is going to be competitive on average.

 

Root Beer

  After comparing A&W, Barq's, Shasta, A+ (Albertson's), Stewart's, Henry Weinhard's and IBC brand root beer, the clear preference of the taste testers was IBC. Most of the family-name brands or designer brands used spices and flavorings to give their sodas a unique, although not root beer-like, flavor. I can only assume that they succeed because some people prefer the prestige of unique to simple quality.

 

Chocolate Magic Shell Syrups

  These are the syrups that harden into a shell when they are drizzled over ice cream. We tried four types:

Reese's - the smoothest tasting but it has a peanut butter flavor that almost hid the chocolate flavor.

Hershey's Shell - Too sweet and so thin that much of it flows off the ice cream before setting.

Smucker's Chocolate Magic Shell - too sweet and very sharp. Not good.

Smucker's Chocolate Fudge - Terrible. Sharp, sour taste.

 

Clam Chowder UPDATED!!!

  The best clam chowder I ever tasted was served up in a sourdough bread bowl at Papa John's at the end of Fisherman's Warf in Montery, California. It was so delicious, meaty - hearty - and not overly salty like most clam chowders, that it inspired the following taste test:

(Note: condensed soups were conconstituted with milk.)


Campbell's Chunky - the thickest tested and the second-best tasting. It was too salty.

Campbell's Select, 98% fat free - too salty, herby, and weak clam taste.

Campbell's Condensed, 98% fat free - watery, salty, ugly gray color.

Campbell's Classic - watery, salty, ugly gray color, better tasting than the Campbell's Condensed.

Homestyle - strange chemical off-taste like sour cream. Very bad.

Progresso - BEST TASTING!!! Outstanding in every respect: very rich with a solid clam flavor. (Note: The Progresso "Chunky" style is best for eating straight. The "Traditional" style is slightly thinner and better for bread bowl serving because it provides more sauce for the bread. Both have the same superb flavor.)

Pepperage Farms - very thin and so salty it burned.

Healthy Choice, 99% fat free - tasted more like potato soup than clam and too salty.

Snows - gray color, too salty but good clam flavor.

Wolfgang Puck - too herby and salty, weak clam flavor.

Book Binders - salty, strange sour taste.

 
For a knock-out soup, try mixing in one small (6-ounce) tin of chopped or minced clams, without the juice, into a one-serving can (18-ounces) of the Traditional Style Progresso. Serve steaming in a bread bowl made from a sourdough round loaf, eat and smile... ah, life is good.

I prefer adding chopped clams over minced clams because chopped clams have many large pieces that increase textural interest.

I can't recommend freezing left over clam chowder. The freezing and thawing process breaks the sauce and the soup's texture is ruined, though the flavor is still okay.

(It may sound odd but a glass of cold milk goes very well with clam chowder because its coolness and sweetness provides interesting contrast to the soup's warmth and saltiness. For the same reasons, vanilla ice cream makes a perfect desert.)

 

Frozen Meatballs

  I was surprized to discover that after visiting Albertson's, Ralph's, Von's, Food 4 Less, Stator Brother's markets and an Ait Force commisary, I could only find four different brands of frozen meat balls. I compared them heated up, with and without spaghetti sauce. Here all the results:

O'Boy................ Spicy hot taste covered up much of the meat flavor, rated 2nd best

Armour Italian..... Harsh, nasty, chemical taste. The worst.

Rosina Swedish... Warm spicy taste followed by a weird chemical after taste, rated 3rd

Rosina Italian...... The Best! Good meaty flavor seasoned with rich warm spices.

 

Spice Cake Mix Comparison

  After reading about Stephanie Plum's mother baking so many spice cakes in the best-selling mystery series by Janet Evanovich, I decided to see what all the excitement was about. A tour of seven different grocery stores only turned up three different brands of spice cake: Duncan Hines, Stator Brothers, and Betty Crocker. Stator Brothers and Betty Crocker mixes tasted spicy-hot. I think they used too much ginger and it left a burning feeling in the back of my throat. The Duncan Hines was the best with a good balance between spiciness and sweetness. Texture-wise, all of the cakes were very light and fragile. I was hoping for something denser and moister, more like a banana bread. All in all, I was disappointed.

 

Pitted Dates

  After comparing several dates, the brand with the moistest, sweetest, and most deeply flavored dates was Hadley. These succulent gems come is a yellow plastic cylindrical container and are available from Ralph's. In all fairness, I need to point out that the differences between the brands were slight and only noticeable in side-by-side testing.

 

Pizzas

Papa John's - very thin crust, bland sauce, cheese okay

Red Brick - sauce too spicy, sloppy, got the order wrong, very little meat.

Domino's - crust thick and chewy, sauce okay, not as spicy as Red Brick but too tomato-y, not much meat.

Gino's - Very good crust, good sauce, hearty but not overly spicy, good cheese and plenty of meat.

Amecci's - Excellent sauce and crust, good-tasting crust but too thin, lots of meat and very cheap.

Pizza Hut - THE BEST! thick, chewy, flavorful crust, perfect sauce, rich, meaty, and bright without being too spicy, lots of meat and smooth, creamy, cheese. Their Twisted Crust pizzas are particularly great.

 

White Chocolate Chip Macadamia Nut Cookies

  We compared Pepperage Farms against Keebler and Pepperage Farms was the easy winner. It had a rich, buttery, chocolaty, nutty flavor while the Keebler's had weak good flavors and some strong chemical bad flavors.

Shortly after writing the above, I discovered Parmalat brand cookies. These has a very pleasant, delicate crunch and seemed to avoid over-browning the white chocolate chunks than Pepperage Farms. However, the overall flavor was weak so Pepperage Farms is still the best. I'd rate Parmalat better than Keebler.

 

Animal Cookies

  We compared Albertson's, Ralph's, Barnum's, Ernie's, and a couple of others and only Alberton's had enough flavor to be worth the energy to crunch these little kid-cookies. All of the others were unsweet and bland. But, Alberton's had a bright, sweet (but not sugary) and almost fruity taste that made them a stand-out winner. Albetson's are the same as Stater Brothers. IMPORTANT UPDATE!!! Albertson's changed it's house brand to Essentials: which is not as good as the original. Stator Brother's remained very good until 2013, when there began an inconsistency in quality. Some batches were underbaked and doughy, others overbaked and tasted harsh. Both food chains seemed to have abandoned quality for increased profits.

 

Frosted Animal Cookies

  Mother's brand had cookies that were all separate, not stuck together, and cleanly frosted. Keebler's frosted animal crackers were a mess. They were sloppily frosted and 30 percent were stuck together in clumps of two or more cookies. It was like the Keebler people didn't care about the quality of their product.

 

Oatmeal

  Quaker Oats, Ralston, Mother's, Silver Palate, and too many store brands to mention in both old-fashioned and quick oats, our conclusion was that oatmeal is oatmeal... there isn't any significant flavor differences between them. But, there are textural differences. If you like smooth creamy oats, add the oats to the water before heating it and use quick oats. You'll be able to drink them through a straw. If you prefer thick, hearty rough oats, Silver Palate and Bob's Red Mill are the thickest we found.

 

Krispy Kreams Donuts

  This Eastern USA donut chain recently made it's west coast debut with much fanfare and publicity. Everyone raved about them so our little intrepid taste-testing team drove to the nearest franchise and tried them... what a disappointment! The donuts are fresh, made by a donut machine that's fun to watch, and still warm when you get them. But, they are small, greasy, and covered with so much sugary glaze that they are sickeningly sweet. The sugar taste is so strong you can't taste the donut itself. Worse still, the lines are long and the donuts are expensive. In my opinion any regular donut store's product is as good, and usually better, than Krispy Kreams. The best donuts I've ever had are from Mrs. C's Donuts in Lancaster California. They make the biggest, lightest donuts and they are the cheapest I've seen. Most importantly, the donut dough actually has flavor to it that you can taste above the sweetness of the topping. Their cinnamon twists are particularly good.

 

Jelly Beans

  There's a newcomer to the jelly bean world and it's beating up all the competition! For years jelly beans have been divided into two groups: Jelly Bellies (those small designer beans) and the bulk, unlabeled, large, sugary beans sold in markets across the country. Now there's a third: Smucker's, actually made by Brach's. These new jelly beans have a bright, citrusy flavor that goes far beyond being merely sweet, are medium-sized, and are better than Jelly Bellies. Try some and you'll be delighted.

 

Tater Tots

  Tater Tots are small cylinders of pre-cooked potatoes that you can find in any grocery store under the name Tater Tots, Tater Puffs, etc. Here is a comparison of the several varieties we've tried. All of them were baked in a rack in the oven, which made them crispier than baking them in a pan.

Ralph's Tater Puffs: lightest color, slightly less greasy, okay flavor
Von's Tater Treats: medium brown, okay flavor
Oreida Tater Tots: light brown, strong oniony flavor
Inland Valley Tater Puffs: dark brown, very crunchy, okay flavor
Alberton's Potato Rounds: darkest brown, very crunchy, best flavor, hint of nuttiness
Stator Brothers Tater Puffs: medium brown, slightly less greasy, okay flavor
Lynden Farms: medium brown, okay flavor, similar to Stator Brothers

  Alberton's was voted the best, Inland Valley second, and Stator Brothers third. People who relish onions may prefer Oreida.

 

Nutty Bars

  This is more of a recommendation than a taste test. Next time you are in the snack aisle of a grocery store, look to see if they have boxes of a chocolate-covered peanut butter wafer bar by Little Debbie called Nutty Bars. If they do, buy several dozen boxes. These are one of the lightest-textured, delicious treats you'll ever find. Just beware of off brands. They are invariably inferior.

 

CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES

  I felt this test was so important that I assembled a special team of 25 testers. They each cast one vote for their two favorite brands. Here are the results:

Almost Home............................. 0
Mother's................................... 3
Keebler Chips Deluxe................... 9
Chewy Chips Ahoy...................... 6
Keebler Soft Batch...................... 6
Chips Ahoy................................ 1
Pepperage Farms Nantuket........... 4
Sunshine................................... 3
Pogen....................................... 4
Duncan Hines............................. 3
Duncan Hines Milk Chocolate Chip... 8
Sunshine Chip-a-Roos.................. 3

The Keebler Chips Deluxe and the Duncan Hines Milk Chocolate Chip cookies were the hands-down winners. Unfortunalety, I haven't been able to find the Duncan Hines variety (my favorite) for a long time.

 

RESTAURANT APPLE PIES

  The best apple pie I've found is the Country Apple pie from Baker's Square restaurants. It has a deep, rich apple flavor with a delicious crust. Outstanding! Second place goes to Mother Butler's Apple Pies available in some Denny's restaurants and third goes to Marie Calendar's. Quality drops off quickly after that. I won't even mention the horrible things available from fast food places. I tried comparing frozen apple pies from grocery stores but they were so uniformly poor that I couldn't force myself to complete it. The problem with all of them was that the crusts were limp and soggy.

UPDATE!!!

Sometime in 2006 Baker's Square's apple pie quality dropped significantly enough so that I no longer class it as the best... or even in the top three. I've had it three times over the last 8 months and each time it was the same, poor quality. I suspect to save a penny or two they cut some corners with the hope they could live off their reputation.

However, all is not lost. Claim Jumpers markets an extremely good frozen apple pie that when properly heated has both outstanding flavor and texture. It's much better than the current Baker's Square pie by far.

 

PEANUT BUTTER

Here are the results of our peanut butter taste test:

Sorrel Pickard's Gourmet: had a distracting fruity flavor.
Laura Scudder's: too salty.
Skippy: weak peanut taste.
Peter Pan: too sweet
Albertson's: too sweet
Jiff: The best! Perfect sweet/salt balance and the strongest peanut taste.

 

BROWNIE MIXES

The tasters admitted to a preference for a good balance between sweetness and chocolate, with a deep rich, but not sharp flavor. Extra points were given to mixes that came out with a shiny, delicately crunchy shell.

Pillsbury Fudge Brownie: perfect sugar/chocolate balance and a wonderfully crunchy top
Pillsbury Chocolate Chunk: chocolate flavor was too harsh
Pillsbury Double Chocolate: taste too close to semi-sweet chocolate

Betty Crocker Fudge Brownie: weak flavor
Betty Crocker Chocolate Chunk: bitter
Betty Crocker Original Supreme: good

Duncan Hines Double Fudge: sharp, chemical taste
Duncan Hines Chewy Fudge: not sweet enough
Duncan Hines Chocolate Chunk: chocolate too strong

Albertson's: bitter

New Organics: flavor too close to semi-sweet

Ghirardelli: sharp, over-strong semisweet taste

 

WARNING! On 6 January I made a batch of Pillsbury's Fudge Brownies and was appalled by how bad they tasted. These were not the brownies that won the above test. I read the box label more closely and noticed a sign that read, "Now More Moist and Fudgy." I found an older box of mix in the back of the stack at the neighborhood store and baked it up. This one was great, just like the winner of our test. Upon comparing ingredients, I noticed that the cocoa in the new and improved mix had been increased as had the amount of fat. The result is that this new formulation has a poor sugar/chocolate balance, tastes very sharp, and leaves a harsh after taste. It would have come in last on the original test. This is unfortunate. Pillsbury had a winner with the original formula... now they have a loser. I emailed them about the change but they never answered.

 

CHEESE PUFFS

  We tested eight different cheese puffs.

1. Chee-Tos.................. The best. A rich, mellow cheese flavor and a prefect, light crunch.

2. Albertson's................ Identical to Chee-Tos

3. Planter's Cheese Balls... The same as above but their smaller size increased the cheese impact and made them a little crunchier.

4. Snack King................. Cheese flavor weak, dull crunch.

5. Laura Scudder's........... Sour after taste, texture too airy.

6. Stator Bro's................ Same as Laura Scudder's

7. Sam's (Walmart).......... Strange reddish color, the strongest cheese flavor, crunch too light and airy.

8. Krack-O-Pop ($.99 Stores)... Cheese balls, cheese flavor too sharp, crunch like Planters.

 

FROZEN PIZZAS

  We compared DiGiorno, Freschetta, Tombstone, and Red Baron cheese pizzas and the winner was!!! None of the above. I'm sorry to report that all of them were so poor that they weren't worth the effort to chew them. DiGiorno had the best flavor but was much inferior to what you get from a pizza restaurant. Freschetta was a beautiful-looking pizza but came in second in taste. Tombstone was third and Red Baron was absolutely vile. The major problem with all of them was that the crust didn't taste like anything.

  On a follow-up test, we found that the flavor of all these pizza's improved when they were baked on a pizza stone that made sure the bottoms of the pizzas got slightly browned.

  Come back in a couple of weeks and I'll post the results of a Pizza-restaurant comparison.

 

TOMATO SOUP

  Campbell's Creamy Tomato Soup (in a plastic jar) was by far the best of the three varieties we tested.

 

CARMEL CORN

  Kracker Jack and Krack-O-Pop tasted identical. krack-O-pop had larger, crisper kernals but Kracker Jack had peanuts so we placed Kracker Jack in first place. Fiddle-Faddle came off a poor third. It's kernals were stuck together into large clusters and the carmel flavor was weak and too buttery.

 

ICE CREAM SANDWICHES

  We compared ten different vanilla ice cream sandwiches. Here are the results:

Jerseymade
Albertson's
Cool Classics
Eskimo Pie
Stator Brother's

  All of these first five were identical in size, shape, flavor, wrapping, and boxing to the point where I suspect they are all made by the same company, which only changes labels to accommodate different stores. The chocolate flavor in all of these was so sharp that we couldn't taste the ice cream. They were okay... but not great.

Carnation: Slightly different packaging but it tasted like the first five.

  Something very disturbing about these first six is that the packaging on all of them stated that the weight of the sandwiches was 3.5 ounces but when I weighed them they only came out to be 2.25 ounces.

Mr. Cookie Face: A thick, round sandwich with a very light, airy, foamy ice cream that didn't taste very good.

Klondike: A thick, square sandwich that was the softest of all the varieties tested (All where tested at the same time at the same temperature.) The chocolate flavor overpowered the vanilla ice cream flavor.

Blue Bunny: (Sold in Walmart stores.) At six ounces this was the largest of the sandwiches. The ice cream was notably richer-looking and had a good flavor. There was a perfect chocolate-ice cream flavor balance. The only negative was that it was so thick some people may have trouble taking a bite out of one of these.

Thrifty's: (Sold in Rite Aid drug stores.) As good as Blue Bunny but cheaper and slightly thinner so it's easier to eat. This sandwich is labeled as 3.5 ounces and all of the ones tested weight exactly that so you're not being cheated.

  Having gone through all of this testing I have to say that all of these sandwiches, with one exception, were good. The differences were small, except where the inferior Mr. Cookie Face is concerned.

  We also tried The Ultimate Ice Cream Sandwich. This tasted like a Mr. Cookie Face dipped in milk chocolate. We found it uncomfortable to hold and the watery, foamy ice cream unpleasant.

 

Hot Fudge Topping

  After trying Smuckers, Dove, Hershey's, and Mrs. Richardson's hot fudge topping, the best by far was Mrs. Richardson's. Unlike the others, which hard harsh, sharp chemical notes and were sour, Mrs. Richardson's had a deep, rich, full-bodied flavor. It can be found in Ralph's and Albertson's stores.

 

Dry Cereal

  The best-tasting dry cereal we ever found, compared to dozens over the years, is Raisin Nut Bran.

 

POTATO CHIPS

  Lays potato chips were consistently lighter, crisper, and better tasting than Pringles, Stator Bros., Tim's, Cape Cod, Ruffles, Laura Scudder, Vons, and Albertson's. Having said this, I usually buy Pringles because as an engineer, I like the uniformity of their chips.

 

BARBECUE CHIPS

  The absolute best, richest-tasting barbecue chips we ever found were Rally's Alder Smoked Barbecue Chips. They were vastly superior to all of the barbecue chips made by the companies mentioned in the Potato Chip taste test.

 

PEPPERMINTS

  The best peppermints I ever found where offered as free samples in the Cocoa Beach, Florida, branch of Wachovia Bank. These spherical beauties were as light and foamy as air. You pop them in your mouth and the disappear like cotton candy in a burst of the cleanest imaginable minty flavor. Unfortunately, the bank doesn't sell them by the pound or I would have bought half-a-ton. However, the second-best peppermint, available in eight-ounce bags in See's candy stores, are are almost as good. Everyone else's are grossly inferior.

 

FROZEN BLUEBERRIES

  Overlake frozen blueberries were sweeter and better-tasting than Private Selection, Von's, Albertson's, C&W, and Kerns. They are even sweeter than fresh blueberries.

  Unlike blackberries, blueberries will keep in the refrigerator for several days after they are thawed.

 

FROZEN BLACKBERRIES

  P&S brand frozen blackberries were big, well-formed berries that were much sweeter and had a better texture than Von's Brand and Marion frozen berries, which looked and tasted almost decayed in comparision. VIP brand berries looked almost as good as P&S but over half of them were unripe and even those that were solid black had a tart, sour taste.

  A note about thawing: once thawed, blackberries continue to deteriorate so only thaw as many as you need and eat them as soon as possible.

  Fresh blackberries sold under the Oregon label had a great texture but almost no flavor.

 

THE BEST BACON-CHEESE BURGER IN THE WORLD!

  After comparing bacon cheese burgers from the following restaurants:

Denney's
Carl Jr's
Sizzler
Texas Cattle Company
Red Robin
Jack in the Box
Wendy's
Fatburger
Stuart Anderson's
IHOP
Burger King
McDonald's
Cocoa's
Marie Callendar's
In-n-Out Burger
Hot-N-Ready Burgers
Whoosit's
Claim Jumpers
Love's
Bob's

... the undisputed best-tasting burger was Jack in the Box's Ulimate Bacon Cheese Burger. The biggest difference is that it has two to three times as much bacon as any of the others. You can really taste it. In the rest you have to look to see if they forgot to put it on. Also, Jack's has three big slices of cheese, which gives it a richer, creamier texture and taste than all the others. Finally, the double, jumbo-sized meat patties actually taste like beef. We wish one of the higher-end restaurants had won because we feel very superficial for selecting a fast-food place as the winner but that's the way it turned out. Our second choice? Another fast-food place, I'm afraid. Burger King's Double Western Bacon Cheese Burger (without the BBQ sauce and onion rings) was very good.

 

 

RAISINS

  We compared Dole, Sunmade, Champion, Lucky's, Albertson's, Von's, Heritage Farm, and Del Monte and the moistest, sweetest, best tasting raisins were the Del Monte. However, there's a catch. Look at the bottom of the boxes and avoid those that say they're from Chile. In the Spring of 2000, four boxes in a row from Chile were hard, leathery and dried-out. Boxes not so marked, which I assume were from US sources, and purchased at the same time were moist and succulent. Later that same season, we tried another batch from Chile. These were so moist the outsides were damp and the raisins had started to ferment. One month later they quality was back to the highest standards. I think the Chile raisin farm must have had a transient quality-control problem. In spite of these problems, the unique bright fruitiness of Del Monte raisins has made them a permanent food item in our house.

 

CANNED BAKED BEANS

We compared six different baked beans with the following results:

B&M: Had a burnt, smokey taste that was a real put-off.

S&W: Mild flavor with an odd, almost aromatic, rancid or musty taste.

Stator Bros.: Very mild and watery.

Bush: Sharp, strong tomato flavor.

Campbell's: Sour and watery.

Van de Camp's: Rich and meaty... the best of the six.

  After testing all of these it struck me that the simply cooked pink beans, mentioned in one of the tests further down this page, taste better than any of the canned varieties even though they were flavored with brown sugar, pork, salt, and many spices.

 

VANILLA ICE CREAM

  We tested all the premium brands like Dreyer's, Breyer's, Ben & Jerry's, Haagen Dazs as well as various store brands like Thrifty (now sold in Rite Aid stores), Lucky's (sold in Albertson's), Stator Brothers and so on. Without doubt, the best tasting ice cream of was plain old Thrifty's vanilla. All of the top names had butterfat contents so high that eating their ice creams was like eating solid butter. The thick cloying texture of these primo-brands was particularly annoying. Most of them also were too heavy-handed on the flavorings resulting in such a strong vanilla flavor that after a couple of spoonfuls we noted an almost burning sensation in the back of our palates. Most of the store brands suffered from too little flavorings and some chemical off-tastes. Only Thrifty's had a perfect balance of butterfat content, sweetness and vanilla flavoring. Note that this was their regular vanilla. Thrifty's French vanilla was good but the vanilla flavor was overpowering.

  The tests were based on regular-sized servings of one to one and a half cups, which is what the normal person helps themselves to when given the opportunity and not the ridiculously tiny portions indicated on the labels. Those small label portions are specified to make the calorie count per portion small enough so that consumers don't realize what they're getting into when they eat ice cream.

  I friend I know who spent forty years working in a creamery mentioned that in blind taste tests the creamery conducted from time to time on vanilla ice cream, most people preferred the regular vanilla over the high-end brand names. The reason given was that the brand names run the butterfat up not for flavor but to create snob appeal.

 

SAUSAGES

  Sausages are ridiculously high in fat, sodium, cholesterol and have no fiber. Fortunately, they make up for this by being one of the most flavorful foods. Which begs the question... which type to eat? We tried Bratwurst, Smoked Bratwurst, Pork Knockwurst, Beef Knockwurst, Hillshire Farms Polska Kielbasa, Hilshire Farms Beef Kielbasa, Eckrich Polska Kielbasa, English Bangers, nasty old beef franks, Polish sausage and Sweet Italian sausages. All four taste testers vastly preferred the Hillshire Farms Polska Kielbasa.

Good-Quality Beef Franks are bland tasting and have a smooth, mealy uninteresting texture. That's why when used in a bun most people pile on chili, onions, catsup, mustard and anything else available to give them some taste. Good sausage shouldn't need doctoring.

Smokie Links are more like a hotdog than a sausage, but they have a unique flavor that's earned them the right to be included. They are good by themselves, mixed with beans, eaten with a bun, or best of all... used in chili dogs. One caution: Oscar Meyer hotdog-size smokie links are great but their small mini-smokies use turkey and have a weak, insipid flavor. Try Hillshire Farms little smokies and you'll be getting the real thing.

Bratwurst tastes peppery, much like breakfast sausage links.

Smoked Bratwurst tasted like Oscar Meyer smokie links.

Pork Knockwurst tastes like a plain old hotdog, maybe a little spicier.

Beef Knockwurst tasted like a regular hotdog except a little more peppery.

Sweet Italian sausage is spicy, in a way that can only be defined as being "Italian." While spicy, these sausages do not leave a burning aftertaste. These taste best with tomato-based sauce.

Hillshire Farms Polska Kielbasa's taste is hard to define. It's spicy but no one spice dominates. It is meaty, juicy, with a richness of flavor that none of the other sausages can come close to. They are outstanding and were the group's favorite.

Hillshire Farms Beef Polska Kielbasa was too spicey, enough to mask the meat flavor, and didn't have the depth of flavor the regular Kielbasa had.

Eckrich's Polska Kielbasa was weaker flavored than the Hillshire Farms Kielbasa and the meat had been over-ground to a patte' type paste that didn't feel right on the pallate.

Polish Sausages taste like Kielbasa except the flavor is weaker, this was the taste test runner-up.

English Bangers slightly peppery and spicey... about halfway between a Polish sausage and Bratwurst, but with an underlying fatty flavor that was unique. Not bad but no winner. By the way, they're called Bangers because in World War II so much water was added to them to stretch the amount of meat they used to explode when cooked.

 

CINNAMON

  After hearing so much about how good Vietnamese cinnamon is, we got some and compared it to the bulk cinnamon available in any store. The Vietnamese had a much more intense aroma, a sweeter, followed by a chili-pepper-like after taste, flavor, and little or no difference when mixed and used with sugar. Get it and use it if you want be don't expect your snickerdoodles to taste any different.

 

SALT

  After hearing so many cooking show hosts extol the virtues of sea salt or kosher salt, we tried them against regular, iodized table salt. I regret to inform you that we couldn't tell the difference. This may be because our palates aren't sophisticated enough to detect the difference but even so I suspect any differences are insignificant. We also compared regular iodized salt against regular uniodised salt and couldn't tell the difference.

 

VANILLA FROSTING

  Comparing vanilla frostings made by Duncan Hines, Pillsbury, Betty Crocker and several store brands showed that by far the best tasting variety was Pillsbury's French Vanilla frosting. Most of the others tasted insipid in comparison. In fact they tasted like little more than sweetened Crisco.

 

COOL WHIP TOPPING

  The non-dairy frozen toppings, usually referred to by the name Cool Whip which is really the trade mark name owned by Kraft, have risen in popularity over the last few years to challenge whipped cream as the topping of choice. A surprising result of our comparison of various types was that there is little difference in taste regardless of the brand. We did find that the Kraft regular was a little less sweet and not as good as it's Lite Cool Whip. The un-lite varieties were usually creamier and heavier but not necessarily better than the lite, or low-fat, options. The bottom line... buy the cheapest brand available and if you prefer sweeter toppings, avoid the Kraft regular.

 

PEANUT BRITTLE

  We were surprised at how few brands of peanut brittle are commonly available. Nine different stores only yielded four brands: Old Dominion, Sophie Mae, Rachel's Gourmet and See's Candies.

  Rachel's was the worst. It was hard, too-sweet, had little flavor and few peanuts.

  Sophie Mae wasn't much better with little flavor and only slightly more tender.

  Old Dominion was very good with a strong peanut flavor.

  See's prepackaged (in a box) was excellent. It had a noticeably darker color, richer flavor, had a more delicate texture and more nuts than any of the other brands. However, it was also nine times as expensive as Old Dominion which was almost as good. One negative was that the nuts were almost soft, like they were stale.

  We went back to See's and tried their peanut brittle again but this time purchased it over-the-counter from their fresh stock. This is where they pick out as much as you request. This brittle was much fresher than the pre-boxed brittle and the nuts were crisper. So, for the best peanut brittle we suggest going to See's and buying it loose over-the-counter.

  One final note: we noticed that our palates quickly adapted to the taste of peanut brittle. After a few pieces it was difficult to tell what we were eating

 

ORANGE JUICE

  We tested more different types of orange juice in half-gallon cartons than I care to list, both fresh and made from concentrate. The best tasting juice over all was Tropicana's orange juice with calcium and extra vitamin C. The health advantages, if any, of the additives had nothing to do with this selection other than in some way they made the juice taste better (more orangy) than any of the others.

 

DRY BEANS

  I grew up hating beans. Later in life I discovered the reason for this loathing was because most people don't cook beans long enough. They need a 12-hour soak followed by at least four hours at a low simmer. Much less and you run the risk of having beans with a grainy, powdery texture. Don't overcook them though or they'll turn into mush. The type of bean is also important because they all have different flavors: some great, others vile. Here's the breakdown on a bean test:

Black Beans - sharp, high flavor, okay for chili

Kidney Beans - Good, but there was a chemical edge to the flavor

Great Northern - Like Kidneys but richer flavor

Pinto - bland

Pink Beans - THE BEST! They have a rich, meaty flavor with no beany edge that none of the others come close to. Don't throw the cooking water away. Thicken it using cornstarch and add it back into the beans. It makes a great gravy. These beans are so good I'd easily trade a steak for them.

 

STORE-BOUGHT COOKIES

  One of the best store-bought cookies we found are the Christmas shortbread cookies sold in Walmart stores around Christmas. These star-shaped cookies are sold on one-gallon tins decorated in Christmas motifs for $4.00 per tin. The only problem is that in the 1999-2000 season the factory that baked the cookies set the oven too high and many tins got filled with over-done cookies. It's a measure of how good these things are that instead of returning them we scraped off the burnt ridges and ate what was left.

 

DIET CAFFIENE-FREE COLAS

  The best caffeine-free, calorie-free cola we ever tasted was Smith's brand sold out of the now-defunct Smith's grocery store chain. Second best is Walmart's Sam's Choice. It has a reasonably sweet taste with little of the artificial-sweetener after taste that plagues so many sugar-free sodas.

 

VANILLA EXTRACT

  There's no debate that real vanilla is better than imitation but which real vanilla is the best? After testing several store brands, Pasa (a brand from Mexico) and Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract, the winner was the Madagascar Bourbon. It gave foods cooked with it the purist vanilla flavoring with no chemical off notes. The Mexican vanilla was almost as good but gave some foods, like puddings, a noticeably gray color. The store brands weren't even in the running. Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla is available from the Williams-Sonoma chain of stores in most large Malls. They also have a catalog and a web site.

 

STRAWBERRY PRESERVES

  After comparing Knott's, Smucker's and a host of supermarket-brand strawberry preserves, the hands-down-winner is Knott's. It has a deep, rich strawberry flavor enhanced, but not overpowered, by the perfect amount of sweetness. As good as it is, you still need to be careful when selecting a jar. Many times jars of preserves will be mostly jelly with little or no fruit. Look at the bottoms of several jars and take the one showing the highest density of solid fruit.

 

THE BEST PEPPERAGE FARMS COOKIE

  We tested Pepperage Farms' Soft Baked Milk Chocolate Chunk & Macadamia Nut cookies, their Sausalito, Tahoe, Chesapeake, and Mantauk cookies... we decided the Tahoe (White Chocolate and Macadamia Nut) cookies were the best tasting. The Mantauk (Milk Chocolate Chunk) were second.

 

THE BEST STEAK

  After watching several cooking shows state that filet mignon steaks were tender but lacked flavor we held a steak-out to compare the major cuts to see which one had the best flavor. All the steaks were cut to the same size, cooked the same way and seasoned with the same amount (just a pinch) of salt. We tried filet mignon, New York strip, Chuck and Top Sirloin. Contrary to the cooking shows the filet had the best flavor.

  As a follow-up to the test above, I obtained (at $38.00 a pound) a properly aged, prime cut of filet mignon from a company called Prime Direct. This is supposed to be some of the best in the world. It was three times as expensive at regular grocery store filets and only about ten percent better as far as flavor and tenderness are concerned.

 

EGGS

  The Healthy Horizons egg company sells eggs that it claims have "the golden yoke." I got a dozen of them and fried one and compared it to a regular fried egg. They weren't kidding! Their yokes are noticeably darker. It may have been a psychological trick caused by the color but they seemed to have a deeper, richer flavor as well. I'm not sure the color difference is worth the extra fifty cents a dozen they cost but it might be to someone making a custard and wanting to give the custard a darker color. I made pound cake using these eggs and it had a richer color and flavor.

  I saw a Huel Howser show about a marigold farmer who sold all his orange flowers to egg companies to feed to their chickens to produce darker yokes. I assume the Health Horizons people get their yokes darker this way.

 

KELLOG'S TREATS

  The Kellogg people have started marketing four new treats based on enlarged versions of their cereals: Rice Crispies, Sugar Pops, Cinnamon Loops, and Fruit Loops. After testing all them we voted that the Rice Krispie and Sugar Pops treats were just so-so, and the Cinnamon Loops were good but have a greasy taste that builds up after eating ten of them. The Fruit Loops were outstanding. They had a great crunchy texture, bright colors, fruity taste and best of all really looked like a ten-times enlargement of the cereal. Another thing to do with them is to string them for rustic christmass tree garlands.

 

APPLE JUICE

  I tried Treetop 3 Apple Blend, Martinelli's, Treetop Cider, Knudsen Gravenstein and Knudsen Apple juices. The Knudsen Apple juice was by far the best. Most of the others had woody notes that made them taste dry. Treetop Cider had a sharp chemical flavor. Martinelli's was too sweet. Treetop 3 Blend was watery. I didn't bother with the bulk juices because from memory they are all woody and too sweet. The Knudsen brand is available in some health food stores.

 

BUTTER MINTS

  Butter mints are wonderful after-dinner sweet. Their rich buttery flavor and creamy texture as they melt are truly unique. The only problem is most butter mints are terrible, flavorless lumps of sugar. After testing all the different varieties I could find I found that the best were a variety called Heavenly Confections. I believe they may have changed their name to Farley but they are still good. The next best is the Lucky's brand sold in Albertson's grocery stores.

 

GINGER SNAPS

  Archway ginger snaps are the best. Every other variety I've tried, such as Bakery Wagon, Keebler and Nabisco, had too much ginger which gives them a hot, almost burning flavor.

 

VANILLA WAFERS

  The best Vanilla Wafers are made by Keebler (but not the fat-free ones!). Nabisco's are bland in comparision. Some supermarket brands are vile.

 

SUMMER SAUSAGE

  Old Wisconsin Summer Sausage (too spicy), Old Wisconsin Hickory Smoked (too spicy and too smoky) Old Wisconsin Beef and Pork (milder but the after taste was a little hot) Wilson's (rich beefy flavor, lots of spice but not too much to cause a burning taste or hide the beef flavor), Hillshire Farms (good but hot after taste) and Hickory Farms (too spicy) summer sausages were tested and Wilson's was found to be the best.

 

MOZZARELLA

  After seeing a cooking show about real water buffalo mozzarella cheese, I tracked down a source and tried some. Terrible! It may be that my tastes are used to the fake stuff in grocery stores but the real thing, sold under the Bubalis-Bubalis brand, had a strong chemical taste that I found disgusting. Its pallid white color was also a put-off. Oddly enough, the best tasting mozzarella I've found isn't really cheese; it's preshredded Kraft fat-free. I found it had more flavor and wasn't overpoweringly salty, unlike the Precious Brand. IMPORTANT UPDATE!!! After years of eating and enjoying Kraft Fat-Free mozzarella cheese, in the Fall of 2005 I noticed the flavor suddenly had a harsh, sharp flavor and instead of melting creamy it turned stringy. I've tried it a dozen times over the last 5 months and it's always the same. All the other tasters agree that it's changed for the worse. I can no longer recomend this cheese.

 

Parmesana Reggiana

  A couple of years ago it seemed like every cooking show on television was extolling the virtues of Parmesana Reggiana Parmesan cheese. We tried some and found it's flavor to be extremely sharp. Maybe this is what the cooks on those shows liked about it. The cheap, pregrated domestic stuff has a milder, meatier flavor that we preferred but again, that may be a preference based on acquired taste.

 

BLUEBERRY MUFFIN MIXES

  We tested several brands of blueberry muffin mix with real blueberries and found them all to be about the same. The one stand-out was the Betty Crocker mix with two cans of blueberries. It was much better than the single-can Betty Crocker mix, Duncan Hines and Krusteaz. A note about the tiny blueberries in those cans. Most of the flavor in a blueberry is in the skin. This means that cup of small blueberries, with their higher skin-to-flesh ratio, will have more flavor than a cup of large blueberries.

 

BREAKFAST SAUSAGE LINKS

  We tested several breakfast sausage links and the best was Jones Pork links. All of the other were so spicy the spices masked the meat flavor and left a hot after taste. Most of the testers agreed that what they wanted was a strong meaty flavor enhanced, but not over powered, by spices. The Jones precooked sausages, all you have to do is nuke them in a microwave, were very good. They weren't quite a juicy as fresh-cooked links but they were more uniformly browned and a lot easier to make.

 

BUTTER TOFFEE NUTS

  The best tasting butter toffee nuts I've found is the Luckies brand sold in Albertson's grocery stores. Unfortunately, this brand is no longer available as of May 2000.

 

SHORTBREAD COOKIES

  Shortbread cookies can be grouped into three categories: bulk, acceptable, and premium. Bulk shortbreads are those sold in large bags by companies like Lorna Doone and Keebler. They are okay... if you're starving on a desert island. In general I find that they lack the rich buttery flavor of really good shortbread. The "acceptable" category is consists of one brand, Walkers. This is a good cookie but not outstanding. My complaint with Walkers is that they are so dominant in getting their product on supermarket shelves that they've pushed other, and better, brands out of the stores. The only two premium brands I've found are Burton's Luxury All Butter Shortbread and Carr's Old Fashioned All Butter Shortbread Fingers. Both of these are outstanding and have a strong, buttery flavor. Burton's tends to be a little variable in how long the cookies are baked (one package may be over done and the next under done) but are excellent none-the-less. Carr's are the best by far. They have a unique melting quality and perfect buttery-richness to sweetness balance that puts all the other to shame. These are even better than the best homemade recipe I've found. (See Cooking for this recipe.) Burton's are available in some Gloria Jean's coffee shops. Carr's have all but disappeared. I don't know if they've been pushed out by Walkers or if the Carr's company has stopped making them.

 

 

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