Now, when it comes to flavor, or lack thereof, the argument is often that processed cheese doesn’t taste like much, especially when compared to traditionally made cheeses. My counter is: that’s exactly the point!
Here's an analogy from my day-to-day as a bartender: a Tom Collins is essentially a gin sour with added soda water. Soda water brings texture to the drink, not flavor. It actually dilutes the flavors already present. If more flavor was always preferable, wouldn’t a Tom Collins be improved if the soda water wasn’t added to begin with, or was replaced with something stronger-tasting, like Mountain Dew? The answer, luckily for everyone that sits at my bar, is no. Sometimes adding texture without complicating flavor is the right move. In the same way, American cheese is the food equivalent of soda water. It adds texture to some dishes without covering up or muddying existing flavors.
For example, I recently ate a perfectly good burger that was ruined by a big slice of Brie. The earthy, intensely flavored cheese that I love so much in small bites on crackers overwhelmed the already-decadent burger. The end result was a burger that was less than the sum of its parts, heavy-handed, and kinda gross. What it needed instead was the great melty texture that Brie provides, without the dominating flavor. It needed American cheese.
That's not to say American cheese can appropriately be comparable to, say, Gorgonzola. They're different, and different is good. The best thing to do is to embrace the widest variety of foods available and eat what's appropriate for the occasion. Sometimes you want an aged cheddar with those fantastic crunchy crystals in it with a glass of wine before dinner, sometimes you want a Philly cheesesteak donut.
Delicious, thankfully, is a moving target. If, after all that, you are still upset that store-bought processed cheese doesn’t have enough flavor, then go and make your own from a tastier cheese. I do this all the time. Simply combine your favorite cheese(s), some water, milk, or beer, and our good friend sodium citrate, and you’ve got homemade processed cheese. Modernist Cuisine and ChefSteps have recipes for this. Don’t want to buy sodium citrate? Then follow these (admittedly more difficult) recipes from Serious Eats and the LA Times.
We’re in the midst of a renaissance of high-quality cheesemaking all across the United States. But just because so much cheese in America really is great, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also save some room in your refrigerator for good old American cheese. It more than deserves a spot there, too.
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