As our regular readers know, I’ll go to my grave defending processed, pasteurized American cheese. I understand your objections to this position. I’ve heard all of the arguments. It’s bland. It’s lowbrow. Heck, it’s not even technically cheese, but more of a sciency slurry of milk, whey, milkfat, artificial flavorings and oil, dyed orange and laid flat in individually-wrapped squares of cellophane. That’s why “Kraft Singles” aren’t called “Kraft Cheese.” It can’t legally be sold that way, and must be referred to as “processed cheese” or “cheese food,” and that upsets consumers and reminds them that robots are in charge of the majority of the nation’s food supply. It’s terrible stuff, devoid of any of the qualities that make cheese so much fun, leaving behind nothing but cynical, flavorless slabs of institutional runoff from a food production system run amok. It also happens to be the only cheese I’ll consider for a cheeseburger.
Why? Processed American cheese outshines its more natural cheese ancestors in one key area: texture and meltability. Sliced American cheese behaves quite unlike actual food, when you expose it to heat. It’s difficult to burn, yet it melts almost instantly (in fact, it will start to melt at room temperature), oozing and flowing over the crusty outside of a perfectly cooked burger, filling all of the nooks and crannies in the surface and imparting a creaminess to the finished product that you just can’t get from a cold shellacking of Swiss. It may not taste like much, but on a cheeseburger, that’s appropriate. The beef gets to be the star of the burger, while the cheese contributes only smooth, silky texture and melt.
To celebrate National Grilled Cheese Day today, we wanted to pay special tribute to processed cheese, the childhood classic that for many of us, formed the basis of our relationship to the grilled cheese sandwich. Our version uses Colby Jack, with a bit of gelatin to help firm the cheese but also allow it to melt instantly when it comes in contact with a griddled cheeseburger. Pressed into a mold and refrigerated for a few hours, the resulting block of smooth, mild cheese is like a “Super-Single,” but made with actual ingredients and perfect for grilling between two pieces of bread and dunking into canned tomato soup. Not exciting enough? Feel free to customize the recipe by adding in chopped pickled jalapenos, coarsely ground black pepper, or sliced olives before you press the mixture into the mold.
Homemade American Cheese
Adapted from a recipe by America’s Test Kitchen
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 1/2 teaspoons powdered gelatin
- 12 ounces Colby Jack cheese, finely shredded
- 1 tablespoon nonfat milk powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk
1. Line a small 4×5 loaf pan (disposable pans work fine) with plastic wrap, letting the excess hang over the sides.
2. In a small bowl, combine water and gelatin and stir. Let sit for five minutes.
3. Combine cheese, milk powder, salt, and cream of tartar in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse a few times to combine.
4. Meanwhile, heat milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. When milk begins to simmer, remove from heat and transfer hot milk to a measuring cup to make pouring easier.
5. With the food processor running, slowly add hot milk through the feed tube at the top of the bowl. Add prepared, thickened gelatin mixture.
6. Stop food processor occasionally to scrape down sides of bowl, and continue whirring until the mixture becomes perfectly smooth (about 1-2 minutes).
7. Working quickly, transfer mixture to prepared mold, pressing mixture down into the pan with a rubber spatula to remove any large air bubbles. Smooth surface of cheese, and cover with the overlapping plastic wrap.
8. Chill in the refrigerator for at least three hours, or overnight. Slice as needed and use as you would individually-wrapped processed American cheese.