American Cheese

I’m not sure if there’s one single thing in all the culinary world that has brought about so much contention and division as this one little piece of cheese. There seem to be two camps standing in stark opposition to one another. And I’m not sure which one I agree with. But I do have some thoughts on the matter.

Fair warning, I have a lot to say, so buckle up because this is going to be a long post.

On the one hand, American cheese isn’t ‘real’ cheese. So that makes it harder for me to give it much respect. I sometimes compare it to certain brands of breakfast sausage you can find in the freezer section that aren’t 100% meat. They have additional fillers in them which make them airier and less dense, but for some dumb reason I still like eating them from time to time.

On the other hand, American cheese tastes SO good when used correctly. I hate that I have to admit that. I hate that I even entertain the thought of cooking with this ‘cheese’. It’s melty and gooey and it’s perfect for hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches and American style 3 egg omelettes.

Vanessa has made it quite clear however, that when we are on the road traveling, there will be absolutely no American cheese allowed in the travel trailer. That’s right, no “American singles” or “Kraft singles” will be authorized to occupy any space within fifty feet of our refrigerator.

And you know what? I can’t blame her. I think we’ve been ruined on American cheese by all the grilled cheese sandwiches we’ve had to make throughout the last five years. I won’t say why, but we’re both tired of looking at the remaining stack of wrapped up single slices sitting on the meat shelf in the refrigerator that we just can’t seem to get rid of quick enough. I can’t seem to get myself to throw them away either, and I don’t know why.

So let’s look at some of the facts concerning this controversial cheese product. American cheese is a processed cheese. In all fairness though, we have to say that every cheese is processed. It’s something we as humans make, which can’t be found in nature.

Even the simplest cheese, whether it be from cow’s milk or goat’s milk or whatever, is made by treating the milk with rennet (an enzyme most often taken from the stomach lining of an unweaned calf) but also occasionally from vegetable based enzymes that have similar properties. The curds are then separated from the whey and pressed together to form the cheese.

American cheese contains a portion of certain real cheeses, and a portion of fillers and other ingredients that alter the flavor and texture. Other processes help determine what goes on the labeling of the package.  It could be something as simple as blending the American cheese with other cheeses, or something as complex as melting it with additional emulsifying salts, milk proteins, and whey. These processes are what allows the American cheese to melt like it does, without turning greasy like most traditional cheeses do.

By law, American cheese must be made from at least two types of cheese. Since, American cheese is manufactured differently than “unprocessed” or “Raw” cheeses, American cheese can’t legally be sold as “authentic” cheese in the United States. Federal law mandates that it needs to be labeled as “processed cheese” if it’s made by combing more than one cheese together.

If dairy ingredients such as milk, cream, buttermilk, or cheese whey are added, it must be labeled “cheese food”. Because of this, some companies have decided to drop the word “cheese” altogether in some of their products, opting to use more sophisticated and appealing terms such as “American singles” or “American slices”.

American cheese can be orange, yellow, or white in color. It has a medium consistency, and is very mild in taste. One of the things that make it so popular today is its low melting point. This is what makes fresh from the grill burger patties look so appetizing, with all the melted gooey cheese dripping everywhere.

Usually, yellow and orange varieties of American cheese are made with cheeses that have been seasoned with annatto (I’ll explain more about annatto below) such as Cheddar or Colby, while white varieties of American cheese are made with cheeses such as White Cheddar or Jack cheese which do not contain annatto.

In its infancy, American cheese came in only one color. White. It was made from a blend of cheeses which usually included cheddar cheese (originally white at the time). But as time progressed, American cheese began to turn more yellow with the addition of annatto. Annatto is a seasoning and an intense dye that is added to cheddar and Colby cheese for color. By the late 1800’s, American cheese had become known simply as “yellow cheese”.

I think many people either love it or hate it. I know I haven’t come to terms with my feelings about this odd food thing we have. At least it’s not canned cheese though, I think we can all agree that that stuff is on a whole different level and something I’m not proud of as an American.

As Anthony Bourdain laid out in his 3 Rules for the Perfect Burger, number three reads as follows:

“Thou shalt use processed meltable cheese”.

If it doesn’t melt, you don’t want it near your burger.

And finely, here are a few last thoughts I would like to share with you. If you are a cook or food photographer showcasing something featuring American cheese and wish to share your work via pictures on the internet, be prepared for the internet cooking trolls to rear their ugly heads. They’re the worst. Most of them think they know what they’re talking about because they read somewhere on a blog someplace 2 months ago that American cheese isn’t actually real food and how dare a grown man or woman enjoy a burger topped with such an abomination! It’s a travesty of taste and an insult to cheese connoisseurs everywhere!

In the end, don’t listen to those naysayers or let them ruin your day. That is exactly what they want, and we can’t let them win. They’re opinion means absolutely nothing if you don’t let it. If you love American cheese, that’s great. If you absolutely can’t stand it, that’s awesome too. I think both opinions are valid when it comes to American cheese.

Those are my words and that’s what I’m sticking with.