Although a number of excellent cheeses are made in America (think Humboldt Fog or Point Reyes Blue), the words “American Cheese” have become synonymous with the single-wrapped squares famous for their gooey, sticky melt.
Before you turn up your nose at American slices, know that some of the world’s most famous chefs wouldn’t dream of putting anything else on a burger!
What is American Cheese?
American cheese is what is known as processed cheese. This means that it begins with cheese (usually Cheddar or Colby) that's modified through heating and adding additional ingredients to create something new.
This final product that has been dubbed "American cheese" has a very low melting point and a mild flavor. Commonly sold in individually wrapped slices, it is prized for its silky texture and long shelf life.
How is American Cheese Made?
Originally, Cheddar, Colby, Jack, or other semi-hard cheeses formed the base of the style called American cheese. This is not always the case today (see below). To make “true” American cheese, workers blend these base cheeses with other ingredients to adjust their texture.
They add milk or cream to soften the cheese and emulsifying agents to help the cheese melt in a stable and satisfying way without becoming oily. Finally, the vat of melted, processed cheese is pasteurized, then cooled in blocks or individually wrapped slices.
Today, many brands of so-called “American cheeses” do not begin with cheese at all. Instead, they are made from a slurry of milk proteins, milk fat, colorants, and emulsifiers in a proportion that achieves a cheese-like texture.
Different Kinds of American Cheese
The term “American cheese” commonly refers to a broad range of heavily processed products, only some of which contain real cheese. The FDA has attempted to apply standards for ways to identify these, but the regulations lag behind quick product development. Brands frequently develop products that fall outside the view of any of the FDA’s recognized categories.
Pasteurized Process Cheese:
This is real cheese, made by processing Cheddar or other semi-hard varieties into the softer, meltier style we know as American. This category includes the blocks of American cheese you can buy from behind the deli counter.
Pasteurized Process Cheese Product:
Products labeled this way only need to contain 51% real cheese, with the rest of the weight made up of bulking agents and emulsifiers. “Cheese” should still be the first ingredient listed on the label.
Pasteurized Process American Slices:
These products can not legally use the word “cheese” in the label, because they do not start from a base of real cheese. There are still strict rules for moisture and fat levels in this category.
Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product (or similar):
This category, and others like it, are not currently regulated by the FDA. No one knows exactly what is in these products! Some of them list cheese as the first ingredient on the label, while others do not, so there is clearly some variation per manufacturer. Most of the individually wrapped slices commonly known as American cheese fall under this heading.
American Cheese Substitutes
Mild Cheddar, Colby, or Jack are all great substitutes for American cheese. These varieties melt consistently and they have a mild flavor that will not overshadow other ingredients.
What does American Cheese taste like?
There's no way to make this complicated....
American cheese is beloved more for its texture than for its taste, which is mild, milky, and salty.
American Cheese Pairings
While you would never find American slices on a cheese platter, it is a favorite of some well-known chefs for sandwiches and burger toppings. It binds together other loose ingredients, and its simple flavor refuses to compete, so your meticulously seasoned burger patty can shine!
American cheese melts upon exposure to very little heat, so simply laying a slice over gently toasted bread will get you a first-rate sandwich. It’s also quite difficult to burn, and therefore a great choice for high-heat applications like burgers on the grill or mixing up some macaroni and cheese.
Best American Cheese Brands
Where to Buy American Cheese
You won’t find American cheese in a specialty store or at a cheesemonger. If you like the version closest to the original, ask for slices from a block of “real” American cheese from your deli counter.
These will look and feel like gently softened Cheddar. Otherwise, look for individually wrapped slices in the prepared cheese aisle at any local supermarket.
How Long Does American Cheese Last?
Deli-sliced American cheese has a shelf life similar to the semi-hard cheese from which it is made: about three weeks in the fridge. The individually wrapped slices of processed cheese last much longer, usually several months in the fridge. A good rule of thumb is to assume they will last about a month past their printed expiration date.
How to Make American Cheese
America’s Test Kitchen offers an approachable and appetizing recipe for homemade American cheese. Their version uses gelatin, an ingredient often found in American slices, to soften the texture of the cheese and remold it.
Because it does not contain the emulsifiers frequently found in all categories of store-bought American cheese, this homemade version will be slightly less stable upon melting compared to purchased versions. Still, it is a good approximation of the original style of American cheese!
American Cheese Nutrition
According to the USDA, a typical 1 oz slice of American cheese (Pasteurized Process Cheese Product) contains around 100 calories, 9 g of fat, 1 g of carbohydrate, and 5 g of protein. Be careful, because you consume about 20% of the recommended daily dose of sodium in each slice, but 30% of your daily calcium intake as well!
Whether we prefer our slices heavily processed and wrapped in plastic or less processed and cut at the Deli, we are all looking for one thing from American cheese: that ideal melt!
Now that you know why American is the perfect melting cheese, lean into your love for the bright orange squares.
We hope you enjoyed this comprehensive article on American cheese. Let us know if you have any suggestions, questions or comments.