Curds and whey: cottage cheese reviews. Seriously.

I enjoy the odd bowl of cottage cheese every now and then. But I’m picky; there’s a huge difference between brands, and it doesn’t simply boil down to trusting that the more expensive ones are going to be better. As a consequence, I find myself sampling brands whenever we start shopping at a different grocery store, in search of the “perfect” curd. Our local grocery just recently started carrying Daisy-brand cottage cheese (to compliment its existing line of sour creams) at a reasonably high price point, with a coupon available to encourage first-time buyers — but it was so horrible that I feel compelled to post here to warn people off. And that led to this, the first cottage cheese review I’ve ever seen.

Breakstone’s/Knudsen’s: 7.5Breakstone's Cottage Cheese
This is actually a single brand, distributed by Kraft; different stores around here will carry either one or the other, but very rarely both. It doesn’t matter, though, because they appear to be identical in every respect except for the packaging. It’s surprisingly difficult to find the full-fat versions of these cheeses on the shelves; a number of groceries around here stock only the 2% “low-fat” varieties — which is a shame, since I’ve yet to find a low-fat cottage cheese that’s worth my time. They apparently make a large-curd version, too, but I’ve never seen it anywhere; it’s not a problem, since I’m a small curd guy anyway and the chalkiness of this curd is high enough that larger ones would only be asking for trouble. It’s worth noting that the ingredients list here is less objectionable than many; there are only a couple preservatives, and the main thickener is ground-up beans rather than ground-up bugs and/or seaweed.

  • Texture: 7. Custardy, with a thick whey that adheres to the soft curds and makes the whole thing into a kind of lumpy pudding. Individual curds, when broken, may have chalky interiors. It’s got a satisfyingly rich mouth-feel, but is often closer to a soft pressed cheese than curds and whey.
  • Flavor: 8. Good to excellent overall. While the chalky curd distracts a bit, the whey is savory and mildly tart, with just a hint of salt. Since it’s difficult to distinguish the curds from the whey in most bites, the high quality of the whey predominates.

Dean Foods: 5Dean's Cottage Cheese
Dean Foods is another major national brand, but can’t compete here with many of the smaller distributors on quality. This is a very boring, workmanlike product, which makes the inconsistent batches I’ve experienced all the more baffling.

  • Texture: 5. Underwhelming. The whey is thin and leaves a slightly slimy coating on the curd, which is almost gnocchi-like in texture even in the small-curd variety.
  • Flavor: 5. Unremarkable. This would probably pass — if strained, pressed, and stirred — as a poor man’s mascarpone if not for the oddly astringent aftertaste. It improves a great deal with a little pepper, but it’s probably better to save Dean’s for sweeter dishes and mix-ins. I haven’t tried it with peaches or cinnamon and raisins, but I suspect it’d hold up well. Quality control seems to be an issue here, since I’ve run into a number of batches over the years with a distinctly “off” flavor. That said, I suspect the blandness here is a deliberate decision; many people prefer cottage cheeses to have almost no taste — to be a support framework for whatever is being mixed into them — and I think Dean’s is aimed at that market.

Daisy: 3.5Daisy Cottage Cheese
Daisy’s been a major dairy distributor for a while, and their sour cream is in my opinion second only to Kemp’s in quality, but I hadn’t seen their cottage cheese until recently for some reason. It’s priced at the higher end of the market, not least because its only ingredients — in a market completely dominated by cheeses full of six kinds of “gum” thickeners (many made of ground-up insects) and a bunch of chemical-sounding preservatives — are cream, cultured milk, and salt. This initially made me very excited to try them, and I still find myself wondering whether the terrible, terrible experience I had with both samples I tasted was a product of mishandling on the grocery store’s part; I suspect that Daisy-brand cottage cheese, by virtue of the purity of its ingredients, is very sensitive to variations in handling and temperature, and wonder if I’d have a completely different experience with it if I bought it somewhere else. So, anyway, I’m giving them an extra half-point just for being made of actual food.

  • Texture: 4. Gelatinous. Both containers I’ve opened have had a thin layer of watery whey on top of an almost completely congealed lump of curd, which improves somewhat upon being stirred. The curd is similar to Breakstone’s in texture, but the similarities stop there.
  • Flavor: 2. Ghastly. The first impression is a stomach-turning “off” note, which led me to exchange the first batch I purchased for another one with a much later expiration date. Sadly, the second one — despite being from a completely different batch — had the same flavor profile. The whey is surprisingly tart, shading from lemon to vinegar; the curd, grainy and thick with notes of chalk, does not compliment it, but it’s possible to eat enough of the curd in a single bite that the disgusting tone of the whey is muted. Unfortunately, then it still tastes like you’ve filled your mouth with chalk.

Golden Guernsey: 5.5Golden Guernsey Cottage Cheese
Headquartered in Waukesha, this dairy produces perfectly passable cottage cheese. Sadly, it’s just a bit too boring for me, and consistency is an issue. I’ve found that you can shake the containers gently before purchasing; if they slosh, the whey will be too tart and watery and consequently the batch should be avoided. It’s got the usual batch of thickeners, including a fair amount of powdered milk; it surprises me, then, that it’s not consistently thicker-seeming, in the manner of Greek yogurt, and that its flavor varies so much. I’m deducting half a point for extreme inconsistency.

  • Texture: 6. The whey tends to be slightly more watery than I like it, but the curds are well-covered and have a good interior structure. Stirring before serving solves some of the whey-separation issue, but I wish it weren’t necessary.
  • Flavor: 7. Faintly reminiscent of provolone, this cheese can be quite good at its best. Sadly, its best is hard to identify before buying; its worst is usually a result of lemony, watery whey, though, so that can be more easily avoided.

Kemp’s: 8Kemp's Cottage Cheese
The gold standard, available in a very wide range of curd sizes, fat contents, and added flavors. It’s typically more expensive than the other cottage cheeses on the shelf, but it’s always worth it — in terms of flavor, anyway; its lengthy ingredients list is a bit of a horrorshow, although most of the items are unobjectionable in themselves. It’s also possible that the sheer number of fillers and preservatives (and high amount of salt) is what guarantees the consistently tasty nature of the product, the exact opposite of what may have happened with Daisy. I find this thought depressing, so I’m deducting half a point for quasi-existential reasons.

  • Texture: 8. Usually perfect. It’s thick without being completely gelled — although every so often you get a batch that needs stirring — and each little tiny nugget of curd is puffy without being rubbery. Whey is present, but as more of a coating than a sauce.
  • Flavor: 9. It’s delicious. Salty and just a little tart, but still tasting of cheese (even a mild cheddar, perhaps) instead of the weird fruity tones that some of these brands occasionally exhibit.

Market Pantry: 6Market Pantry Cottage Cheese
This stuff — the Target store brand — is a step up in flavor from Dean’s, but it’s a dairy Frankenstein; its ingredients suggest that it was assembled from dairy-like components, although that may just be a bit of extra honesty on their part. If it tasted as good as Kemp’s (or wasn’t a fair bit cheaper), I’d deduct points for the chemical experimentation at play here; as it is, though, it’s basically exactly what you’d expect from a store-brand dairy product.

  • Texture: 6. It’s on par with Golden Guernsey, although I’d argue that it’s only rarely quite up to Golden Guernsey at its best.
  • Flavor: 6. Yeah, it’s cottage cheese like your old elementary school used to do it. In fact, like Dean’s, it’s almost aggressively bland. There’s a bit more of an obvious cheese flavor, though; it’s not entirely a blank canvas.

Prairie Farms: 6Prairie Farms Cottage Cheese
Look, this stuff is bad for you. It has by far the highest salt content in the lineup, ties for the highest amount of added sugar, and actually manages to feature every single artificial thickener, flavoring, and preservative found in any of the others. In other words, if you object to any of the ingredients in any of the other cheeses, expect to find it here along with ten of its closest friends; I’m deducting a full point for this reason. That said, it is very often half the price of the other cottage cheeses on the shelf, and tastes better than many of them.

  • Texture: 6. This brand suffers from extreme inconsistency, perhaps because I suspect it’s actually manufactured like pudding: tiny nuggets of curd in slightly gelled whey. Sometimes the whey doesn’t make it to a gel; sometimes it does. When it’s good, though, it’s great– and even when it’s bad, it’s never as bad as some of the thinner ones on here (which require draining over the sink to get rid of separated liquids).
  • Flavor: 8. Good to excellent, depending on the batch. I suspect it’s mostly the salt, to be honest with you, but the whey also seems to manage the trick of being mildly tart without actually being tangy. For around $2 a pound, it’s a tasty way to put a bunch of interesting but affordable chemicals into your body.
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