I’m not afraid to admit that I love American cheese—by itself, on a grilled cheese sandwich, on a cheeseburger, or even just slapped on a plate and microwaved until it’s nice and gooey (a childhood pleasure that I never grew out of).
But what exactly is American cheese? I suppose it’s that exact question that gives it such a bad rap. The American cheese that you find on supermarket shelves isn’t cheese made in the traditional way (milk that’s formed into curds and pressed). Instead, it’s either a blend of cheese and additives, or it’s a highly processed mixture of ingredients such as water, milk, milkfat, milk protein, whey, food coloring, flavorings, and emulsifiers. I wanted to get as close as possible to the taste and texture of American cheese using only pantry ingredients and a food processor.
By making your own American cheese, not only will you know exactly what went into it, but also you can add in flavorings such as black pepper, roasted red peppers… you name it. As I concocted my version of American cheese in the test kitchen, not only did I draw a crowd of curious onlookers, I caused all of the snooty foodies to run for the hills. That’s okay, because I’d take any kind of American cheese over head cheese any day.
You’re basically melting down and mixing together a mixture of cheese, milk, gelatin, and flavorings. The American cheese is soft when you first make it, and needs to set up in some kind of mold. A square-edged mold would be ideal, but an aluminum loaf pan (or any mold of your choosing) works fine. Here, I used a 5- by 4-inch aluminum loaf pan and lined it with plastic wrap to help with unmolding the cheese later on.
I found gelatin to be an important ingredient in my American cheese recipe; with all of the liquid that’s added, gelatin is necessary to bind things together. Soften it first (also known as “blooming”) by sprinkling it over a few tablespoons of water and letting it sit for about 10 minutes.
While the gelatin softens, grate the Colby cheese. I tried cheddar, but its flavor was a bit too strong for American cheese. I was looking for something pretty mild, and Colby fit the bill. Its yellow hue also tints the American cheese the sunny color that we all expect it to be. I used the small holes on a box grater to grate the cheese as finely as possible.
Next, process the grated cheese, some dry milk powder, a bit of cream of tartar, and salt for a few pulses to get the cheese bits as small as possible before adding the hot liquid. This helps create an end mixture that's as smooth as possible. Since most of us don’t have the commercial processing machines that food companies use, a food processor is your best bet. (I did try a blender, but the final mixture was too thick for it and almost busted the motor.) The cream of tartar gives it just a slight bit of tang and the dry milk powder adds a rich, milky flavor—and only whole dry milk powder will do (fat-free powder had an off taste). There’s also a good amount of salt here, but I found that American cheese really needs that salty element to make it “authentic.”
Now it’s time to heat the milk. This is important because you want to melt the entire cheese mixture sufficiently so that it gets smooth. After heating the milk to a boil, add the softened gelatin, whisk it until it dissolves, and then transfer the milk mixture to a liquid measuring cup so that it will be easy to pour into the feed tube of the food processor.
Now, the fun part. With the processor running, pour the hot milk mixture through the feed tube. After a few seconds, the cheese mixture will begin to clump up. It looks a bit gritty and separated at first, but don’t worry. Just scrape the sides of the bowl down and then keep processing. After about a minute, the mixture turns into a beautifully smooth and shiny mass of goodness. Now is a good time to stir or pulse in any add-ins such as cracked black pepper or cayenne.
Though it’s the perfect texture right now to spread onto a cracker, it’s also the right time to spoon it into the prepared mold, fold the wrap over it, and then press it firmly to avoid any large air pockets. The cheese begins to set up pretty quickly, so it’s important to get it packed in the mold as quickly as possible.
The cheese needs to chill about 3 hours or so to get nicely sliceable. While I really wanted to achieve the type of firm American cheese that you would find at a deli, I found that to get a firmer cheese I had to sacrifice meltability. In the end, I wound up somewhere in the middle—a soft but sliceable cheese that oozes gently when heated.
And now for the real test—because no American cheese is worth making unless you can make it melt. I fried up a buttery grilled cheese and sliced it down the middle. Yum!