Fact: I have yet to meet a cheese-coated, cheese-flavored, or cheese-filled snack (or just, you know, actual cheese), that I won't eat. And by eat, I mean shove into my mouth in frantic, greedy handfuls, spewing tiny crumbs as I patiently explain to bystanders, "UNGHHHMAHGODSOCHEEEEEZE." They tend to reply with politely repulsed smiles, eying me warily with a look that says, am I next?
But I digress! For not all cheesy snacks are created equal, and once you do a little exploring, a very clear hierarchy begins to emerge. Here at Serious Eats, Cheez-Its are very high up on our list. I'm talking Takis and cheesy popcorn high. (Um, hello, platonic ideal of snack mixes.)
What exactly makes the classic Cheez-It so special? Is it the way you can lodge it between your molars and, with gentle pressure, split it into two flaky, translucent sheets? Is it the flecks of salt that adhere in perfect proportion to each dimpled square? Perhaps it's the charmingly scalloped edges, or the lingering, profoundly cheesy-tangy-salty-sweet flavor that permeates each baked cracker. Or mayhaps it's all of those things. (It's definitely all of those things.)
But what, we wondered, of Cheez-It's flavored brethren? When we realized that there were a whopping dozen variations on this already delightful theme, the answer was clear: sit down and eat every last one. Would any be able to rival, or even (gasp!) best, our golden standard?
We got our hands on all the flavors of Cheez-It crackers (not to be confused with offshoots like Cheez-It Grooves and Cheez-It Zingz—a promising project for another day), excepting the reduced fat varieties and Big Monterey Jack Crackers, which are in a different class altogether (they're, like, really big). Here's the full line-up, in alphabetical order:
- Baby Swiss
- Cheddar Jack
- Italian Four Cheese
- Hot & Spicy
- Pepper Jack
- White Cheddar
- Whole Grain
Our group of tasters tried each flavor, marking their preferences and leaving detailed comments. Have a favorite Cheez-It of your own? Let us know in the comments!
My personal favorite, the Asiago Cheez-Its have a punchy, cheese-forward flavor reminiscent of cheddar popcorn. Nearly everyone remarked on its strong saltiness, which some found a little too overpowering. Others complimented it as "more funky-cheesy, in a good way"—this one may not be for everyone, but lovers of 'cheez' powder should delight.
Swiss is a relatively mild cheese, and this flavor was especially pleasing to those who found the Asiago a bit too strong. Tasters were impressed by how much the powdery crackers taste of Swiss cheese and enjoyed the nutty, slightly sweeter notes. Some compared it to the Mozzarella Cheez-Its, but found this one to be more complex and just a touch tangier. Unlike its saltier siblings, Baby Swiss is the kind of snack we might actually be able to control ourselves around, without feeling cheated. Oh, and just to be clear, the reasonable serving size I'm referring to is still roughly 25 crackers.
Cheddar Jack was a big hit with most of our tasters. The bold flavor elicited a lot of comparisons to other snack foods, like Combos, pizza-flavored Goldfish, and Nacho Cheese Doritos. With notes of chipotle and tomato, it was among the darkest-hued of the bunch. As one commenter summed it up, "this is like the stiff drink of Cheez-Its—I would get a box of these after a hard day of work and in need of a guilty pleasure. Definitely good to pair with reality TV." You can bet we'll be coming back for more.
"Classic yet modern," one taster exclaimed, "like the over-achieving child of original." Others were slightly less enthused, finding the "milky flavor" pleasant but ultimately too mild to be particularly memorable. We'd happily eat the Colby crackers again, but it isn't the very first box we'd reach for.
Hot & Spicy
These guys get their punch from Tabasco sauce and "Tabasco Dry Red Flavoring." But while the jalapeño, tomato, and citrus flavors definitely make a statement, commenters were not exactly united on what that statement actually was. Several felt that they weren't hot enough to merit their name, and a few thought they had a chemically aftertaste. But others waxed rhapsodic about these "cheesy micheladas," comparing them to "a Dorito dipped in Sriracha" and exclaiming "A+! The best." They're certainly a fun change of pace from your average Cheez-It, but if you're craving a snack food that delivers on fiery heat, you may want to look elsewhere.
Italian Four Cheese
With a generous coating of cheese powder, Italian Four Cheese was slightly more divisive. The box actually lists six cheeses in the ingredients—predominantly white cheddar, followed by Monterey Jack, Romano, Parmesan, mozzarella, and Asiago—and, as with the Asiago, some found the markedly tangy combination a little too powerful. But proponents were vocal and enthusiastic. It was best-liked for its onion dip-like flavor, drunk food appeal, and all-around "salty, cheesy goodness." We can imagine eating a whole box of these in one sitting (though we choose not to contemplate the likely consequences).
The Mozzarella Cheez-Its were agreed to be the most mild of the lot, which makes sense given the character of its namesake cheese. It has a "nice, creamy flavor" that was inoffensive and perfectly palatable, but lacked the addictive qualities of its counterparts. If you're in the market for a snack on the blander side of the spectrum, this may be just the thing.
Unsurprisingly, original Cheez-Its were the all-around favorite. Tasters reveled in the familiarity of the flavor and its time-honored merits. "All Cheez-Its," exclaimed one commenter, "should aspire to the original." They were referred to as "salty and perfect," even "beautiful," and several commented on the unadulterated pleasure of savoring each salt crystal as it dissolves on the tongue.
We like our food spicy, so despite a noticeable "tingle of heat", this box had commenters demanding more pepper. Those who detected it liked the vegetal pepper taste, but wished "it was either more or less spicy," instead of somewhere in between.
There was no disagreement when it came to Provolone, and virtually every taster offered some iteration of, "Wow, smoky!" It's certainly one of the most distinctive flavors of the bunch, and perhaps "the first one that really tastes like its description." But the artificial smoke didn't work in its favor—though people found it interesting, most didn't think they could eat it by the handful. We'd enjoy it more in a snack mix than on its own.
Folks definitely appreciated the White Cheddar, describing the flavor as "funkier and deeper than the original," if somewhat subtly so. For the most part, commenters wanted to take it up a notch, wishing it were more tangy, salty, and sharp. But even in its mild state, it went over well—we'd love to see a sharp cheddar flavor hit the shelves. Those who feel similarly might want to check out Cheez-It's Sharp White Cheddar Grooves as an alternative.
Whole Grain Cheez-Its were another group favorite, and the majority of participants were pleasantly surprised to find that they were virtually indistinguishable from the originals. A few found them to taste slightly milder and less salty, but most felt they'd be unable to tell the two apart in a blind test.
About the author: Niki Achitoff-Gray is the associate editor of Serious Eats and a recent graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She's pretty big into oysters, offal, and most edible things. You can follow her on Twitter at @eatandcry.