Winners (Tie!): Polly-O and Frigo
Runners-up: Trader Joe's Organic and Sorrento
String cheese was always a lunchbox standby. It may not have been the highlight like chocolate chip cookies or Hostess Sno Balls, but it was salty and fun to eat—an acceptable outlet for those urges to play with your food.
Years later, we still haven't grown too old for string cheese. Even if it doesn't have the most complex, nuanced flavor, it has a special time and place. What's the best brand of string-able dairy out there? We tasted 10 nationally available varieties to find out.
We tried brands that were nationally available at most grocery stores. Each was made with mozzarella, none of that cheddar-mozz swirl business or any other varieties.
- Trader Joe's (Regular and Organic; www.traderjoes.com)
- Organic Valley (www.organicvalley.coop)
- Horizon (www.horizondairy.com)
- Sorrento (www.sorrentocheese.com)
- 365 (www.wholefoodsmarket.com)
- Frigo (www.frigocheeseheads.com)
- Borden (www.friendsofelsie.com)
- Kraft (www.kraftfoodscompany.com)
- Polly-O (www.kraftbrands.com/pollyo.com)
The ideal string cheese is salty and flavorful. So it won't be as good as a fresh ball of milky mozzarella, but it should at least be cheese-reminiscent. It shouldn't be too rubbery or chewy, nor should it be too soft. It should be stringable, peeling off in thin, even strands rather than in chunks.
There were three ties in the tasting as you'll note below. Our tasters gravitated to brands that reminded them of the elementary school days. We liked the familiar saltiness balanced with relatively soft, not too rubbery or crusty textures.
When it comes down to it, string cheese isn't a transcendental cheese experience. Even the winners didn't blow us away (but does string cheese ever blow you away?). Maybe the most convenient, portable, and lunchbox-friendly of all cheeses but of course it doesn't touch the rich flavors and creamy textures of many other cheeses. We kept this in mind.
There was still more variety than expected. Check out the range in white to off-white shades in the color wheel above!
#1. Polly-O (6.0)
Tasters agreed that Polly-O had "the most familiar string cheese taste," which is really what separated the winners from the rest in this tasting. Exactly what we'd expect in a string cheese: not intensely cheese-flavored but just the right hit of salt. Not too stiff either, this one peels off in smooth, easy strands.
#1. Frigo (6.0)
Nice and milky, a little salty, a little tangy. "Really good stringiness, it pulls easily into fine threads," said one taster. Between the flavor and texture, this had all the merits of a crowd-pleasing string cheese.
#4. Trader Joe's Organic (5.5)
"Does the job," agreed tasters. It's not a loud flavor, just mildly tangy and salty, but it's a fine option for an afternoon snack. Good stringiness too.
#4. Sorrento (5.5)
Sorrento makes one salty string cheese, consider yourself warned. It had some tasters running for water between cries of "saaaaaalt" and "WAY too salty," but since the gang here is primarily comprised of salt fiends, we actually didn't dock off too many points for that. It did develop a bit of a crust around the edges by the end of the tasting, though.
#5. 365 (5.3)
This one's soft. So soft actually, it doesn't maintain its stringiness, but that limp flop aside, tasters found it decent-tasting. Salty enough, a little sharp, and not bland.
#6. Trader Joe's (5.15)
There's a smoky flavor hiding in here. If you're into smoked mozzarella, this might be your string cheese. "Way more flavorful than the others".. but a bit rubbery.
#7. Horizon (4.9)
Another one that had tasters divided over the salt factor. "All salt, no other flavor," said one string cheeser, while another found it "salty but totally edible." It doesn't have a great string, breaking off into chunks instead.
#8. Organic Valley (4.8)
Some earthy, mushroom-y notes here. We like mushrooms, don't get us wrong, but the flavors were a bit unexpected for a string cheese. "Tastes pungent compared to others," said one taster. This might be the most adult, most sophisticated of the string cheeses we tried, but again, our tasters erred more on the side of childhood nostalgic so it didn't score all that well. Floppy texture too.
#10. Kraft (4.3)
One taster likened both the taste and texture to that of a bouncy ball (though I can't confirm that she's actually tasted a bouncy ball). Plasticky, rubbery, and doesn't pull apart well.
#10. Borden (4.3)
Slightly sour, this one tasted off, plus the texture was stiff and waxy. Tasted more like cheez powder than actual cheese.
Ever Tried Fresh Mozzarella String Cheese?
We grabbed this one too when we were shopping at Trader Joe's (which has quite the string cheese department, let us tell you). It's not really string cheese; it doesn't really string. Instead, it pulls off into sheets. The flavor was mild and milky, a little wet to eat on the go. It's probably best to keep fresh mozzarella and string cheese separate.
String Cheese From Around the Globe
While we didn't include them in the formal tasting, we felt this was a good opportunity to discuss other varieties of string cheese. Ever tried Armenian string cheese? You should. It will put many of the stubby cheese sticks to shame. The handmade braided cheese is salty, tender-soft, un-braids effortlessly, and has a pleasantly squeaky chew. It's usually flavored with nigella seed (black cumin). It's a "pulled curd" so the curds become elastic when heated, then they're stretched, pulled, and twisted into a rope, and doubled over.
Then there's Oaxacan string cheese, also known as queso oaxaca or quesillo. The stretched curd cheese, kneaded and wound into balls, is by far the most popular cheese for making quesadillas. It should be pulled apart into thin strands before melting in tortillas. Over in Slovakia, you have korbaciky cheese from the Orava region. It's made from steamed cheese that's been interwoven into fine brands. Which others did we miss?