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How Best To Eat American Cheese That's Not, Technically, Cheese


The U.S. is sitting on a massive stockpile of cheese - 1.2 billion pounds of cheese, to be precise. Thanks to a number of market factors, European dairy products are cheap, so the U.S. is importing more butter and cheese, which means domestic cheese inventories are building up to their highest levels in more than 20 years. And more than half of the surplus is American cheese.

That means the stuff sold shredded or by the block - cheddar, Colby Jack. But here in the office, when we heard American cheese our minds immediately went to that dubious processed cheese product sold in singles and slices. Turns out that's a different USDA category altogether.

But whether we've got a mountain of it or not, people feel very strongly about American cheese product. I confess I am not a fan. But Dan Pashman, host of "The Sporkful" podcast at WNYC Studios, loves the stuff, and he's here to defend it. Dan, welcome.

DAN PASHMAN: Hey, Melissa. How are you?

BLOCK: I'm great, thanks. I guess I'm kind of a cheese snob, but I lost my taste for American cheese a long time ago. It isn't even really cheese, right?

PASHMAN: You're right. According to the USDA, most American cheeses do not have enough milk fat to qualify as actual cheese, which is why they're called cheese food product. But I just feel like it is a delicious food in its own right that has a place. According to USDA, if a food has been cooked, it is processed. So the word processed shouldn't necessarily scare us away from all foods.

BLOCK: OK, so that shouldn't be a deal breaker.

PASHMAN: Right. Most cheeses, when you heat them they come apart and they turn greasy. American cheese will not do that because it has things like - for example, sodium citrate often is one of the things they add to it. That is a naturally occurring product. In fact, some of the leading molecular gastronomy chefs like Nathan Myhrvold, Heston Blumenthal, they say you should have sodium citrate on your spice rack right next to paprika.

BLOCK: Oh, really?

PASHMAN: Right. So the idea - I mean, it's not like American cheese is full of DDT, all right? We need to...

BLOCK: ...Good to know.

PASHMAN: Right. We need to make distinctions when we hear the word processed or the word additives.

BLOCK: OK, Dan, you're an American cheese fan. Tells us about some clever ways to incorporate American cheese into - that we might not have thought about.

PASHMAN: Well, here's a really easy example. A friend of mine's Italian grandmother - and I - by Italian grandmother, I mean she lives in Italy - she is famous for her risotto. Her secret, when she makes risotto - just before she takes it off stove she throws in a slice of American cheese.

BLOCK: Oh, come on.

PASHMAN: I'm not joking, because it takes the creamy sauce and it brings it all together.

BLOCK: And this - she's doing this in Italy?

PASHMAN: That's right.

BLOCK: She's importing (laughter) American cheese singles to Italy, home of some of the best cheese on the planet?

PASHMAN: That's right. That's right.

BLOCK: OK, what else can you do with American cheese if you want to incorporate it, you know, beyond the grilled cheese sandwich or on top of a hamburger? Give us some more ideas.

PASHMAN: Well, I'm a big fan of Korean-style ramen. You make ramen right out of the packet like you did in your dorm, Melissa.

BLOCK: Uh huh (ph).

PASHMAN: Then you're going to crack an egg into the broth and basically poach the egg in there. Then you take it, put it in a bowl, you mix in a little butter, some sesame seeds or even sesame oil and some American cheese. I know it sounds strange to people who have not heard of this before. But chef Roy Choi out in LA, he says that this is the Korean-American peanut butter and jelly. This dish is...

BLOCK: Really?

PASHMAN: ...A classic comfort food.

BLOCK: Do you have a favorite way to eat American cheese, Dan?

PASHMAN: I mean, it's - you can send me to the fanciest burger restaurant in America and I will put American cheese on my burger. To me, that is still classic...

BLOCK: ...No cheddar for you.

PASHMAN: No cheddar. And I will eat it with the cheese on the bottom, under the burger, to bring it closer to my tongue to accentuate cheesy goodness.

BLOCK: (Laughter) Dan Pashman, defender of American cheese and host of "The Sporkful" podcast at WNYC Studios. Dan, thanks so much.

PASHMAN: Thank you, Melissa. And to any listeners who have any issues with sodium citrate in American cheese, you may direct your complaints in care of Melissa Block.

BLOCK: (Laughter) Noted.

PASHMAN: (Laughter).

BLOCK: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.