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Best of the best in the kitchen

Chris Kimball, founder and editor of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, shares some of the winners from their past taste tests.
/ Source: TODAY

Chris Kimball, founder and editor of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, shares some of the winners from their past taste tests. Today, we’ll be talking about peanut butters, orange juices, barbecue sauces, tortilla chips and olive oils. Check out the best of the best below.


Peanut butter is a cupboard staple, used for everything from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to Sichuan noodles. In the United States alone, peanut butter accounts for more than $630 million in sales annually, which is pretty amazing considering that just 150 years ago the peanut was thought fit only as fodder for pigs. Since we are constantly turning to peanut butter as a flavor booster for cookies, sauces, and sandwiches, we decided to find out which brand is best.

Cook’s Illustrated focused this tasting on the top-selling peanut butters in grocery stores nationwide. This decision led them to include both natural and emulsified peanut butters, but only in their “creamy” form, since “crunchy” peanut butter accounts for only 26 percent of peanut butter sales. In addition, the tasting confined itself to “real” peanut butters as defined by the Food and Drug Administration: those that contain at least 90 percent peanuts.

Testers tasted the peanut butters raw, in a sauce, and in a baked peanut butter cookie. After many long hours of tasting, the conclusion was that the peanut butter you choose might well depend on how you plan to use it.

When sampling the peanut butters straight from the jar, tasters chose Reese’s as their favorite. In the peanut sauce tasting, Skippy took the lead. It was in the cookie category, though, that tasters observed the most dramatic differences from brand to brand. When it came to flavor, tasters slightly preferred the cookie made with Skippy, which they described as “tender and crisp.”

Given all this information, what peanut butter should you buy? If you’re looking for an all-purpose peanut butter, you can’t go wrong with Skippy - and regular Jif comes in a close second. But if you eat your peanut butter on crackers, in sandwiches, or on an apple more often than you cook with it, you might prefer Reese’s for its molasses-enhanced, caramel-like sweetness.


Skippy Creamy Peanut Butter


Jif Creamy Peanut Butter

Teddie Smooth Old Fashioned Peanut Butter

Reese’s Creamy Peanut Butter

Simply Jif Creamy Peanut Butter

Freshly ground peanuts from a natural food store


When you buy a supermarket extra-virgin olive oil, you’re buying a big-name producer’s mass-marketed extra-virgin brand, usually made from olives shipped into Italy from different countries - or even different continents - for bottling. (An extra-virgin oil can be called “Italian” even if it is only bottled in Italy.) How do you know which supermarket extra-virgin oil best suits your needs? Unfortunately, this category isn’t that clear.

Despite strict criteria, not all “extra-virgin” oils thus labeled are what they claim. Likewise, tasting extra-virgin olive oil is much like tasting wine. The flavors of these oils range from citrusy to herbal, musty to floral, with every variable in between. And what one taster finds particularly attractive, another person might find unappealing.

Also like wine, the flavor of a particular brand of olive oil can change from year to year. Whereas in a typical Cook’s tasting we can identify a clear “winner” and “loser,” this time around we could not draw such a distinct line. In fact, the panel seemed to quickly divide itself into those who like a gutsy olive oil with bold flavor and those who prefer a milder, more mellow approach.

Nonetheless, in both camps one oil clearly had more of a following than any other - the all-Italian-olive Davinci brand. Tasters tasted extra-virgin olive oil in its most pure and unadulterated state: raw, and were given the option of sampling the oil from a spoon or on neutral-flavored French bread.


Davinci Extra Virgin Olive Oil


Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Filippo Berio Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Carapelli Extra Virgin Olive Oil


Pompeian Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Whole Foods Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Star Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Goya Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil


Now that salsa has overtaken ketchup as America’s favorite condiment, it’s only a matter of time before tortilla chips (with $3.9 billion in sales) say “hasta la vista” to potato chips (with $4.9 billion in sales) and take over the top spot in the snack food competition. Once there were only one or two varieties to choose from. Now there are a bevy of choices: red, white, blue, or yellow corn; circles, triangles, strips, or “minis”; baked or fried; organic or not; stone-ground or not; with sea salt or sprouted grains.

For the Cook’s Illustrated tasting, things were kept simple. Samples were only chips made from white or yellow corn in the basic triangular shape. In addition, all of the chips we tasted were full fat, with salt. Tests included tasting the chips solo, with salsa (testing each chip for its “scoopability”), and in nachos (testing the chips for durability and texture after being blanketed with cheese and toppings).

Tortilla chips begin with masa, or corn dough. Tasters preferred finer and more fragile chips made with corn flour. In addition to the masa, salt has a big impact on tortilla chip flavor. Here the results of the tasting were quite clear: More salt makes a tastier chip.

All of the top three chips are also packed in metallized bags. According to an industry expert, “there are piles of evidence” that a metallized bag improves the shelf life of fried foods.

In the end, the results of the tasting were unexpected. Although many boutique brands make a big deal about the organically raised, stone-ground corn they use, it seems that the secret to a great tortilla chip isn’t all that complicated. Just use fine corn flour (not coarse stone-ground), add plenty of salt, and then pack the chips in a foil-lined bag to keep the oil from oxidizing.


Doritos Toasted Corn Tortilla Chips

Miguel’s Stowe Away White Corn Tortilla Chips

Newman’s Own Organics Yellow Corn Tortilla Chips

Bearitos Stone-ground Organic Yellow Corn Tortilla Chips


Santitas White Corn Tortilla Chips

Cape Cod White Corn Tortilla Chips

White Corn Tortilla Chips


These days, many supermarkets squeeze their own juice, and there are also a whole range of ready-to-serve chilled juices in the dairy case. Chilled juices from concentrate now have the biggest market share (about 45 percent) while chilled juices not-from-concentrate are growing fast and hold about 33 percent of the market. Frozen concentrate commands just 20 percent of the market.

The average American supermarket stocks dozens of brands of orange juice. There are five types, all of which we tested: Fresh-squeezed; Frozen fresh; Frozen concentrate; Chilled, not-from-concentrate; and Chilled, from concentrate.

As expected, fresh-squeezed juices took first and second places in the tasting. The top juice (Bread & Circus Fresh-Squeezed Orange Juice) had been squeezed the day before at a local supermarket. Although no one was surprised at the top finish of the fresh-squeezed juices, the strong showing of the major brands of frozen concentrate (fourth, fifth, and sixth places) was a shock.

Most consumers assume chilled not-from-concentrate juices are superior. These results show that just isn’t so. In addition, testing showed that the category of juices that holds the largest market share (chilled juices from concentrate) are also generally inferior to frozen concentrates.


Bread & Circus Fresh-Squeezed Orange Juice (also known as Whole Foods brand or 365 brand)

Fresh-Squeezed from fresh oranges


Tropicana Pure Premium Not-From-Concentrate Grovestand Fresh Squeezed Taste Florida Orange Juice

Minute Maid Premium Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice Country Style

President’s Choice Florida Valencia Frozen Concentrated Orange Juice

Tropicana Season’s Best Frozen Concentrate Homestyle Orange Juice

Just Pik’t Florida Frozen Orange Juice Fresh Squeezed

Florida’s Natural Brand Premium Not-From-Concentrate Florida Pasteurized Orange Juice Home Squeezed Style


Cook’s Illustrated’s favorite recipe for homemade barbecue sauce calls for 2 1/2 hours of simmering, but even shortcut recipes require 15 minutes of prep time followed by 30 minutes of simmering. The obvious alternative for time-pressed home cooks resides on the shelves of any nearby supermarket, where a host of bottled barbecue sauces awaits.

To help sort out the top choices, tasters tried 10 nationally available sauces, each with significant market share, and pitted them against one another in a blind taste test.

In half of the bottled sauces sampled, the first ingredient listed on the label was high-fructose corn syrup. By and large, tasters felt that all 10 sauces were on the sweet side, but they responded especially negatively to sauces they considered too sweet, including all five listing high-fructose corn syrup first among their ingredients. Conversely, the three sauces that tasters rated highest received the lowest scores for perceived sweetness.

As it turns out, you can do just fine buying barbecue sauce at the supermarket, provided that you read the ingredient list and keep a few simple rules in mind:

First, avoid sauces whose first ingredient is high-fructose corn syrup; it’s very likely they’ll be too sweet.

Second, avoid sauces that include thickening agents and stabilizers: testers said that they give sauces an unpleasant texture.

Last, don’t count on high price as a reliable indicator of quality. The price of the first-place barbecue sauce was right in the middle of the cost range.


Bull’s-Eye Original BBQ Sauce


Stubb’s Original Bar-B-Q Sauce

Lea & Perrins Barbecue Sauce

Content from this article was originally published in Cook’s Illustrated.