Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Cooking

Times' Taster's Choice panel celebrates 10th year of sips, nibbles

When the Taster's Choice panel began comparing foods in 2004, its goal was to help shoppers navigate the congested shelves and aisles of our local grocery stores. • We ate dozens of peanut butters, including natural varieties smothered in oils and those mixed with jellies and other flavors like mint and chocolate. • We've cooked frozen meals, from macaroni and cheese to fish fillets and diet dinners. • Barbecue sauces, hot sauces and soy sauces — we've tried them all. • In the interest of consumerism, we've also eaten plenty of potato chips, doughnuts, cupcakes, ice cream and frozen desserts. • When food manufacturers eliminated fat from certain foods, we tasted the low-fat versions of our favorite snacks and made a concerted effort to try healthier options more frequently.

How we do it

As coordinator of the tastings, I shop for all of the foods about three days before the panel meets. I try to hit the stores most convenient to our readers, including Publix, Winn-Dixie, Walmart, Target, Sam's Club and, more recently, Fresh Market and Trader Joe's. Since the column originated, I have mourned the closing of Sweetbay and most of the Albertsons stores in our area.

Food suggestions come from all sorts of tipsters: editors, readers, panelists, friends and family. We taste and compare the same food item, produced by a number of manufacturers. (Actually, that's how I know a product is popular — when lots of food producers start rolling out their versions of the same item.)

It's important when selecting foods for tasting to make sure we will be comparing apples to apples — most of the time, that is.

Sometimes we see so many new snacks, cereals or drinks on the shelves that we try a variety of them, judging each on its own merit, not in comparison with the others. We've also eaten our way through trends like Greek yogurt mixed into everything from cream cheese to ice cream bars, and gluten-free foods including some pretty good pastas and crackers.

After buying and sorting the products, I jot down their nutritional values in response to reader requests several years ago that we include the fat, fiber, sugar, sodium, carbohydrate and protein content of our top picks.

We're often, if surprisingly, quite impressed with store brands. We also have picked up a few food favorites of our own in 10 years. We all buy Diner's Choice refrigerated mashed potatoes for the smooth texture, delicious taste and ingredients of potatoes, butter and cream. But we learned early on to make our own gravy, forgoing jars and powdered mixes.

Frozen dinners for dieters were a big disappointment. Even in a pinch, our panelists would rather grab a few celery sticks and some fruit than microwave one of those prepared meals.

Once a month, the panelists, all knowledgeable foodies, gather in my St. Petersburg kitchen to taste all of the foods in one seating. Judges Nan Jensen, Kay Hodnett, Julie Overton, Bob Devin Jones and Jim Yockey have been volunteer panelists since the first tasting. They are sometimes joined by the Tampa Bay Times food critic or guest judges, including restaurant owners, teachers and students.

We are a fun bunch. We enjoy one another's company and we laugh as much as we cringe when tasting disagreeable foods. But it's not a job for those with a weak gut. In a single tasting, judges could be asked to try soy milks, sugar substitutes, string cheese, spaghetti sauce and ice cream sandwiches.

"We learned a long time ago not to make lunch plans after this," Yockey said, referring to the day he got so sick after a tasting session that he had to pull his car off the interstate on the way home.

Twice a year, we publish a list of the "winning" foods from the previous six months. Judges taste each item blind — without knowing the brand — and score them from 0 to 100 points. That's why a top pick can sometimes score just a couple of points higher than another. We always include the number of points each tasted item received.

In celebration of our 10th anniversary, we are retasting the foods we tasted that first summer. This week, just in time for the Fourth of July, we grilled hot dogs just as we did 10 years ago.

Look in upcoming weeks for reviews of other foods we tried in the beginning, like frozen garlic bread, green tea, vanilla ice cream and chunky salsa.

     
 
Comments
My husband has been on the ketogenic diet for three months. Here’s how he does it.

My husband has been on the ketogenic diet for three months. Here’s how he does it.

This week I wrote about something with which I have become very familiar: the ketogenic diet. If you’re like, "Huh?" you are where I was three months ago, before my husband, Phil, embarked on the weight-loss regimen. The keto diet is a high-fat, low-...
Updated: 9 hours ago
A perfect pick for dessert

A perfect pick for dessert

America’s Test KitchenIt might seem impossible to improve on a perfect peach, but we decided to try. We wanted a simple, warm dessert that amplified the peaches’ flavor. To achieve tender, flavorful peaches with a lightly sweet glaze, we began by tos...
Published: 06/19/18
Everything you need to know about marinating meat

Everything you need to know about marinating meat

For a lot of home cooks, marinating meat is almost as automatic as cooking the meat itself. Douse the meat in some kind of flavored liquid, pop it in the refrigerator overnight and cook it the next day.Seems straightforward enough, but there are reas...
Published: 06/19/18
Taste test: Chocolate chip cookies

Taste test: Chocolate chip cookies

When we started seeing ads for Nestle Toll House cookies already baked and prepackaged, I knew it was time for our tasters to get involved. They are cookie lovers, and one even has his own cookiemaking business. We found the Nestle brand and had hope...
Published: 06/18/18
Take grilled potatoes to another level with garlic and rosemary

Take grilled potatoes to another level with garlic and rosemary

By AMERICA’S TEST KITCHENGrilled potatoes are a summer classic. We wanted to put a new spin on this dish by adding rosemary and garlic. Unfortunately, we found it was difficult to add enough flavor to plain grilled potatoes. Coating the potatoes with...
Published: 06/13/18
Recipe for Stuffed Beef Burgers

Recipe for Stuffed Beef Burgers

Hidden inside these tame-looking burgers is a smoky and spicy blend of bacon, chipotle, cheese and something unexpected: pepperoni. Because the ground beef part of these burgers is patted fairly thin, there’s less of a chance you’ll undercook it. For...
Published: 06/13/18
How to cook eggs for dinner: shakshuka, carbonara and more

How to cook eggs for dinner: shakshuka, carbonara and more

Eggs are an underutilized dinner ingredient. Aside from fried rice and a breakfast-for-dinner situation, I rarely use eggs in my cooking past the hour of 4 p.m. It makes no sense. Eggs are a great source of protein, able to be cooked in myriad ways, ...
Published: 06/12/18
Add some sweet heat to your cookout with these jerk chicken skewers

Add some sweet heat to your cookout with these jerk chicken skewers

By Matt BrooksBurgers and dogs may be the traditional staples of a cookout, but when you’re craving something more than meat on bun, a well-assembled skewer is a colorful showstopper on the grill.It’s scientifically proven that food tastes better whe...
Published: 06/12/18
Taste test: ballpark peanuts

Taste test: ballpark peanuts

For a time when my children were growing up, I thought I would spend purgatory sitting on a ballpark bleacher. Now, I cherish those days of watching my son and daughter play baseball and softball. I also have enjoyed my share of shelled peanuts. Noth...
Published: 06/11/18
Enjoy broccolini the Italian way: ‘dragged’

Enjoy broccolini the Italian way: ‘dragged’

By KATIE WORKMANOne of the amazing things about Italian food is that the best dishes are often so completely, refreshingly simple. Like, four-ingredient simple. (We don’t count olive oil and salt. Or water. Or air.) I love broccoli. I can roast brocc...
Published: 06/08/18