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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.

Memorable samplings

Food with most options

Organic eggs. We scrambled 23 types, with flavors that ranged from rubber to flowers to fish.

Best tasting experiences

Hula Hula ice cream, a limited edition made by Publix with macadamia nuts and caramel swirls. Kathy Saunders liked it so much she gave it to friends as gifts and took it to potluck parties.

And Martha White coffee cake mix. We ate so much of the warm cinnamon streusel that a couple of us had to ban it from our households.

Worst tasting experiences

19 Caesar salad dressings in one day. Since that tasting in 2005, we split the tastings when we have more than a dozen items and publish two columns on the same food. (We'll do that with salsa next month.) It gives readers six, instead of three, top choices and gives tasters time to cleanse their palates — or recover.

Another panelist had not-so-fond memories of the time we tried balsamic vinegars and chocolate milk on the same day.

Most surprising thing we liked

Canned salmon. We tested six brands of canned pink salmon by molding the salmon into patties and sauteing them lightly. They were delicious.

Times' Taster's Choice panel celebrates 10th year of sips, nibbles 06/23/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 24, 2014 2:23pm]

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