When I began thinking about the ideal cheese puff, my research took me to an excellent resource: this succinct video, which not only explains how cheese puffs are made, but also the differences between them. A puff is an extruded cornmeal dough that gets, well, puffy as it comes into contact with the air. The crunchier, club-like cheese snacks (the ones you’ll usually find in single-serve bags) are subject to a stretching process that removes excess air during its extrusion, hence less puffiness. The flavoring powder gets dusted on in a tumbler, and the result is an all-too-compelling snack food.
I consider cheese puffs a three-course snack. The first course is the traditional “chewing and swallowing” of a puff, a trait shared with most solid foods. The second course is the hydrated puff remnants that get lodged in the teeth, typically requiring a long and thin object to help extract. The third course (dessert?) is the residual flavor coating that dusts the fingers after fetching puffs from the bag or bowl. Three different stages, three different textures, three different presentations, all in one snack—compelling, indeed!
It’s not just those courses that dictate an ideal cheese puff. I’d consider the following criteria:
- Flavor: Stating the obvious, but a puff should taste good. For a cheese puff, there should be moderate tang and sharpness. Even if there’s a partner flavor, the cheese should be the star.
- Texture: This includes both the density of the puff, as well as the consistency of the structure. A dense puff is less satisfying than an airier puff, and a smooth, airy puff is near perfection. When chewed, there shouldn’t be much resistance - think chalk on concrete.
- Dissolution: Related to texture, a puff should melt in your mouth down to a soggy mush with minimal effort. The remaining mush should have a more concentrated, cheesy flavor than the dry puff you put in your mouth.
- Tooth stickiness: This is the one course that’s pretty unsatisfying since there’s no unique flavor notes, so the less that sticks, the better.
- Finger residue: The residual dust from dipping your fingers into a bag or bowl of puffs is a feature, not a bug, and part of the enjoyment of this particular snack. It’s childish fun to scrape off the residue with your teeth, especially when not in the company of others. The more the merrier, I say. The taste should again be a concentrated version of the overall puff.
I sought to examine a cross-section of mass-market cheese puffs to see how they stacked up against these criteria. Although no points system was developed, I did recognize those that had the most prototypical puffiness, and also tasted good. The results below are presented in alphabetical order.
These stubbier baked puffs had a consistency caught between a puff and a cheez ball. The chewed puff stuck more on the exterior of the teeth, the only brand that caused this sensation. When left unchewed in the mouth, the puff turned to mush very quickly. The finger dust had a much more concentrated white cheddar taste than the puff itself. You practically had to squint to discern the cheese flavor on the flavorless corn puff, though. Besides the nice texture, there isn’t too much else to highlight.
Annie’s baked smiles had a more pronounced arch than some of the other brands, but they also had a uniform firmness that verged on packing peanut consistency. There was plenty of tooth stickiness, but barely any finger residue. Flavor-wise, it was hard to pin down the cheddar notes. Overall these were pretty underwhelming. I may have flipped one of these over and made a cheesy frown for myself.
These are the Vegas Strip of cheese puffs. Compared to all the others sampled, these were amplified in almost every attribute. These were the largest in size. Dense, but not styrofoamy, the puffs stuck in the teeth very easily, requiring decent effort to dislodge. My fingers were caked in Cheeto dust, by far the most of any puff. And the overtly tangy flavor was hard to classify as cheesy. Like the signature fluorescent orange color, this taste sensation is an attribute exhibited only in the Cheeto. If you like your puffs boisterous, there’s no better choice.
These had the best texture. Light and airy, there was a uniform puffiness that encouraged prolonged snacking. Tooth stickiness was minimal, but finger residue was plentiful. What stayed on the fingers was a sweet, cayenne-tinged powder with low cheese or tang. Melting the puff in the mouth accentuated the heat flavors. Despite being more of a bar-b-q puff, these were really delicious. I highly recommend these on texture and flavor, but can’t in good conscience say these are a good cheese puff, so they receive an honorable mention.
This is the official snack of suburban 21st-century parenthood. Baked—not fried—these are often perceived as a healthier bagged snack than other chip and crisp alternatives. This recipe does have some rice mixed in with the cornmeal, which left slightly jagged elements in the puff. The only nugget shape sampled, this was one of the fastest to dissolve in the mouth. The aged white cheddar was an accurate descriptor, with a more subdued cheese flavor. Taken in context with others, it has a little stronger coating. Fingers developed a white coating that tasted just as good as the puff. Though not amazing in any one area, Pirate’s Booty had moderate to high marks across the board.
When I was a preteen, we used to receive cans of these as Christmas presents from my grandparents. Sentimentally I was rooting for these, but they didn’t deliver on the overall puff experience. Small and hard, these crunched more than the others. I yearned for more finger coating; what I got was fine, but the flavor just didn’t seem to catch on. The smaller size resulted in the quickest dissolution in the mouth. Color-wise, these were the sort of bright orange you’d sooner find on running shoes than on food. Eight-year-old me would love these, just as my kids flocked to them during the testing. To be fair, my kids flocked to all of the varieties, but this can was gone by the end of the day. The size, color, and fun of eating from the can appealed to them the most.
These were longer and thinner than any of the other puffs, with again a dense texture. The puff stuck on the teeth, but hardly any powder adhered to the fingers. I had a hard time dissolving these, and unfortunately there was not much flavor to savor after the fact. The bag smelled the sourest of the white cheddar varietals, and the seasoning could have used some salt. There are simply better white cheddar alternatives available.
Similar to the Herr’s curls, these had a uniformly ideal texture that wasn’t too porous. The puff residue had the least stickiness; it didn’t take up residence in the teeth, which was surprising. An acceptable amount of finger residue remained after having a few puffs, and it tasted good, with a very bright and tangy cheddar flavor. They took a while to dissolve in my mouth, and when they did, it concentrated the tangy cheese even more. These would be worth a buy again, and they accurately represented themselves as cheese puffs.
I didn’t anticipate as much variance as I found between all of the puffs. Texturally, they were shades of gray, with only the Cheetos and Annie’s being overly dense. The Pirate’s Booty and and Whole Foods offerings had the closest flavors to actual cheese, while the Cheetos and Planters were boldly flavored but less cheesy. The Herr’s puffs were dynamite, but again, there wasn’t enough cheese flavor to consider them a peer of the others sampled. Frankly I was expecting more residue, but aside from the Cheetos and the Herr’s it was not very pronounced on the other puffs.