I grew up mostly eating one kind of cheese. Hoop cheese, they called it; a tangy farmer-style cheese unique to the South. There must have been mozzarella, though I distinctly remember our lasagna recipe calling for cottage cheese as ricotta had yet to make its debut. Parmesan came in foil green cans.
It's not that simple anymore. These days picking the right cheese can be as dizzying as choosing a new paint color. Do you prefer shredded, sliced, crumbled or a chunk? Imported or domestic? Like many of us counting calories and watching our intake of saturated fat, do you want regular or low-fat? There's 50 percent and 75 percent reduced fat cheeses to consider, along with no-fat options as well. For tub cheeses like ricotta and cottage, there's regular, part-skim and fat-free.
To find out what style of cheese offered the best flavor with the fewest calories, I headed for the cheese aisle, and filled my cart. For my tastings, I picked cheddar, the most widely available cheese with the most options.
In general, this category sacrifices flavor for convenience, and the lower the fat, the less satisfying. Full-fat shredded cheddar (110 calories per ounce) melts in the mouth while fat free (at 45 calories per ounce) — hard, odorless and flavorless — just sits on the tongue. Reduced-fat shredded cheddar (80 calories per ounce) naturally falls in between and is a good compromise when every calorie counts.
As a category, these are more flavorful than factory-shredded, but they share the same textural qualities. Full-fat slices (80 calories per ounce) melted slightly better than reduced-fat (60 calories per ounce). Pre-sliced cheeses are ideal for sandwiches.
However, it's worth noting that fat-free sharp cheddar slices are an entirely different breed. Described on the packaging as "nonfat pasteurized prepared cheese product," its calorie count (45 per ounce) is the only thing going for it. Limp and rubbery in its raw state, gluey when melted, this artificial product's ingredient list is well over 20 items long.
For grating and eating, I find block cheese preferable. It's the most flavorful of the styles. It also comes in several varieties — regular, low-fat, 50 percent and 75 percent reduced fat. As with shredded and sliced, the higher the fat, the better the flavor and texture.