Ah, the mother of invention! Yes, believe it or not, American Cheese was not invented so we would have perfectly portioned slices for the lunch box and burger. That came later. But first things first, always.
Switzerland, 1911. The problem: Waste during the cheese-making process. The solution: Melt scraps from various cheeses together to form a new, desirable loaf. James Kraft arrives on the scene five years later. He takes the idea, adapts it to the American market, patents his process and becomes popular in less time than it takes to unwrap a slice.
Cheddar was the primary base for American Cheese, initially. It was packaged in tins and it was not pre-sliced until the 1950’s. The individual plastic sleeves would enter the picture in 1965.
Some say it is cheese; some say it is not. We may not agree on this point, but it is estimated that over 80% of Americans prefer American Cheese on their burger regardless of their opinion about the gooey orange square.
We all agree it is called “processed cheese,” but what does this mean, really? Well, one might argue that all foods that do not occur as-is in nature, that is, all foods we transform to yield an entirely new product are, by definition, processed. All cheese is milk that has been treated with enzymes and either stretched or kneaded and pressed together. Thus, all cheese is “processed” food.
So what makes American Cheese so different? Long story short, American Cheese is real cheese with texture enhancers and flavorings. And it’s precisely those texture enhancers that separate American Cheese from the rest of the “cheese family.” Incidentally, the proportions of milk protein, whey and emulsifiers added to create the perfect texture outcome are the primary factors in generating the consistent and beloved American Cheese slice. Other ingredients are secondary.
The goal: A slice of cheese that will melt without dripping, breaking apart or turning greasy. Mission accomplished.