2013 Taste Test Awards: Fast, Convenient Foods

We chose our top 41 supermarket foods in 20 categories. By: Cindy Hatcher

The 4-Step Selection Process

Photo: Randy Mayor

The 4-Step Selection Process

Each year we taste test common grocery store staples to find the best of the best. Here is how we chose contenders:

1. Foods had to be available in most major markets nationwide.

2. We kicked out items that contained added trans fats, too much salt, or too much saturated fat.

3. A panel of 15 staffers tasted almost 200 foods blind: Brands weren't revealed to tasters until after they had sampled and ranked all items in that category.

4. We gave two levels of awards in each category: Grand Prize and Taste Test Award.

Ice-Cream Sandwiches

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Ice-Cream Sandwiches

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Mayfield

Like a portable brownie sundae: You get delicious cakelike texture from the chocolaty cookie and real vanilla flavor from the ice cream.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Klondike Classic

The ice cream is nice and dense and is complemented by a more subtle chocolate flavor in the cookie.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Target Market Pantry

With a great cookie consistency, this treat tastes just like you remember from childhood. Nostalgia overload with each bite.

Part-Skim Mozzarella

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Part-Skim Mozzarella

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Sargento Off the Block Traditional Cut

Moist, fat shreds—as if you shredded it yourself. Milky-sweet with just the right amount of tang.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Horizon Organic

Ideal salt level and a slightly nutty taste. Melts nicely, in a way similar to Swiss cheese.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Kraft with a Touch of Philadelphia

Starts off mild but finishes with a sharpness. Maintains its creamy texture as it melts.

Boxed Merlot

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Boxed Merlot

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Black Box 2011

A rich, balanced wine with dried cherry and oak in nice accord. Warm and spicy on the first sip with a finish that lingers beautifully. It wants to hang out with a meaty dish, like spaghetti and meatballs or beef bourguignonne.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Carlo Rossi

A great option if you think you don't like merlot—it's the right mix of spice and floral sweetness, with slight vanilla undertones. Try it with balsamic-glazed chicken or something on the spicy side, like pasta arrabbiata.

Boxed Chardonnay

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Boxed Chardonnay

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Almaden Vineyards

A good, all-purpose white—pleasant for sipping and versatile enough to pair with a variety of foods (tasters suggested grilled fish or a bouillabaisse). It has a bright acidity without veering into oaky territory and just enough sweetness for balance.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Corbett Canyon

This wine has some of the rich underlying vanilla notes of a classic chardonnay, set off by bright notes of green apple and pear. Try it with crab cakes or pasta with shrimp.

Popcorn

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Popcorn

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Popcorn, Indiana All Natural Sea Salt

If you often return to foods you first encountered at an early age, this popcorn is right up your alley—it tastes like the movie theater popcorn we all grew up with. Fresh and buttery with a good salty edge.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Angie's Boom Chicka Pop Sea Salt

Great on the go with whole-grain goodness in a slightly salty, buttery burst. Good crunch with a nice true-corn flavor.

Chicken Stock

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Chicken Stock

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Swanson Cooking Stock

Rich, robust chicken essence—like the yummy browned bits you find in the bottom of the pan after roasting a whole chicken. The aromatics serve as a delicious backbone, so the true roasted-chicken flavor shines through. This stock would perform well as the base for a pan sauce.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Kitchen Basics Cooking Stock

Delicate with a slight celery tang and a lemony brightness. Salt is not a dominant note, but that's ideal because it gives you more control of the overall flavor of the recipe. Use it in a casserole or chicken soup.

Chicken Broth

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Chicken Broth

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Health Valley No Salt Added

There's a real savory, meaty depth here. Yes, you can detect the mirepoix, but it's not overpowering—this tastes like homemade roasted chicken broth that's been simmering on the stovetop for hours. It's an all-purpose, go-to broth: Use it for anything from soup to gravy.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Manischewitz Reduced Sodium

The chicken flavor is more of a behind-the-scenes player, supporting a salty, garlic-tinged kick. Ideal for dishes that call for the addition of stronger flavors, like a creamy risotto or chicken potpie.

Canned Soup

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Canned Soup

It's a Tie!

GRAND PRIZE WINNER, MINESTRONE: Progresso Reduced Sodium

Tasters loved the combo of tender but toothsome beans—chickpeas, kidney beans, and green beans—plus potatoes, penne pasta, and carrots in this hearty, filling soup. An earthy, tomato-rich broth adds an herbaceous punch.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER, LENTIL: Amy's

Savory with soft (but not mushy) lentils and just the right ratio of legumes to vegetables to herbs. It has a creamy, buttery quality that makes it supercomforting. Satisfies without dropping a salt bomb like many other canned soups.

Sparking Water, Lime

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Sparking Water, Lime

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Seagram's Seltzer in Key Lime

Medium lime-osity—it's a tad tart but not overly tangy. Lots of carbonation lends bountiful bubbles and fresher flavor. Cool and thirst-quenching.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Deer Park Sparkling Water in Lime Essence

Zesty and citrus-forward, this sparkling water is a great balance of tart, natural lime flavor with just the right amount of tongue-tickling effervescence.

Sparkling Water, Lemon

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Sparkling Water, Lemon

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Polar 100% Natural Seltzer in Lemon

The lemon essence is on the subtle side in this clean-tasting, refreshing sparkler. The bubbles are plentiful and the flavor authentic (no artificial, Pledge-like overpowering going on).

TASTE TEST AWARD: LaCroix Sparkling Water in Lemon

The lemon flavor is fresh and light—it's bright and sunny without being too tangy or floral. Crisp on the palate with a more subdued fizz level.

 

 

French Fries

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French Fries

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Walmart Great Value Regular Cut

A perfect marriage of crispy crust on the outside enveloping a wonderfully fluffy, floury baked potato texture inside. The salt is present but doesn't overwhelm the pure potato flavor.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Ore-Ida Golden Fries

Nice and crunchy, like fast-food fries (without the greasy fingers). The meaty, thicker cut packs plenty of potato into a light outer shell.

 

 

 

 

Potato Pierogies

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Potato Pierogies

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Mrs. T's Potato & Onion

Hearty and flavorful (decidedly oniony but not overpowering), these are a fast, family-friendly option to keep on hand for busy weeknights. The dough stays nicely crisped while maintaining a pleasant chewiness.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Rising Moon Organics Potato & Onion

A thick, pillowy crust with a creamy center of zesty caramelized onions that lends anumami-like satisfaction, particularly for vegetarians. Their slightly smaller size and dumpling-like shape are alluring.

 

 

 

Shredded Hashbrowns

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Shredded Hashbrowns

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Target Market Pantry

These shoestring shreds are wonderfully crunchy outside with tender, moist shreds inside. They taste like old-fashioned hash browns you'd get at a diner—minus the stale coffee and sassy waitress.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Ore-Ida

Great potato flavor with shreds that remain nicely separate and don't mush together into a potatoey puck.

 

 

 

 

 

Frozen Edamame

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Frozen Edamame

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Columbia River Organics

The texture remains just right: not too mushy or drained of taste. They have a lush, meaty quality that would work well in meatless main dishes to add some heft.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Seapoint Farms Organic

These beautifully plump soybeans have the perfect texture—crisp and chewy—they're fun to bite into! The flavor is clean, nutty, and faintly grassy.

 

 

 

 

Frozen Brown Rice

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Frozen Brown Rice

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Whole Foods 365 Organic

Shorter, almost sticky grains that manage to steer clear of clumping when heated. The farro-like chew of this rice makes it perfect with only a simple stir-in of thyme, sage, or rosemary and a swirl of browned butter.

 

 

 

 

Shelf-Stable Brown Rice

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Shelf-Stable Brown Rice

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Minute Ready to Serve

Quick-cooking brown rice can easily wind up blown out and mushy, but this brand maintains a firmer, chewier texture during the cooking process. The flavor is ever so slightly oily (in a good way). It could stand up to crumbled goat or feta cheeses, or heartier herbs like thyme.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Uncle Ben's Ready Rice Brown Basmati

Nice and chewy with good grain separation. The flavor is more neutral, so this rice might be better as a whole-grain foundation for a dish like a casserole or stir-fry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whole-Grain Blends

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Whole-Grain Blends

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Better Oats Organic Raw Pure & Simple

This whole-grain combo (oats, barley, quinoa, rye, and wheat) yields a wonderful textural mix. There's enough flavor that testers felt it only needed a small bit of honey or maple syrup.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Farm to Table Organic Ancient Grain Oatmeal

A good balance between grains and traditional oats, this blend—oats, kamut, rye, spelt, barley, and flax—serves as a base for your favorite stir-ins: sweet (dried fruit) or savory (almond butter).

 

 

 

 

Coconut Ice Bars

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Coconut Ice Bars

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Blue Bell Fruit Bars in Coconut

There's big coconut flavor here with lots of coconut flakes to chew on, balanced by a creamy, soft bite of the ice. Indulgent and luscious with deeply toasty notes of coconut.

TASTE TEST AWARD: Edy's/Dreyer's Outshine Coconut Waters with Pineapple

A lighter-tasting, icier option, it's more muted from a coconut angle, but the addition of pineapple yields a refreshing piña colada flavor.

 

 

 

 

Coconut Water

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Coconut Water

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Nature Factor

Lighter and fresher than its competitors and void of fake coco-flavorings or vanilla "masks," this coconut water is sublimely replenishing. There's a mild coconut backnote that lends a more natural flavor, like "real" coconut water.

TASTE TEST AWARD: C2O Pure

For those who like their coconut water on the sweeter side, this beverage is very much the milky essence of pure coconut. Try it as a mixer in a cocktail or a smoothie.

 

 

 

Extra-Virgin Coconut Oil

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Extra-Virgin Coconut Oil

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Jarrow Formulas

The coconut flavor is more on the neutral side, which makes it ideal for both baking and cooking. Nuanced flavor without the knock-you-out, faux-tropical perfume of some oils.

TASTE TEST AWARD: La Tourangelle

A superstar for cooking, it provides a buttery texture with no slickness or grease. It yields a stronger flavor in baking recipes, though, which some testers preferred.

 

 

 

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