We tried 10 brands of frozen mozzarella sticks from Costco, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and more.
Our least favorite sticks were from Trader Joe's - they were crunchy but had a weird aftertaste.
Whole Foods' and Sprouts' mozzarella sticks were the best and they tasted nearly identical to us.
We found 10 different sticks and decided to taste them blind to keep things fair.
Mozzarella sticks are one of the best comfort foods to order from restaurants, but they're tricky to replicate at home without a deep fryer.
After all, nothing beats biting into a crisp breadcrumb coating encasing an amorphous glob of gooey cheese that stretches into long strings as any crumbs not stuck on your fingers scatter across the table with abandon.
In pursuit of melted-cheese heaven, my cousin and I sought out every brand of frozen mozzarella sticks we could find and put them to the test.
In total, I got 10 brands of mozzarella sticks. Seven of them were store-brand: Publix, Kroger, Walmart's Great Value, Target's Market Pantry, Whole Foods' 365, Sprouts, and Trader Joe's. Three were from national brands: Petite Cuisine, Farm Rich, and TGI Friday's
Most of the prep instructions were similar, so we cooked the first batch in a toaster oven at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes.
We baked the second round in smaller batches to keep them toasty to test the cheese pull.
We tried the sticks plain and with marinara since their main purpose is sometimes to serve as a vehicle for sauce.
Petite Cuisine's mozzarella sticks are worth buying in bulk, and I'm glad we ignored the cooking directions on the box.
These are typically sold in bulk at Costco, and I've had these many times before.
These are made with "100% real mozzarella string cheese," which indicates a lower-moisture cheese than standard mozzarella. This helps keep the crust crunchy because less moisture means less steam. This type of cheese also means there aren't any fillers, which can affect pull.
The stick was very crunchy with slightly thick, unremarkable, and moderately seasoned breading. The cheese was very soft and mild.
The sticks had a great pull, particularly toward the middle. But the cheese tended to leak out of the sticks, leaving a greasy puddle and empty shell on the baking sheet.
Because of this, it's important to watch the sticks closely as you cook them. If you ignore the instructions on the box and instead follow the ones I used for this taste test, you get sticks with a satisfying crunch and a mellow commercial mozzarella flavor as good as what you'd get at your local bar.
The Farm Rich mozzarella sticks were extra crunchy but they also tasted like refrigerator air.
The Farm Rich sticks had much thicker breading than the other ones we tried.
They were very crunchy but because of the heft of the shell, unevenness of the breading, and the sogginess of the innermost part of the crust, the sticks were prone to separate from the cheese. The breadcrumbs also tasted like refrigerator air to me and seemed a little bit stale.
The cheese was pretty salty and lacked pull. When we attempted to melt it down to encourage a better pull, the crust fell off and the cheese remained relatively resistant to being stretched, cooling off quickly and breaking apart in spongey, semisolid chunks instead.
We liked the Publix mozzarella sticks but they were prone to leakage.
We were presently surprised at how herbaceous the sticks looked. Green specks of parsley had us expecting the complexity of garlic and herbs, none of which was advertised on the simple box.
But once cooked, there weren't strong herb flavors and the greenery of the parsley was just that — greenery.
Regardless, we appreciated the presence of all of these spices, which was noticeable in comparison to some other sticks, where breading was just there. In this case, the breading was nice, lightly layered, salty, and crunchy in a chicken-tender kind of way.
Unfortunately, the cheese is where these fall short. Despite following the box's directions in subsequent tests, the cheese consistently leaked out completely, leaving it puddled and bubbling beside a hollow shell.
Since there were air pockets between the crust and the cheese, whatever cheese was left inside cooled too fast, leaving it feeling and tasting like room-temperature pizza topping. Plus there was no opportunity for a true cheese pull from fingers to mouth.
These also seemed to be filled with the least amount of cheese out of the brands we tested.
Kroger's mozzarella sticks held their shape well and stayed warm longest.
Out of the box, these looked uniform in terms of shape, size, and breading amount.
The first thing we noticed was that the breadcrumbs used were more finely milled than the ones encasing their competitors' cheese, which helped seal in the mozzarella.
With no pressure build-up, the shell kind of served as an oven within the oven, the smaller granules allowing more incremental heat escape to relieve any steam, avoiding cheese explosion. This is also probably why these mozzarella sticks held onto their warmth for longer outside the oven.
The Kroger sticks also seemed to hold a lot of cheese, which had a nice salty flavor and a subtle tang.
Even so, the pull was rather short — the cheese was packed in there densely enough that although it didn't get cold fast, it also never got super hot, which made it less likely to stretch.
Despite having somewhat bland breading, these sticks had dimension, and we loved that they kept their shape superbly bite after bite.
We thought Great Value's sticks had interesting cheese and inconsistent breading.
The cheapest box of the bunch, Walmart's mozzarella sticks disappointed us as soon as we opened the box. Nearly half of them had cheese peeking through the breadcrumb shells.
After they came out of the toaster oven, they revealed small flecks of parsley. Unfortunately, this didn't add much flavor-wise. This thick coat of patchy breading is clearly more for aesthetic than taste and lacked dimension.
The cheese was unique, but not in a good way.
It was less dense and tasted slightly tangier than the other more mild cheeses of the other brands. The cheese looked smooth but was nearly translucent as opposed to the solid white of its competitors. It turned a grayish color after it was heated but as it fully cooled down it brightened up to a soft Brie-ish tone and texture.
The cheese's lightness may be why its pull was among the longest, but overall, this was one of our least-favorite offerings.
Market Pantry's mozzarella sticks were flavorful but we had to eat them fast.
Target's only contender was from its basic, budget-brand umbrella, so we didn't expect this to be much better than Walmart's Great Value.
Out of the box, these were on the longer, thinner side, on par with Publix's mozzarella sticks, and browned to a deeper, more orangey hue than their counterparts.
After being heated, the sticks were dry and crumbly to the touch, but we noticed them sizzling in oil as they baked. Although the oil was reabsorbed pretty quickly, it left a greasy taste that kind of clung to our mouths.
The breading had an oregano-forward Italian herbs flavor, a pleasant surprise considering the stick's monochrome appearance.
The first bite felt and tasted like string cheese. It stayed quite solid since the deep-fried shell absorbed most of the heat and it didn't get as hot as some of the other sticks we tried.
Overall, the sticks were crunchy and held their form well. Of the brands we tried, these kept the cheese securely in their shells the best.
These are best enjoyed right after they're heated up. Once cooled, their texture got spongey and grainy and the cheese developed a stale, milky taste.
The mozzarella sticks from Sprouts were the first to truly wow us, even though they weren't that crunchy.
These are heads and tails above the mainstream competition because of their filling and flavor, not because they have organic ingredients.
The cheese was golden-tinged and tasted buttery and rich, but not oily. Gooey and soft, it pulled beautifully with a great full-fat mouthfeel despite the use of part-skim mozzarella. There was plenty of cheese and its texture was smooth, creamy, and juicy without extruding any liquid.
This cheese felt higher quality than the rest. It also didn't become granulated once it cooled down, which was common in the sticks that contained additives and binders.
The smooth breading was delicious and had a garlic-buttery taste. It was so flavorful on its own that it didn't suffer without dipping sauce.
And although the sticks were thick, they felt delicate and flaky with breading hugging the cheese in a homemade fashion, even as we bit into them and stretched them out.
Sprouts' mozzarella sticks were not as crunchy as the others, but the sacrifice in texture was well worth the improved flavors and quality of cheese.
Whole Foods' 365 sticks made up for their lack of crispiness with ample flavor.
As with the Sprouts brand, these feature organic cheese and breadcrumbs, but the real star is the flavor.
The 365 sticks were tasty and had flavors, ingredients, and textures that mirrored the Sprouts version.
The breading was not quite as soft, offering a little more crunch to the bite. These were also a little more herby and buttery than the Sprouts version. The green spices were fractionally more distinct and the flavor marginally sweeter in a bite-for-bite showdown.
In fact, we began to suspect that Whole Foods' mozzarella sticks were made by the same manufacturer as its competitor since both brands had the same ingredients list and nutritional profile.
The breading was harmonious with the cheese and felt more cohesive, as if the cheese were carefully pressed to the breading, not injected into a casing.
The cheese itself was rich and satisfying, with a gloopy stretch and noticeable heft to the squat, fat sticks. Its color was also on the golden side, not bright white, and pulled out with wonderful elasticity without losing much crust.
Trader Joe's mozzarella sticks were the biggest letdown.
Trader Joe's has mastered many frozen foods — some even have a cult following — so we had pretty high expectations.
At first glance, these looked like any other generic mozzarella stick, albeit even longer and skinnier than those from Publix and Target.
The breading was a tad uneven, but not egregiously so. Unfortunately, I thought the breading tasted like fish-stick coating, which tends to have a more nondescript flavor and retain more oil. The shell was crunchy but it also left a greasy, stale aftertaste in my mouth.
The cheese also let us down. It was on the denser side even though it's cut into thinner pieces, and it finished on a somewhat sour note instead of a tangy one.
This was the only brand of mozzarella sticks where we could not bring ourselves to finish every batch.
We'll stick to ordering mozzarella sticks from TGI Friday's restaurants.
The popular casual-dining chain has a whole range of frozen appetizers, including mozzarella sticks that are distinctively wide and flat.
This was the only brand that came with a dipping sauce — a thick, acidic marinara with concentrated tomato flavors.
The sticks have seasoned panko breading, which should yield a lighter crisp since this type of crumb is dry and flaky while absorbing less oil. But these breadcrumbs didn't stand out from the other ones we tried.
The coating left our mouths with a dull film and greasy aftertaste. On the bright side, the breading was crunchy and very cohesive. Since there were no hollow air pockets, it stuck to the cheese no matter what.
Unfortunately, the soft and mushy cheese didn't do much. Instead of pulling, it just collapsed before disintegrating anticlimactically in our mouths.
For us, the big winners were from Whole Foods and Sprouts.
Going into this, crunchiness was our main focus, but it quickly took a backseat to taste once we tried the sticks from Sprouts and Whole Foods.
It's hard to pick one brand over the other since they were so similar, but if pressed we'd give Whole Foods 365 the crown by a minuscule margin for its improved crunchiness and slightly stronger seasoning.
If a crunchy exterior and mild, cheesy interior are your priorities, though, Petite Cuisine and Kroger brands are good options and budget buys.
Publix makes good sticks if you're willing to watch for leakage, and Market Pantry ones are acceptable if you eat them fast.
Farm Rich is fine, but only just. We'll probably pass on the mozzarella sticks from Trader Joe's and Great Value unless we've got plenty of marinara — enough good sauce can drown out a multitude of sins.
Read the original article on Insider