ReadyMade, the magazine, did a cheese cracker taste-off recently. They compared two types of commercial cheese crackers (Cheez-Its® totally included) and a homemade cracker, and compared them on price, taste and eating experience. My first thought was, “Drat! They beat me to it.” But then my next thought was, “Mmmmm…homemade cheese crackers!”
Because I am a devoted scientist, and also because I could not resist the idea of hot, fresh, homemade cheese crackers, I decided to follow their recipe and repeat their experiment, to see if their results were reliable. In the name of Science, of course.
So, today, I bring you the cheesy, salty, cracker-y wonder that is…
The store-bought Cheez-Its contain enriched flour, vegetable oil, cheese made with skim milk, salt, paprika, yeast, paprika oleoresin, soy lecithin.
The homemade crackers followed the ReadyMade recipe:
8 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
½ stick butter, room temperature
1 tsp. salt
1 cup flour
2 Tbsp. ice water
To make the recipe, you first shred the cheese. Or in my case, chop it into big cubes and run it through the food processor. It’s not really shreds, per se, but it’s small bits of cheese that will mix well. Good ‘nuf.
Then you combine the cheese with the butter and salt to form a sort of golden cheese-paste. Use a stand mixer with the paddle thingie to make this easy.
Work in the flour. It turns to a dry, crumbly dough. Then add your ice water, mix a bit, and your dough is complete.
Turn the dough out of the bowl and form the whole thing into a disk, then wrap it in plastic and stick it in the fridge for AT LEAST 60 minutes. Longer is even better. Reason: So, you’re actually making a cheese pasty dough here. And pastry doughs need to be cold – they’re easier to work with that way (less sticky) and also, the cold butter releases steam as it melts in the hot oven, which helps the pastry puff up into deliciousness.
So, after your dough is chilled, take it out, split it in half, roll out one half until it’s thin – like, 1/8-in. or thinner. I actually rolled mine out on a non-stick silicone baking mat, and it worked beautifully. No floury countertop mess, and when it was time to put the crackers on the baking sheet, I just moved the whole mat. Easy!
When your dough is rolled, the recipe calls for using a fluted pastry cutter to cut the pastry into 1-in. squares. I don’t have a fluted pastry cutter, so I used a pizza cutter and it was perfect. Try to get the squares as even as possible, for even cooking. Move the cut square to the baking sheet (the silicone mat means no sticking, or use parchment paper) and then use a chopstick or toothpick to poke little holes in the middle of each cracker. Repeat with the second half of dough.
They go into a 375 degree oven for 15-ish minutes. Watch them closely at the end – the difference between underdone and burned is 60-ish seconds. They should be puffed up, richly golden all over, and browned on the bottoms. Remove, let them cool for a moment, and enjoy one that’s crispy and warm. Heavenly.
Time and Cost Comparison
The store-bought Cheez-Its cost $2 on sale, for a 9-ounce box. They’re typically closer to $3. They were, as always, disturbingly easy to find. Like a cheesy beacon of hope at the end of a long cold aisle. Mmmm….
The homemade cheese crackers took approximately $2 worth of ingredients to make 6.5 ounces, and took about 35 minutes of active prep time, 68 minutes of cooling time, and I baked them in two batches, so about 30 minutes of baking time.
The Cheez-Its and the homemade crackers both feature flour, salt, and cheese. Although, what kind of cheese, the Cheez-It box doesn’t say. Just: Cheese. The homemade version used sharp cheddar. Both crackers also contain a fat: Butter in the homemade version and vegetable oil in the store-bought version. Found only in the store-bought crackers, there’s paprika (the dried spice) and paprika oleoresin (an extract from the chilis that make paprika) to add flavor and color. There’s also soy lecithin, a byproduct of soybean oil production that’s used to help emulsify ingredients and to keep doughs from getting too sticky.
Commercial Cheez-Its have about 27 crackers (30 grams) as a serving size. They contain 150 calories, 8 grams fat (2 saturated, the rest unsaturated fats), no cholesterol, 230 mg sodium, 17 grams carbs and 3 grams protein.
Homemade cheese crackers, in the same serving size, have 253 calories, 17 grams of fat (11 saturated, the rest unsaturated), 51 mg cholesterol, 320 mg sodium, 14 grams carbs and 10 grams protein.
Our three-person taste test was split: Two agreed that Cheez-Its were the better Cheez-Its. (Which isn’t to say the homemade aren’t incredibly tasty – they are.) One person, who doesn’t actually like Cheez-Its, thought the homemade was by far a better option. After testing them both, I think, in the end, that they’re not an apples-to-apples comparison. The homemade cheese crackers taste like real, actual cheddar cheese, not generic orange mystery cheese. They’re lighter in texture, and flakier. They don’t stick to your teeth as much, but they also don’t have quite the same crunch. They taste really, really good… but not all that much like Cheez-Its.
4 – These weren’t hard, per se, but they were a bit time consuming. And also, I had trouble getting them to cook evenly, which is probably more a reflection on our oven than anything else, but it was still tricky. On my first pan, crackers along the edges were burnt, while others in the middle needed a little more time. On the second pan, I turned them halfway through, and that seemed to help, but some of them ended up slightly underdone.
DIY or Buy?
Buy if you’re looking for a Cheez-It. This recipe did not create a comparable replacement, and for the calories saved and the money saved, you’ll be happier with the original. However, if you’re looking for a good, homemade, cheese-flavored snack cracker just for the sake of having something tasty (and your oven is less hot-spotted than mine) this recipe is worth a shot.
ADDENDUM: I actually made the crackers and the tapenade on the same day, and so I cheated and used a little of the cheese pastry dough to make little tapenade-pockets. The three-person taste-test found the cheese cracker stuff to be AMAZING in that context. Highly recommended, and they may become a new favorite appetizer around our house.