American cheese is a processed cheese product known for its mild flavor, creamy texture, and excellent melting properties.
It's a popular choice for burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, mac and cheese, and other comfort foods.
However, some people prefer to avoid highly processed foods or are looking for cheese with more flavor. Luckily, there are many great substitutes for American cheese.
What is American Cheese?
American cheese is made by blending one or more cheeses, such as cheddar, Colby, or cheese curds, with whey, milk, cream, or other ingredients. Emulsifying salts are added during processing to create a smooth, uniform texture. The cheese mixture is then heated and poured into molds to form blocks, slices, or shreds.
While it may be called "American cheese," true American cheese is required to be made only from cheese and milk, with no additional ingredients besides salt. However, most brands of American cheese slices or singles contain extra ingredients for binding and emulsification, meaning they cannot actually be labeled as "cheese."
Benefits of American Cheese
Despite technically not meeting the requirements for "real cheese" status, American cheese does have some benefits:
- Mild flavor that doesn't overpower other ingredients
- Melts smoothly without separating or becoming greasy
- Adds creaminess and texture to sauces and dips
- Inexpensive and readily available
- Doesn't require refrigeration when unopened
For recipes like burgers, grilled cheese, and macaroni and cheese where you want that classic gooey, melty quality, American cheese delivers. But for those looking for alternatives, there are many options with more robust, natural cheese flavors.
Key Takeaway: American cheese delivers creamy melting properties but contains extra ingredients like emulsifiers. Some prefer substitutes with more flavor from real cheese.
Qualities to Look For in an American Cheese Substitute
When selecting an alternative to American cheese, there are a few key qualities to look for:
- Mild flavor - Since American cheese has a very subtle, milky taste, you'll want a substitute that won't overwhelm the other ingredients. Sharp, pungent cheeses won't work as well.
- Melting ability - Smooth, creamy melting is one of American cheese's main selling points, so the substitute should melt nicely when heated. High-fat, soft cheese tends to melt better.
- Soft texture - The processed nature of American cheese gives it a soft, almost rubbery texture. The substitute should be pliable enough to slice. Firm, crumbly cheese won't have the right mouthfeel.
- Mild aroma - American cheese has almost no discernable scent. Alternatives with stronger scents from aging or spices can be overpowering.
- Compatible flavor - Pick a substitute that will complement the other flavors in your dish rather than clash with them.
Keeping these qualities in mind, let's look at some of the top substitutes for American cheese.
Perhaps the most popular alternative is regular cheddar cheese. Cheddar makes up a large part of most American cheese products. When young and mild, the flavor profile of cheddar is similar. It provides the quintessential cheesy, slightly tangy taste.
For the best results, choose a young, mild cheddar rather than an aged, sharp variety, which will have a stronger scent and more crumbly texture. The younger the cheddar cheese, the milder it will be. White cheddar also has a very subtle flavor.
Cheddar melts beautifully, although not quite as smoothly as American cheese. Still, it's a great option for burgers, paninis, grilled cheese, and casseroles when you want real cheese flavor without a drastic change.
Key Takeaway: Young, mild cheddar cheese makes a tasty, melty alternative to American cheese with more authentic flavor.
Named after the town of Colby, Wisconsin, this cheese was originally created as a milder version of cheddar. To make Colby, cheddar curds are washed of some lactose, creating a softer, sweeter cheese.
With its subtle flavor, Colby mimics the taste of American cheese nicely. It melts a bit more smoothly than even mild cheddar. In fact, along with cheddar, it's commonly blended into processed American cheese products.
For those who want authentic cheese flavor with melting properties close to American, Colby is an excellent choice. Use it on burgers, grilled cheese, nachos, or casseroles for familiar cheesy goodness.
Monterey Jack Cheese
Hailing from California, Monterey Jack has an equally mild flavor and velvety texture. With its high moisture content, it melts superbly without oiliness. Monterey Jack is a common component of Tex-Mex foods like quesadillas, chilis, and tacos.
On burgers or sandwiches, Monterey Jack provides melty, creamy goodness while letting other ingredients shine through. It also has enough body to slice or shred nicely. For an American cheese substitute with a bit more flavor, try pepper jack, which has peppers mixed in.
Despite its European roots, Muenster cheese makes for a seamless substitution. It has a similar soft, smooth texture and pale yellow color like American cheese. The flavor is mildly nutty and buttery without strong scent or sharpness.
When melted, Muenster cheese retains its softness while adding luxurious richness. It works well in grilled cheese sandwiches, on burgers, pizza, casseroles, and more. With both the taste and meltability close to American cheese, Muenster is worth trying.
This Danish semi-soft cheese has a subtle flavor that adapts well to different dishes. Smooth and creamy when sliced, Havarti melts beautifully, especially when used in sandwiches or atop baked dishes.
Compared to American cheese, Havarti is less processed and brings more authentic buttery flavor. At the same time, it remains mild enough not to dominate the other ingredients. Give Havarti a try when you want a melty, creamy cheese without the added ingredients.
Fontina is a semi-soft Italian cheese praised for its creaminess and meltability. It has a deliciously nutty, earthy flavor that's stronger than American cheese but still mellow enough for many uses.
The buttery texture melts down seamlessly, making Fontina perfect for pasta, paninis, risottos, soups, and baking. While it may not exactly mimic American cheese, Fontina can add rich cheesiness without an overly sharp bite.
This Dutch cheese ranges from mild to aged with assertive, complex flavors. Young gouda, however, has a delicately sweet profile resembling American cheese. It melts smoothly without oil separation.
The mild gouda varieties work well in grilled cheese, sandwiches, soups, sauces, and anywhere you want cheesy richness. Aged gouda has a harder texture and stronger scent. So stick to the young styles for an American cheese substitute.
Fresh mozzarella is valued for its melty, stringy properties on pizza. Low-moisture mozzarella has a bit more tang and is excellent for melting in baked dishes. While it lacks the salty flavor of American cheese, mozzarella brings creaminess and tends not to have a sharp flavor.
Part-skim mozzarella will have the mildest taste for sandwiches, burgers, and as a melty topping. Mozzarella is ideal any time you want gentle cheesy appeal without a distinctive aged cheese aroma.
Despite the name, Swiss cheese originated in the United States, inspired by Swiss Emmental. With a pale yellow color and distinctive holes, Swiss has a nutty, mildly sweet flavor that makes it incredibly versatile.
Compared to pungent cheeses like gruyere, Swiss cheese tastes more subtle and pairs well with other sandwich ingredients. It also melts smoothly. Use sliced Swiss for melty, sophisticated cheeseburgers, paninis, and croque monsieurs.
Available as both sliced and shredded varieties, provolone cheese has a creamy, smooth texture with a mild tang. The flavor remains delicate and buttery even when melted. Provolone comes in smoked and unsmoked versions.
With its easy meltability and mildness, provolone cheese makes an adaptable replacement for American cheese. Use it on pizzas, pastas, sandwiches, in baked dishes, or any recipe calling for ooey, gooey cheese.
Technically not cheese, Velveeta is actually a "pasteurized prepared cheese product." While it's also highly processed, the similarity in melting properties and flavor make it a handy substitute. Velveeta provides the smooth, creamy texture of melted American cheese.
Use Velveeta in cheese sauces, dips, mac and cheese, or nachos when you want super creamy, liquid cheese. The flavor has a characteristic salty tanginess. Just be aware it's not a natural cheese alternative.
In a pinch, cream cheese can mimic some properties of American cheese thanks to its rich texture and salty tang. It won't melt in quite the same way and lacks the cheesy flavor, but it can add a creamy boost to dips, spreads, sauces, soups, and baked goods.
Whipped or soft cream cheese is easiest to blend into recipes needing melted American cheese. The flavor won't be authentic, but you'll gain a similar velvety richness and mouthfeel.
Make Your Own
For full control over ingredients, you can make DIY American cheese at home. Combining real cheeses like cheddar or Colby with milk, cream, and a touch of emulsifying salts, you can get the ideal texture and flavor. Homemade American cheese slices are freezer-friendly too.
With a variety of natural, melty cheeses to choose from, there are ample alternatives to processed American cheese. Taste test mild cheddars, Colby, Monterey jack, Havarti, gouda, and Fontina to find your favorite. With options like these, you needn't settle for less flavor.
What is the best alternative for American cheese on a burger?
For burgers, mild cheddar, Monterey jack, Muenster, and provolone all melt well and provide a tasty alternative to American cheese. Avoid assertive cheeses that will overpower the other burger flavors.
What cheese has a similar melting point to American cheese?
Muenster, Colby, and certain mild cheddars have excellent melting properties on par with American cheese. Soft cheeses with higher moisture content tend to melt most smoothly.
Is there a healthier alternative to American cheese?
Yes, most natural cheeses like cheddar, Colby, Monterey jack, and Havarti are healthier than highly processed American cheese. They contain less added ingredients and preservatives.
What is the most authentic, natural substitute for American cheese?
For the closest flavor and texture to actual cheese rather than a processed cheese product, mild or young cheddar and Colby are your best options. They authentically mimic American cheese.
Will all cheeses work as substitutes for American cheese?
No, you'll want to avoid hard, crumbly cheeses or those with very strong flavors and scents. The best substitutes will be semi-soft with a mild, buttery taste and decent melt.
What is a good substitute for American cheese for those who can't eat dairy?
Some good non-dairy substitutes for the creamy texture of American cheese include cashew cheese, soy-based cheese products, vegan cheese sauce made with nutritional yeast, and coconut milk-based cheese sauces.
Can I use cream cheese as an American cheese substitute?
In a pinch, cream cheese can substitute for some properties of American cheese like a creamy texture and salty tang. However, it won't melt or taste the same. Use it sparingly and combine it with real cheese.
American cheese will always have a place in classic Americana recipes where its meltiness and mild flavor shine. But you have the option to branch out and enjoy bolder, more natural cheese flavors as well.
With a young cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack, Muenster, or Havarti, you can achieve melty perfection with more nuanced cheesy goodness.