2017 Southern Living Food Awards: Our Test Kitchen Favorites
“What brands does your test kitchen use?" We get that question almost as often as "What's it like to have a job tasting layer cakes?" While working in "the South's most trusted kitchen" feels like being in a culinary wonderland, it doesn't mean we don't take our recipe development seriously. Of course, we do enjoy debating the differences between buttercream frostings (who wouldn't?), but we're also passionate about evaluating the ingredients we use every day and looking for the latest and greatest products, from hot sauce to hummus. That's why, for our annual Food Awards, we asked our Test Kitchen professionals and food editors to reveal the brands they choose not only at work but also at home when cooking for family and friends.
Southern Cooking Staples
Our Test Kitchen has long-term relationships with these ingredients, built on 51 years of testing, tasting, retesting, and more tasting. From time to time, we're tempted by trends, but we'll always stay true to these 15 products.
Red Pepper Jelly
Test Kitchen Professional Emily Nabors Hall swears this brand's balanced flavors make it the next best thing to your grandmother's recipe.
"Never metallic tasting, these tomatoes have a freshly picked, sun-ripened flavor," says Test Kitchen Coordinator Mark Driskill.
Muddy Pond Sorghum Mill
Made by the Guenther family in the Tennessee hills, this syrup has a smoky sweetness that shows up in more than just our desserts (though we love it in slice-and-bake cookies). Add to mustard for a tangier ham glaze, or mix with vinegar for dressing green beans.
From pintos to purple hulls, Bush's won our editors' rave reviews for canned beans with fewer broken pieces and the right amount of salt.
With its sharp, complex flavor and unbeatable price, this supermarket cheese was the clear-cut winner in its category. Plus, this solid block won't break while grating.
Duke's has transcended its role as do-it-all condiment to become a Southern mascot. Its subtle zippy flavor and more yolk-driven recipe are the reasons why our Test Kitchen and other award-winning chefs wouldn't use a dollop of anything else.
Grey Poupon Dijon
Because of its "spot-on spice," our editors spoon this mustard into everything from chicken pot pie to egg salad.
"No store-bought brand is as consistently delicious," says Test Kitchen Professional and Food Stylist Karen Rankin. Bonus points for the variety of shapes available.
This was a heated competition, but in the end, we picked Louisiana-born Crystal. While other brands might pride themselves on their Scoville units, Crystal's bright, bold flavor and finespun fire ignite taste buds, making it a permanent fixture on our tables.
Broth and Stock
"Swanson continues to be the broth and stock of choice in our kitchen—even against some newer, supposedly better brands," explains Test Kitchen Director Robby Melvin. "These products are never cloudy, orange, or too salty."
Applewood Smoked Butcher Thick Cut
Whether we need bacon as the star of the show or a supporting player, Oscar Mayer's thick cut sizzles in any role.
California Olive Ranch
Meet the olive oil with a cult following in our Test Kitchen. "This company does it right," says Melvin. "They don't cut corners in growing olives sustainably or making a high-quality, super affordable product." Their Everyday California Extra Virgin Olive Oil, a buttery-smooth blend, has unmatched versatility.
While we're smitten with the gingham lids, Bonne Maman's chunky, just-sweet-enough jam varieties, from peach to plum, are what make this brand our first pick.
Morton Coarse Kosher
The size of Morton's coarse kosher granules helps our chefs see and feel how much salt they're adding while seasoning for more flavor control.
Southern Baking All-Stars
Test Kitchen Professional Pam Lolley, our very own "queen of cakes," spills the beans on the brands she's been baking with for the past 14 yearsButter
Land O Lakes
Land O Lakes has been the standard-bearer of butter in our kitchen since the beginning. Lolley loves its consistency, which lends itself to lighter, more tender cookies.
So many sweet contenders are crowding the sugar aisle, but this is the only sack we keep in our pantry. Never clumpy, never powdery—Domino was the sugar our grandmothers baked with too. (Need we say more?)
Sweetened Condensed Milk
When it comes to Key lime pie, Lolley doesn't take any chances with store-brand condensed milk. "Eagle Brand isn't watery, and it makes a thick, rich filling," she says.
White Lily Self-Rising
True Southern-style biscuits aren't made with ordinary flour. The flaky, buttery, most-requested ones require a certain set of skills. Enter White Lily Self-Rising Flour, which contains winter wheat for a lower protein count that gives a soft, silky feel and velvety texture to quick breads, biscuits, and pancakes. It's no surprise that Southerners abroad have made this a five-star item on Amazon.
Herbs and Spices
Seasonings can make or break a recipe. McCormick brings ours to life, from the warm cinnamon aroma in cast-iron sticky buns to a dash of red pepper that adds subtle heat to a batch of brownies. While most herbs and spices will keep for two to three years, Lolley recommends monitoring their color and smell. Replace them if they begin to look dull or have little fragrance.
From wafers and chips to bars and Dutch process cocoa powder—Ghirardelli offers a wide range of top-quality baking chocolate that outperforms its price point.
Vanilla is no afterthought in our Test Kitchen. Lolley likes Nielsen-Massey's carefully sourced extracts for their rich, aromatic notes, which round out any recipe.