Best Au Gratin Potatoes? We Rank the House Brands

Best au gratin potatoesIt was practically yesterday when we gobbled up our Thanksgiving turkeys and more holiday cooking is just ahead. And if money wasn't tight in November, it's tight now, with all the gifts to get. December is not a great month for the college kid's wallet.

That's why buying store brands is particularly important this time of year -- so long as they're worth it. Last month, Store Brand Scorecard reviewed national-brand and store-brand varieties of classic Thanksgiving sides such as cornbread stuffing, jellied cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. In all three tests, the most expensive weren't the best.

We'll see if that's the case for each of the next three weeks' columns as we test dishes for the season. First up is au gratin potatoes: a classic, cheesy, and easy comfort dish, perfect for keeping you warm.The following brands were purchased Nov. 6 in the Chicago area, so prices are subject to change. Also important to note: the nutritional facts listed are for the products as packaged. Once you start adding milk and butter or margarine, the calories, fat, etc. will climb.

Brand Name: Betty Crocker (General Mills)
Cost: $1.77 at SuperTarget; $1.99 at a Chicago-area grocery store.
Size: 4.7 oz.
Nutritional Facts: (for 1 oz.) 90 calories (0 from fat); 0 grams of total fat (0% recommended daily value); 590 milligrams of sodium (24% recommended daily value); 22 grams of total carbohydrates (7% recommended daily value)
Taste: We'll admit we had the highest expectations for Betty Crocker; for years that brand name has been so synonymous with home cookin' that Betty's practically family. Alas, she let us down. The potatoes cooked up nicely, though they were a bit too chewy. But our biggest problem was with the thin sauce. Its wateriness diluted what should have been gooey goodness.

The Big Box Store: SuperTarget
Brand Name: Market Pantry
Cost: $1.34
Size: 5.25 oz.
Nutritional Facts: (for 1 oz.) 100 calories (10 from fat); 1.5 grams of total fat (2% recommended daily value); 570 milligrams of sodium (24% recommended daily value); 20 grams of total carbohydrates (7% of recommended daily value)
Taste: Since Store Brand Scorecard launched in March, Target's Market Pantry brand has rarely beat out its competitors. But it's got a great formula for au gratin potatoes. The potatoes were less chewy than Betty's, and the creamy, cheesy sauce was exquisite.

The Grocery Store: Jewel-Osco (owned and operated by Supervalu, number 47 on the Fortune 500 list. Other Suprvalu retailers include Shop 'n Save and Albertsons, and is number 47 on the Fortune 500 list)
Brand Name: Jewel
Cost: $1.39
Size: 5.25 oz.
Nutritional Facts: (for 1 oz.) 100 calories (10 from fat); 1.5 grams of total fat (2% recommended daily value); 570 milligrams of sodium (24% recommended daily value); 20 grams of total carbohydrates (7% of recommended daily value)
Taste: Same nutritional facts as Target's Market Pantry, but with the same terrific taste, we're not complaining.

The Mini Market: Aldi
Brand Name: Valley View
Cost: 99 cents
Size: 4.9 oz.
Nutritional Facts: (for 1 oz.) 100 calories (10 from fat); 1 gram of total fat (2% recommended daily value); 590 milligrams of sodium (25% recommended daily value); 20 grams of total carbohydrates (7% of recommended daily value)
Taste: Betty's potatoes were disappointing, Target and Jewel's scrumptious, but this brand? Just bad, due to an icky, artificial-tasting sauce.

Greatest Value: Only a Scrooge would serve Aldi's au gratin potatoes this holiday season just because it's cheap. It's the culinary equivalent of a lump of coal in your stocking. On a scale of 0 to 10, this one gets a value score of 2.

Betty Crocker comes in third with a value score of 4, for being the most expensive brand of potatoes (with a smaller serving size than Target and Jewel), and also one of the weakest tasting. Sorry Betty, you've been beat.

That leaves Target's Market Pantry and Jewel-Osco's Jewel brand fighting neck and neck for the top prize. You can't go wrong with either brand -- both are delicious, as good as you'll get without making au gratin potatoes from scratch. They're both the same serving size. And they're both comparably priced.

But that nickel difference is enough to push Target to the top. Target's Market Pantry wins with a value score of 9. But it seems unfair to give Jewel a score of 8 for costing just five extra cents, so in a Store Brand Scorecard first, we're awarding that brand an 8.9. Hey, it's the holidays ... we can be a bit generous.

Over the next two weeks, come back for reviews of hot cocoa and bake-'em-yourself cookies and brownies.

Piet Levy's Store Brand Scorecard tests a major label food product and three private label equivalents to see which brand offers the best value for the price. It appears every Monday on WalletPop's Money College page.

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