Friday, June 21, 2024
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The Great Matzo Taste Test

Sophia Pappas

Sometimes it’s not about finding the best, but the least bad

Tonight is the first night of Passover. While there’s a lot to love about Passover — personally, I’m here for the plagues and the charoset — matzo is generally excluded from the list of reasons to look forward to the holiday. The unleavened bread, which is consumed during the seven (or eight) days of Passover in commemoration of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, has the flavor and texture of the affliction it’s meant to evoke. But where some might argue that it doesn’t matter which brand of matzo you buy, insofar as all of them look and taste like building material, anyone who has subjected their colon to several straight days of the stuff knows this to be untrue. So we decided to conduct a completely unscientific taste test to determine the least bad matzo that’s readily available on supermarket shelves. While whole-wheat, spelt, and flavored matzot exist, we stuck to plain to maintain a level playing field, such as it is, making exceptions only for gluten-free and egg matzo options. As one taster said upon seeing the boxes of matzo that awaited us, “Let’s get constipated!”

The following list is in no particular order, since everything we tried was a mix of good and bad. As the Jewish proverb says, hope for a miracle but don’t rely on it.

Manischewitz Original Matzos (Unsalted)

Founded in Cincinnati in 1888 and now based in Bayonne, New Jersey, Manischewitz is a Passover cottage industry unto itself, with products ranging from matzo and macaroons to carrot cake mix and the jarred gefilte fish that so reliably stokes fear and loathing in many a Jewish digestive tract. As the world’s top matzo producer, its matzo, as one taster noted, “tastes like childhood.” That, however, is not necessarily a compliment: While tasters appreciated the matzo’s crunch, little air pockets, and “burn and char,” they also noted that it tastes, well, like flour, and is “kind of hard to get out of your mouth.” More specifically, it “turns into wet sand.” Which is unappealing! But also, given the origins of matzo, perhaps entirely appropriate.

Streit’s Passover Matzos

For 100 years, Streit’s was based in a factory on New York’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood that was home to thousands of Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. The Streit family sold the factory to a condo developer in 2015 and relocated outside of the city. Today, the company rivals Manischewitz for its breadth of kosher-for-Passover products; it has been estimated that it controls some 40 percent of the U.S. matzo market. Our tasters found that its matzo had more char and bigger bubbles than Manischewitz’s, and was also a little thinner and crispier. The flavor, on the other hand, was lacking: One taster likened it to a “stale rice cake.” Like Manischewitz, this is matzo that knows how to coat the teeth. Which is okay if you like the inside of your mouth to feel like it’s wearing a bedroom slipper.

Yehuda Matzos

If you’re the kind of Jew who likes their matzo to come straight from the source, then Yehuda is the droid you’re looking for. Baked in Jerusalem the Holy City (as it’s known on the Yehuda website) since 1949, Yehuda matzo displays so much char that it resembles a Southern blot. The char also imbues it with a burnt flavor that one taster compared to a “badly made Neapolitan crust,” while another noted a beguiling hint of movie popcorn butter. “It’s like Manischewitz, but a little better,” said another. All agreed it would work best with toppings, though in fairness, the same could be said of every piece of matzo ever created.

Jerusalem 18 Minutes Matzos

Why the 18 minutes, you may ask? Great question. Matzo is supposed to be baked within 18 minutes of water touching the flour, because, long story short, the Talmud says so. Slapping “18 minutes” on a box of matzo may seem redundant, but can also signal that a manufacturer is deadly serious about this whole kosher-for-Passover business. But that’s not the only reason Jerusalem’s matzo is distinct from its competitors. Matzo is often compared to cardboard in matters of both taste and texture, but Jerusalem’s really and truly smells like it. Or, in the words of one taster, “it smells like Home Depot.” And yet! Its flavor had a bewildering but bewitching note of margarine, and an alluring soupcon of ash. Texture-wise, it stuck to the teeth like spackling — “I feel like I’m going to be flossing all night,” one taster said. Put another way, Jerusalem’s matzo is a reminder of what Passover is all about. “Now that’s matzo,” said another taster, with a mix of approval and loathing. “This is what I think of when I think of matzo.”

Holyland Shmura Matzo

Shmura is the matzo of religious surveillance. Its name means “watched,” and watched it is, from the moment its wheat is harvested to the second it goes in the oven (this is also why it costs significantly more than regular matzo). The goal is to ensure that the wheat never comes in contact with a single molecule of moisture, which can cause the matzo to ferment and rise. A second, unstated goal, if our experience was any indication, is apparently to induce divine suffering in all who attempt to eat it. This is matzo that fights back: against your hands when you break it, against your jaw when you chew it. “If we’re talking bread of affliction, this is affliction,” noted one taster. Its texture was compared to both a loofah and an emery board, though this rough-hewn quality also prompted one taster to note it was “the first matzo I can see sustaining me across the desert.” Flavor-wise, it drew comparisons to communion wafers (fun fact: some Christians actually use matzo for communion), but mostly “it just tastes sad.” Still, unlike other matzos, it didn’t coat the teeth — that would imply it yields to teeth, which is false. “I don’t like it, but I appreciate it,” one tester said with grudging admiration. “It’s good for eating on its own and thinking about your sins.”

Streit’s Passover Egg Matzos

In comparison to regular matzos, egg matzos almost qualify as dessert. Streit’s have a little sweetness and are “very distinctly eggy,” qualities that led one taster to compare their flavor to pie crust and another to remark they “could make a dessert with this.” Another was reminded of a Ritz cracker. The texture was soft and “very nice”; one taster remarked that it would be perfect for making matzo brei. “This is the only one I want to keep eating,” said another, as everyone else nodded in agreement.

Yehuda Gluten-Free Matzo-Style Squares

Gluten-free matzo is a relatively recent innovation; instead of flour and water, it’s an amalgam of various potato byproducts and binders. Yehuda uses honey, egg yolks, palm oil, water, and vinegar to solder its tapioca starch and potato starch and flakes together. The result is surprisingly very good. It helps that the matzo also contains salt; its savory flavor and crisp, slightly greasy texture earned it comparisons to a giant potato chip, a giant saltine, and a french fry. Although it was the most structurally unsound of the bunch, it was universally beloved by our tasters, relatively speaking. “I want to keep eating it,” said one. “I’m gonna have to tell every Jew I know,” said another. “It’s fine,” said a third. “Yeah, it’s growing on me.”

The Matzo Project Barely Even Salted Matzo

It was only a matter of time before the artisans came for matzo. About 3,200 years, to be exact. Founded in 2014 by two summer camp friends determined “to bake a new take on the culturally beloved, but traditionally flavorless box of matzo,” the Matzo Project is less a marvel of innovation than marketing: Its handsome navy packaging goes hard on the Jewish grandma shtick, with an illustrated bubbe who asks “Did you eat? Come and have a nosh.” The appealing fonts declare the bona fides of its “surprisingly delicious matzo” and beckon you to “Celebrate tradition (suffering optional).” In a much smaller, less whimsical font, the box also informs you that the matzo within is kosher, but not kosher for Passover. Making this, effectively, a very nice cracker that is of absolutely no use for observant Jews during Passover. And it really is nice: It’s got lots of bubbles, a delicate texture, and doesn’t coat the teeth. The salt is also a welcome touch, and you can see it easily because there’s no charring whatsoever. “I would eat the fuck out of this all the time as a regular snack,” said one taster, “but it most assuredly is not the bread of affliction.” Which raises a nagging question: If you want to keep eating it, is it really matzo? And if it’s not kosher for Passover, is it really matzo, or just a cracker that did time at Saturday school? Like everything else Jewish, these are questions to inspire strong and divisive opinions rather than neat answers. But as unleavened bread goes, you could do a lot worse.

Sophia Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.

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