18 August, 2009

Frozen Swedish Meatball CAGE MATCH

For the past couple of weeks, I've been having various frozen Swedish Meatball meals at lunchtime, trying to figure out which one of the various brands is the best. I've eaten five different brands, and let me tell you: There is a big difference in quality between the best and the worst of what's available in your supermarket "frozen meal" section.

The five Swedish Meatball meals I've chomped my way through are (in no particular order):
  • Stouffer's Homestyle Classics
  • Stouffer's Lean Cuisine
  • Weight Watchers Smart Ones
  • Boston Market
  • Banquet

We'll start with Banquet.

The noodles were huge, thick, and tough. They didn't like being chewed - in fact, it was like they were actively fighting against my molars the whole time.

The gravy was strange - sticky and kind of gummy. It tasted strongly of artificial beef flavoring, and there was a distinct sour note to it, and a close examination of the ingredients revealed that sour cream was a component (surprise!) Although the box illustration shows some kind of herb or something sprinkled throughout the noodles, I didn't find anything like that in the actual gravy.

Banquet was the stingiest of all the brands when it came to the meatballs. There were just four tiny meatballs in the tray, and they were spongy with TVP filler. As far as flavor goes, they were nothing special - fairly typical "frozen meatball in a bag" flavor.

The Boston Market Swedish Meatballs meal is a strange mixture of good and horrible. Like Banquet, the noodles were thick, tough, and resisted chewing. Big, He-Man noodles with a grudge against mastication. On the other hand, the gravy was close to being delicious. The taste was well-balanced with sour cream, beefy, and mushroom flavors all evident - and there was even a background kick from cayenne pepper in there.

Boston Market (made by Heinz) is also the most generous with the meatballs, offering nine big and rather tasty meatballs. Although they did have a certain amount of filler, the texture was firm and not at all spongy, and they tasted much more like homemade.

Stouffer's Lean Cuisine, put out by Nestle, had the best noodles of any of the meals. they were light, tender, and delicate - just like properly-made egg noodles from the cellophane bags in the grocery store. The gravy was also surprisingly tasty. No weird sour flavors, no artificial bouillony taste, just a rather run-of-the-mill "brown gravy" flavor that you might get from a middle-of-the-road canned gravy or packet mix. (Yes, I know, that might be objectionable in itself to many people, but after all, we're talking about frozen meals here. Lower your standards a little.)

Speaking of lowered standards, the six meatballs in the Lean Cuisine meal can only be described as "epic fail." Irregular blobs of grey matter, they look like they were carelessly pinched off a loaf of Acme Meat Ball Substance and tossed nonchalantly into the serving dish. The initial flavor wasn't bad (mushroom flavor and beef bouillon) but the texture was extremely off-putting. Kind of spongy, sticky, and almost slimy all at once.

I couldn't put my finger on what was wrong with the meatballs at first, but eventually it occurred to me that they tasted a lot like my grandmother's meatloaf. Grandma never used breadcrumbs in her meatloaf, she used oatmeal. And oatmeal makes meatloaf disgustingly oozy and slimy. I scanned the ingredients panel on the side of the box, and sure enough: oatmeal, right next to the TVP. Gahh. Wretched slop.

As long as we're talking about Stouffer's meals, we might as well look at the non-lean Stouffer's Homestyle Classics Swedish Meatballs meal, because there was not all that much a difference between the regular Stouffer's and the Lean Cuisine. The noodles, for example, were pretty much the same as in the Lean Cuisine variety; not so curly and thin, but still recognizable egg noodles, tender and eggy and not tough.

The meatballs were also identical: disgusting blobs of oatmealy sludge. There were more of them in the package (eight instead of six) but they were identical in composition.

The real difference - and this was not in any way an improvement - was in the gravy. The Homestyle Classics gravy was thick and pasty. A clear yellowish liquid separated out of it during heating (turned out to be some kind of oil. Very unappetizing.) There were hints of mushroom and visible bits of parsley and just a hint of sour cream. The clotty gravy stuck to the noodles and bound them pretty tightly - stirring the mess just made it look even worse as the noodles tore up into smaller bits and the gravy just sat there in congealed lumps.

Weight Watchers Smart Ones Swedish Meatballs are, like Boston Market, made by Heinz, but the two brands could not be more dissimilar. The noodles, while not as tender and egg-noodley as the ones in the Stouffer's meals, were not as leathery and aggressive as the Banquet or Boston Market noodles. That might be the best thing I can say about these, though.

The gravy was pretty nasty. Mostly, it was a mushroomy slurry with sour cream notes. Loaded with xanthan gum, methylcellulose gum, and guar gum, this stuff had more gums than the mashed potato line at a nursing home. There were six meatballs: tiny, spongy masses of mostly filler that were devoid of any flavor beyond cheap beef bouillon.

My ratings, from best to worst:

  1. Boston Market - despite the tough, chewy noodles, the gravy was decent and there were plenty of big meaty flavorful meatballs. There was more there for the money - this was the largest portion of any of the meals - and the only one that left me satisfied from lunchtime to supper. If I weren't so damn sick of Swedish Meatballs after eating them for two weeks, I'd buy this Boston Market meal again.
  2. Banquet - Yes, believe it or not, Banquet came in second because despite the strangeness of the gravy, there was nothing actually offensive about the textures or the flavors. Damning with faint praise, to be sure, but the others were so bad that Banquet actually seemed good by comparison.
  3. A tie between Stouffer's Homestyle Classic and Stouffer's Lean Cuisine. I have a strong aversion to oatmeal as a meat filler, and there is nothing about either of these meals that can compensate for the lousy, sticky, mushy, disgusting oatmeal-filled meatballs.
  4. Weight Watchers Smart Ones - utterly unredeemable filth. There is no way I would ever buy this meal again. Ever.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a post after my own heart. I am a frozen Swedish Meatball fanatic myself. My wife is a big Lean Cuisine lady, and I often swipe her Swedish meatball meals. They are good in some synthetic kind of way. It never occurred to me to maybe make this meal from scratch, I might have found inspiration here.