Sunday, March 14, 2010

Matzah Wars

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Re-posted from : Frost Street
PS - Don't forget to read labels to make sure your Matzah is Vegan & Kosher for Passover
Matzah may be the least palatable food ever devised by man. But for a week, we must eat it, or tempt the wrath of God. So I've taken it upon myself to find the least offensive matzah on the market today. I've collected all the varieties of matzah I could find in various supermarkets (21 total) and conducted a taste test to identify the tastiest matzah of them all. (That's Frost Street: Eating all the crap so you don't have to). Before getting into the tasting notes, I should explain the categories of matzah listed below. If you lack patience for all this detail, you can skip right to my recommendations.
Traditional Matzah: This is your garden-variety bread of haste, made from special Passover wheat flour and water (more on what makes the flour special in a second). Sometimes egg is added for flavor and body. The point is that these matzahs are perfectly suitable for the Passover table, and are mass produced so as to be widely available.
Shmura Matzah: This is the pascal equivalent of artisinal bread. The word "shmura" means "watched", a reference to the requirement that a rabbi watch every stage of production, from the harvesting of the wheat, through its threshing and milling, on to mixing and baking, to ensure that no water is introduced before its proper time. Shmura matzah is made in small batches, often of whole grain flour, and typically in hand-formed round wafers (distinguishable from the square shape of mass-produced varieties). Most shmura matzah is made in areas with large Jewish populations, and sold to the local community (the most notable exception being shmura matza made in Israel for sale in the United States). I have included in my tasting only one example of shmura matzah, found in a grocery store.
Designer Matzah: Much of the matzah on the market today is not kosher for Passover. Nine of the 21 matzahs I found fell into this category (six of them carrying the Manischewitz name). These matzahs usually contain added flavors -- some of them are even flavored with malt, a definite Passover no-no due to the fermentation taboo. No observant Jew may eat these products during Passover, and no rational creature would eat them if not compelled by religion or starvation to do so. Their raison d'ĂȘtre escapes me, but my guess is that there are many Jews who like to obey religious imperatives in spirit rather than in letter, so I have evaluated them all the same.

Traditional Matzah

This is the grand old matzah of the Lower East Side, manufactured here by five generations of the Streit family for almost a century. Light and neutral in flavor, not too brittle nor too grainy in texture, this is the benchmark against which I'll judge all the other traditional matzahs.
Manischewitz Sodium Free
Manischewitz (pronounced man-uh-SHEV-its) is the Wonder Bread of matzah. You can find it just about anywhere matzah is sold. I was unable to find a kosher-for-Passover Manischewitz matzah that had any sodium; presumably this is the standard product. It is a bit darker than Streit's, with a more burnt, carbony flavor. Some may find this to be a welcome alternative to the utter blandness of other matzahs; I do not. There is also a faint musty aftertaste to the Manischewitz; this may be a result of improper storage, but improper storage may be an inevitable consequence of Manischewitz's massive volume. This comes in a bigger box (16 oz. instead of 10 oz. for most other matzahs).

Manischewitz Thin Unsalted
This is just Manischewitz Sodium Free in a different box. Any difference in thickness or weight is too slight to be detected by my household instruments, although the thin matzahs are about 3 millimeters shorter in both length and width than the regular Manischewitz. This being the case, you'd be a fool to buy the regular Manischewitz over the thin kind; the latter seems to give you more matzahs per ounce at no added cost (compare the costs at your local matzah-monger).
Manischewitz Thin Tea Matzos
Again: new box, same old matzah. The burnt flavor is a bit less prominent here, but maybe that's just because I'm getting used to it. There is one less matzah in this 10-oz. box than in the Thin Unsalted 10-oz. box.
This one's made in Israel, and cheaper than the Manischewitz clones. It has a slightly more toasty flavor than Streit's, and isn't as light, but is more pleasant than the brittle char of Manischewitz. A good value.
Horowitz Margareten
This brand is actually made by Manischewitz, but marketed under a different brand name (I can only imagine the tales of corporate intrigue in the matzah industry that led to this arrangement). This matzah is palpably thicker and denser than the other traditional matzahs, but has an even more insipid taste: utterly lacking in any wheat flavor, devoid of toasty notes, with a faint wood-pulp aftertaste: it's like a piece of cardboard.
This matzah is noticeably thinner than the other traditional matzahs, but its flavor is inconsistent. Some pieces have appreciable char on them, and others are practically blond. The flavor varies accordingly, from charcoal overtones to a Streit's-like neutrality. One thing to notice: The perforations on this matzah are more evenly spaced than on other matzahs, making it easier to control how they break (or come apart if moistened for a recipe). These matzahs are also smaller than the other brands, resulting in more matzahs per box.
This matzah is distributed, but apparently not manufactured, by Manischewitz (more corporate matzah intrigue). It's texture is very similar to that of Manischewitz: dry, flaky, and brittle. The flavor is more neutral: no strong carbon notes, no pronounced wheat flavor. It's like eating crunchy, mouth-drying air.

Shmura Matzah

Manischewitz Matzo Schmura
I've tasted hand-made shmura matzah from Israel, Brooklyn, and Silver Spring, Maryland. This is not shmura matzah. Shmura matzah is usually about as thin as a CD, blackened and charred in an irregular pattern, with a hearty flavor of whole wheat and a dense texture. Manischewitz may have complied with the religious regulations governing shmura matzah, but its product is like a whole-wheat version of its standard offering. There is a hint of bran flavor, and the matzahs appear speckled with whole-wheat confetti, but the texture is still dry and flaky, the aftertaste still faintly musty. This one isn't worth the extra money.

Designer Matzah

Manischewitz Unsalted
This matzah is made with enriched wheat flour rather than special passover flour, it is therefore not kosher for passover. But that doesn't mean they went to any trouble to make it pleasant. To my palate it's identical to the kosher Manischewitz varieties. The only distinction I can note is that this matzah tastes faintly bitter, but that may just be a reflection of my displeasure at having bought four different boxes of the same damn thing.
Geffen Traditional
Like the previous entry, this is made with enriched wheat flour rather than special passover flour. It has a faint buttery taste up front, which gives way to a funky aftertaste. It has a good balance of toasty flavor, and is not overly brittle. If this was kosher for Passover, I might consider using it at a Seder.
Geffen Whole Wheat
This matzah is shot through with spots of wheat bran; it looks like a redhead at the beach. But this wheat lacks any redeeming qualities: it's harsh, moldy-tasting, and undercooked. The texture is the matzah equivalent of a rubber tire: dense but not crunchy or brittle, essentially leaden.
Manischewitz Thin Salted
This is bizzare. This matzah does not have salt mixed into the dough; the salt is sprinkled on top. Every once in a while you get a grain of salt which wakes up the flavor of the wheat inside, but most of the salt just gets brushed off and sits in the bottom of the box. The salt does add a dimension to the flavor of matzah, and this one is less charred and musty than the other Manischewitz varieties. But you could achieve the same effect by brushing the regular matzah with a little water and sprinkling it with salt.
Manischewitz Saltine
Wow, this tastes kinda like saltines! You know why? It has malt, shortening, and YEAST!!! The most unholy thing you can eat during Passover, and Manischewitz markets it in a matzah. Shandeh! Plus, it's not even a good saltine - not flaky enough, not salty enough, not enough shortening. Double shandeh!
Manischewitz Savory Garlic
Basically the same concept as the Manischewitz Thin Salted, but with garlic salt. Quite a bit of it actually. There's a kitcschy cheap-pizza-parlor appeal to this one, but it's basically the same old dreary Manischewitz matzah. The raw garlic flavor actually accentuates the musty aftertaste, which is bad enough as it is. I guess this might make an interesting matzah pizza.

Manischewitz Everything
An unleavened homage to the everything bagel. It contains garlic powder, onion powder, poppy seeds, and salt. It also contains malt: a necessity to simulate the flavor of a bagel, but nonetheless a sin during Passover. However, it does not contain egg, so it is as brittle and mouth-drying as any other Manischewitz matzah. The poppy seeds add little, and the garlic and onion do not get along well. The salt tries to bring them together, but only ends up overpowering them both. Finally, the texture is denser and less flaky than other Manischewitz matzahs.
Manischewitz Apple Cinnamon
This one's a little peculiar. Apple juice is used instead of water to mix the dough, which is further sweetened with brown and white sugar and flavored with cinnamon. The first thing you taste when you eat this matzah is -- matzah. Bland, undercooked wheat. Then a wave of sweetness and stale cinnamon washes over you. When that passes, the aftertaste remains musty like all Manischewitz matzah, but this flavor is accentuated by the absence of the powerful hit of sweetness. I imagine you would have a similar experience if you emptied a bag of Quaker Instant Apples & Cinnamon oatmeal into your mouth.

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