What’s the best baby thermometer? car seat? lunchbox? bicycle? acne medication? college?
So many parenting decisions lead us to ranked lists. And those lists make every decision seem critical. If you buy the wrong thermometer, you could miss a key symptom of illness. Buy the wrong lunchbox and he’ll start refusing vegetables. Choose the wrong acne medication or college and you’ll condemn her to friendless failure.
Let’s set aside those heavy decisions for a moment and focus on a much lighter one: what’s the best variety of Cheez-its?
Depending on your source, the answer might be Duoz Caramel Popcorn and Cheddar (reasonable), White Cheddar (passable), Italian Four Cheese (ugh), or Extra Toasty (inexplicable). All of these sources are wrong, of course, because the best variety of Cheez-it is Big. They’re rarely burnt, they have a good salt-to-cracker ratio, and they’re big.
The answer, however, isn’t as important as the much bigger lesson that the humble snack cracker can teach us: how to interpret the ranked lists we encounter, from subjects silly to serious.
Develop clear criteria before you read
When faced with thirty-one varieties of something, it’s understandable that we experience decision paralysis, and might seek the guidance of expert taste testers to save ourselves from an inferior snack. But the fact that there are thirty-one varieties of something suggests that there is no “best” in category, only best for you.
Your criteria could favor spiciness, sweetness, or the absence of cheese dust. You might favor whichever cheese cracker can get delivered to your house the fastest, or which crackers are best for teaching math. Maybe you’re making your wedding cake and you want the variety that pairs best with chocolate and peanut butter. Or maybe you’re less concerned with flavor and you want the color that will give the best shading on your 27-pound portrait. Whatever your criteria are, go into reviews with a strong sense of what you value in the product, which will help you make a good purchase decision.
Identify the ranker’s criteria
The ranker may or may not be using the same criteria that you are using, so your next job is to identify what the rankers were looking for. What was important to them? How well do their tastes and preferences align with your own?
The meteoric rise of the Extra Toasty Cheez-it offers a useful example. If the reviewer enjoys bitter, singed flavors, this cracker might top his list. But if you don’t like bitter, singed flavors, Extra Toasty Cheez-its are not for you.
They’re not for me, either. I’m skeptical about their distinction as the most requested variety of Cheez-it. How many people go calling snack cracker hotlines to request flavors? If it’s ten people per year, and five of those people requested burnt crackers, that’s both fifty percent of requests and also not a representative sample of the snack-cracker-eating population.
If a reviewer offers clear criteria, great! See how well your criteria align with the reviewer’s and choose your Cheez-its accordingly. If a reviewer doesn’t make his or her criteria clear, you should assume that the single criterion was Amazon price, because the rankers were hoping to score more affiliate income.
Check the “best buy” date
Your Cheez-its are probably going to last forever. But a ranked list will not.
Serious Eats—a generally strong source for rigorous taste-testing—has a five-year-old Cheez-it review, which may send you looking for flavors that no longer exist (RIP Baby Swiss and Colby Jack). While the tease of Mozzarella certainly won’t kill you, an outdated review can lead you to a purchase decision that won’t work for you.
Value description over rank
Even an outdated review might be good to choose if the reviewers offer detailed description, as was the case with the Serious Eats review. The overall description of the cracker is evidence of our shared snack cracker enthusiasm, and lets me know that the writers aren’t in the review game just for clicks:
What exactly makes the classic Cheez-It so special? Is it the way you can lodge it between your molars and, with gentle pressure, split it into two flaky, translucent sheets? Is it the flecks of salt that adhere in perfect proportion to each dimpled square? Perhaps it's the charmingly scalloped edges, or the lingering, profoundly cheesy-tangy-salty-sweet flavor that permeates each baked cracker. Or mayhaps it's all of those things. (It's definitely all of those things.)
Clearly, those reviewers are passionate snackers, whose love of Cheez-its mirrors my own, and will therefore be a trusty source.
Frogsowar’s “A Highly Scientific Ranking of Every Cheez-It Flavor and Variety,” on the other hand, includes a disclaimer that the writer has not personally tried each of the flavors in the ranking, which is just bad science, as well as poor fandom.
Ask why you’re ranking
In the end, there are at least two acceptable reasons to consult a Cheez-it ranking: 1) to identify flavors you have not heard of but are excited to try, and 2) to see if your flavor might go the way of Baby Swiss or Colby, and if therefore you need to stock up bunker-style.
But if you hate the taste of burnt food, why does it matter whether or not everyone else does? Why is it that you really want to know what the best flavor of Cheez-it is? To see if your tastes align with others? To see if your tastes are better than others?
Ranked lists are the Cheez-its of many websites: huge moneymakers that people keep reaching for even though they know its bad for them. The same principles hold true for sling wraps, sippy cups, books about planets, and private elementary schools. A ranked list can help show you the options, but only you can determine what criteria matter to you.