They say not to judge a book by its cover, but if that’s true, what are you supposed to do at the grocery store? You can’t pry open that cracker box and try a few; neither do grocery store personnel take kindly to customers sampling a spoonful of every ice cream in the freezer. All you have to go on is a picture, a name, and a list of ingredients. The national brand is twice the price of the store brand: Is it worth it? Does it taste good? Is there a darned good reason to pay an extra $1.59 to buy it?

This is the first in a series in which we crack open those packages and compare what’s inside to the competition. We will be visiting every grocery store chain we can (got any suggestions?), and we decided to start with Costco. The big-box retailer is known for having a large number of store-brand items that are sold at rock-bottom prices and in large quantities. If you’re going to shell out for 112 ounces of mustard, you want it to be good, right? So we bought Kirkland Signature products at the San Francisco Costco, along with similar products at a Bay Area gourmet grocery. They were tasted by a three-person panel.

Kirkland Signature Super Premium Vanilla Ice Cream, $8.79 for two half-gallons, vs. Häagen-Dazs Five Vanilla Bean, $4.39 for 14 ounces

When compared to the H-D, the Kirkland had a lusher, creamier, more velvety mouthfeel, which makes sense since its first ingredient is cream (compared to Häagen-Dazs’s skim milk). The flavor of the Häagen-Dazs vanilla was slightly more pure and noticeable, but the Kirkland was certainly a huge improvement on gummy, overly sweet supermarket brands. Both were about the same level of sweet; Kirkland is obviously a bargain for a crowd (but dangerous for a solo ice-cream-eater), and was our overall favorite.

Advantage: Kirkland

Kirkland Signature Organic Creamy Peanut Butter, $8.59 for two 28-ounce jars, vs. MaraNatha Organic Crunchy Peanut Butter with a Hint of Sea Salt, $5.39 for a 16-ounce jar

When opened, the MaraNatha jar was topped with a vast slick of oil; it took a bit of stirring to get into it. The Kirkland jar was topped with loose, greasy peanut butter, which also had to be stirred. Once stirred, the MaraNatha butter was a bit runnier, and lighter in color. The taste of both was absolutely fantastic: fresh, powerful, salty, peanutty goodness, with a silky, not gritty, texture. But the Kirkland had just a bit more roast-y dark flavor, making it the panel’s favorite.

Advantage: Kirkland

Costco Olive Oil

Kirkland Signature Extra Virgin Olive Oil Toscano, October/November 2010 Harvest, $9.99 for 1 liter, vs. Bariani California Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Fall 2010 Harvest, $14.99 for 16.9 ounces (500 milliliters)

The oils were similar green-gold hues, and both were labeled as California/Tuscan origin. But the flavor differences were clear at first dip: Bariani was lighter, smoother, more floral; Kirkland was more assertive, bitter, pungent, and had vegetal/green notes. The tasting panel preferred Bariani, but wouldn’t be ashamed to have the Kirkland on the table, and some people may even prefer its pushier, stronger flavor.

Advantage: Bariani (just barely)

Kirkland Signature Organic Salted Butter, $8.59 for two pounds, vs. Kerrygold Pure Irish Butter, $2.69 for 8 ounces

While the Kirkland butter was decent and tasty, the Kerrygold was so round and full in flavor that everyone on the tasting panel had to briefly shut their eyes in pleasure. The Kerrygold won out and isn’t even that much more expensive, pound for pound. Worth it!

Advantage: Kerrygold (conclusively!)

Kirkland Signature Green Tea Matcha Blend, $12.89 for 100 tea bags, vs. Tazo Organic Green Tea, $4.29 for 20 tea bags

Kirkland’s green tea is beloved by Chowhounds, and produced not-so-privately by well-regarded Japanese tea maker ITO EN (it says it right on the box!). The tea has a beautiful grassy green color, and a taste that’s lighter and more floral than other green teas. It also has a bit of a pleasant fishy/seaweed taste and aroma, and a roasted aftertaste that’s reminiscent of barley. The Tazo, on the other hand, was described by one member of the tasting panel as “Chinese restaurant green tea.” It was darker brown in color, smokier, more roasted, and a bit more bitter. Not a bad tea at all, but the panel preferred the Kirkland.

Advantage: Kirkland

Kirkland Signature Cheese Pizza, $9.99 for four 16.95-ounce pizzas, vs. Red Fork Thin and Crispy Margherita Pizza, $6.99 for one 13-ounce pizza

One thing’s for sure: Kirkland has the more honest photo of its product on the package. When baked, the Kirkland pie looked exactly like the rather undistinguished version on its box, while the Red Fork pizza didn’t look a durned thing like its package. The tomatoes and herbs were brown rather than bright red and green, and the mozzarella was dolloped over it unevenly. Looks aside, the pizzas each had virtues: Kirkland’s had a vastly superior crust, crunchy and pebbly on the bottom and tender within, while Red Fork’s crust was dry and crackery. Red Fork’s toppings, however, were of much better quality, with tastier tomatoes, richer cheese (though less of it than Kirkland’s pie), and sauce with some zing. We’d buy Kirkland’s for a big party, Red Fork for our own dinner.

Advantage: Red Fork

Kirkland Signature Solid White Albacore in Water, $11.99 for eight 7-ounce cans, vs. American Tuna, $4.99 for 6 ounces

When opened, the can of Kirkland tuna looked like regular, cat-foodish grocery tuna, all a sort of beige-y pinkish-brown, while the American Tuna looked like, well, a fillet of tuna, brown and gold outside, pink inside. The differences didn’t stop there. Kirkland, again, tasted like regular old bland tuna that wanted some oil or mayonnaise to jazz it up. American had a velvety, sexy mouthfeel. It practically melted on your tongue and begged you to take another bite. No contest.

Advantage: American (by a mile)

Kirkland Signature Organic Chicken Stock, $6.99 for six 32-ounce cartons, vs. Imagine Organic Chicken Cooking Stock, $3.69 for one 32-ounce carton

The Kirkland stock poured up golden and viscous, the Imagine light yellow and thin, so I was sure Kirkland’s would be more flavorful. Wrong. The Kirkland broth had a funny, wheaty smell and a flavor reminiscent of bad wonton soup. Imagine tasted more like chicken. Not like chicken, exactly, but like chicken bouillon. This reminded me why I make my own chicken stock.

Advantage: Imagine (but both were pretty awful)

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