Every family has those easy meals they can throw together in a few minutes after a long day. Cuban-American families are no different and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have some low-key love for arroz con huevos (fried eggs with runny yolks and rice) or tortilla (actually a tortilla española which is a thick omelet with potatoes) or just about anything that goes with white rice; and to a Cuban, everything goes with white rice.
This includes croquetas. Even though a fresh croqueta is never more than 5 minutes away in Miami, there are convenient frozen options available in grocery stores. I don’t remember which ones my abuela bought, or even preferred, but I suspect all of these were in her freezer at some point.
I chose three brands familiar to anyone who has perused the freezer aisle in South Florida in the last few decades: El Sembrador, Goya, and Catalina. There are other brands but it’s good to start with what I regard as the baseline.
I deep fried all of these at a consistent 350 degrees for 4 minutes, in separate batches, for scientific consistency. I haven’t had any of these croquetas in probably decades so I’m going to give you a fresh perspective based on my palate and tastes.
So what do you get when you buy a brand name frozen croqueta and, most importantly, which one would I buy again?:
First impression: Hammy, airy.
The appearance of these croquetas is classic, inviting, and they fried to a nice golden brown. Both of these croquetas had some air pockets which isn’t ideal. I had suspected that was the case because they floated during frying more than the other two. At least the crust isn’t too thick and practically dissolves in your mouth to showcase the hammy filling, which is light and creamy but still has some texture to it. You can taste and feel the ham in there. It has a decent ham finish that lingers and isn’t unpleasant but isn’t altogether great either. It’s fine. It’s also the only one of the three that doesn’t have any corn syrup and delivers a savory flavor profile all around.
Conclusion: Decent if you don’t mind the air.
First impression: Bready.
These croquetas are smaller and fried to a darker chocolate hue. The crust is thick and gives you some chew with that crunch. The ham isn’t as pronounced and is sweeter because, yeah, they add corn syrup. But it doesn’t have a strong ham flavor. There’s enough of that hammy smoke to tell your brain it’s ham but there are things going on in this croqueta that feel over-engineered. If McDonald’s made a croqueta, this is what I imagine it’d be like. The filling is creamy and any chunks of ham don’t make an impression. The aroma going into my mouth reminds me more of Christmas spices than a croqueta too. So much so that you expect it to be sweet and it delivers. The finish is fine, I guess.
Conclusion: No, sir, I don’t like it.
First impression: Sharp ham.
These fried to a pleasing golden color and are also classically shaped and inviting. They also had air pockets but not as pronounced as with El Sembrador. The crust is thick but not as thick as Goya’s. You get more crunch than chew. There’s also a little bit of the Christmas spice thing going on though it’s not as sweet as Goya’s. (They also use corn syrup.) The sharp ham flavor that hits you initially mellows out quickly but is more pronounced and saltier than Goya’s. It reminds me a bit of how chewing gum explodes with flavor for a short time and then quickly dissipates. The filling is creamy with enough texture to remind you there’s ham in there. The sweetness feels out of place here too but it doesn’t smack you in the face. The finish is sufficiently hammy and mild.
Which would I buy again under duress?: El Sembrador. I doubt I’ll always have a box in the freezer but it’s a decent frozen alternative that at least attempts to deliver a hint of that classic ventanita croqueta experience. It doesn’t get there but it scratches the itch, which should be the goal of any frozen brand food. I guess.
None of these are the best examples of what I enjoy in a good croqueta but I’m not sure that’s the point. The sweetness present in Goya and Catalina, especially, are also not my thing but I’m sure there are some of you out there for which it is. (A sweet Christmas ham croqueta is an interesting idea in theory, though, that I’d like to experience a fresh version of.) I have to concede that the recipes might favor specific cultural tastes that do not align with my Cuban-American sensibilities but I hope I’ve given you enough to make an informed decision now.
Throughout this process I was thinking that buying frozen brand croquetas isn’t even necessary. I could just buy my favorite croqueta and freeze them for emergencies. But that’s like saying you’re not going to eat your favorite bag of chips or box of Thin Mints in one sitting to save them for the week. We all know the limits of our willpower and I’m a realist, if nothing else. I also like fitting in my pants and not dying prematurely.
Do you have a favorite frozen brand I should try next?