I have a sweet tooth and am always looking for the right cookie to eat with my midmorning coffee or afternoon tea. Something not too sweet, just the right kind of crisp, crunch, and flavor to match the hot (or cold) beverage of the moment. I was browsing the cookie aisle when I saw the old familiar Barnum’s Animal Crackers, you know, the little red box with the cutout handle?

When I was a child, those were 20 cents a box and they had a string handle, and the wheels were punchouts on the box so you could make an actual toy out of the empty. Back then, the animals were still in cages (so were most real zoo and circus animals), but circuses are on their way out, zoos have gotten much better, and even the creatures on a box of Barnum are free to roam the savanna now, thanks to PETA.

I wondered if the originals were better than the organic vanilla ones, or the gluten-free variety, or the generic package, or the pink and white iced animal cookies. This led me on a multi-store steeplechase to find as many varieties as I could, and I began tasting—and comparing. If you thought animal crackers were only for tiny humans, you’re wrong. Consider pairing a handful of animal crackers with dark chocolate and fresh raspberries and a glass of prosecco with a splash of Chambord. Or pouring yourself a bowlful of animal crackers with a handful of blueberries and some vanilla almond milk poured over. I’m just sayin!

As it happens, Sunday, April 18, is National Animal Cracker Day, so what better motive is there to grab a box of fauna-shaped treats and try a pairing today?

In brief, my favorite cracker is the wholesome and organic Kodiak bear crackers, with a flavor like eating a stack of pancakes. Dip them in maple syrup or honey for a treat. My favorite basic animal cracker was O Organics, from Safeway, which also comes in small boxes or snack packs. These are tasty and not bad for you (organic, good ingredients). Great animal shapes, too. My favorite of flavored crackers was the chocolate version of O Organics – so yummy; but Trader Joe’s cat crackers are a regular in this house. Baby’s delicious treat, the Gerber animal cookies, are good enough to steal from your tot, and Elmo’s crackers are an awesome savory snack.

Where these treats failed was in the gluten-free category (womp womp), which is bad luck for people with gluten issues. The taste is just so synthetic, no matter which brand. Also, if you try to go super-cheap and get the big sack of Gamesa or other brands in the Hispanic foods aisle, you may be disappointed in the quality; these tended to more of a clove or lemon undertone, contain palm oil, which is a big no-no in our book. Same goes for my fond childhood favorite, Mother’s frosted pink and white Circus Animal cookies – palm oil! No!

Consider adding animal crackers to your dessert or charcuterie board—no, seriously. Check out our tasting notes, pairings and serving suggestions in the chart below.

Notes: We tried 22 brands, purchased at many Northern California stores, as well as mail-ordered several other brands. Rankings may not reflect what brands are available in your local/regional markets.

TRIVIA

  • What’s the difference between a cookie and a cracker? It the layering of the fats, such as butter or lard, in the mixing and rolling process, that makes a cracker instead of a cookie.
  • The National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) created the familiar red box as a Christmas ornament, meant to be hung on the tree, in 1906.
  • Stauffer’s is the oldest brand of animal crackers in America, first baked in York, PA, in 1871. But the idea for animal crackers was British.
  • In 2018, Nabisco, at the urging of PETA, let the animals out of their cages and onto the African savanna.
  • Pinterest has lots of ideas for making your own or using store-bought crackers in various recipes, from savory furikake crackers to circus animal “brookie” recipes.

 

THE RANKINGS

Brand Detail Shape notes Flavor notes Goes with Try it
01. Kodiak Bear Bites Baked Frontier Crackers Three shapes: Bear’s face, bear body, bear paw. These are technically graham crackers, but they are just barely sweet, with a texture that’s a bit grainy like cornmeal (that’s the malted barley). These have honey and whole grains and taste like a pancake or waffle. Favorite of all products sampled. Ginger beer (Cock & Bull recommended for sharpest ginger flavor) Dip in honey or 100% maple syrup as a snack, or eat with plain Greek yogurt drizzled with honey and chopped almonds.
02. O Organics Vanilla Cookies Pressed with many distinct details: Farm animals – sheep, pig, cow, chicken, horse. Safeway organic brand. Very sweet – a handful is enough. Also comes in small box with handle. Strong vanilla flavor. Prosecco with a splash of Chambord A dessert cookie with chocolate or coffee ice cream, and fresh raspberries.
03. O Organics CHOCOLATE Animal Cookies Pressed with many distinct details: Farm animals – sheep, pig, cow, chicken, horse. Best chocolate of all chocolate-flavored crackers. Good dark dutch-cocoa taste, crisp and crunchy. Flat white or any high-froth latte. Pair with chocolate-covered goji berries or pomegranate arils.
04. Gerber Animal Crackers Whole Grain Cinnamon Grahams Detailed shapes and faces: cat, lion, cow, elephant, sheep, duck, bear, turtle, dog. Lovely cinnamon flavor. Technically these are grahams but they are called animal crackers. Tasty AF. Earl Grey or Lady Grey, hot, or Scottish Breakfast teas. With dulce de leche ice cream or flan.
05. 365 Whole Foods Market Organic Vanilla Animal Cookies Buffalo, fox, elephant, bear, cougar, lion, camel, goat, not always easy to identify. Whole Foods brand. Peanut-free, cane sugar. Light, crisp. Nice subtle vanilla flavor. Chai latte. With milk chocolate or caramel-filled Ghirardelli square.
06. Annie’s Animal Cookies Organic Detailed farm animals pig, cow, hen, rabbit, carrot, tractor and barn. Crisp cookie,sweeter than a cracker. Games on the back of box. Whole wheat, cane sugar, good ingredients. Tastes like a vanilla cookie should taste. Vanilla almond milk (so good!) In a bowl of sliced bananas and strawberries.
07. Barnum Animal Crackers: Beloved nostalgic favorite. See box for changes: animals roam free. Made by Nabisco. 17 shapes: bear, bison, cougar, camel, elephant, giraffe, gorilla, hippo, kangaroo, hyena, lion, monkey, rhino, seal, sheep, tiger, zebra. Made with corn flour and with a nice cracker texture, Barnum crackers have a darker bake than most brands. Crisp and addictive. Chocolate milk Chocolate or vanilla pudding with a squirt of whipped cream. Make a parfait out of crushed crackers and pudding.
08. Minions Also from Nabisco Shapes include the named creatures Kevin, Stuart, Gru, Otto, and Bob. Also has a game on the back of the box. DEEP STATE SECRET: This is the same recipe as Barnum animal crackers. They have the same ingredient list and they taste the same. MINIONS are made of animal crackers! ANIMAL CRACKERS are made of MINIONS! Lemon Zinger tea or an Arnold Palmer, lavender lemonade Fresh blueberries and lemon pudding or sorbet
09. Trader Joe’s Cat Crackers Chocolately Cat Cookies for People Two cat shapes. Addictive, and they come in a tub so you have to eat a few handfuls. Good chocolate flavor. Satisfying crunch. Whole milk, cold. Dip in peanut butter.
10. Annie’s Bunny Grahams FRIENDS (Chocolate, Chocolate Chip, Honey) All bunnies, in three flavors. These are called graham cracker/cookies but don’t taste like graham crackers, except possibly the honey flavor. Chocolate and chocolate chip are yummy. Honey flavor tastes virtually identical to vanilla flavor. Crème soda or Vanilla Coke. Cookie dough ice cream
12. Trader Joe’s Animal Crackers Organic Almost identical to Stauffer’s. Very cracker-neutral, not too sweet, the tiniest lemon flavor if you’re looking for it. Morning coffee or afterdinner espresso Dipped in Tillamook strawberry cream cheese. Like a bite of cheesecake!
11. Stauffers Comes in a giant keg. The OG of animal crackers (est. 1871) Stamped, small, recognizable shapes, including a cat. Tastes most like a tea biscuit or Marie biscuit. Crisp/crunchy, small size. Afternoon tea In a bowl of milk a la cereal, or with a fruited cottage cheese.
14. Annie’s Bunny Grahams Neapolitan: Chocolate, Strawberry, Vanilla All bunnies, in three flavors. These are called graham cracker/cookies but don’t taste like graham crackers, except possibly the vanilla flavor. Chocolate and vanilla are yummy. Vanilla flavor tastes virtually identical to honey flavor. Strawberry flavor is very berry, and naturally colored with beet juice. Strawberry milk or smoothie. Neapolitan ice cream, of course!
15. Earth’s Best Organic Crunchin’ Crackers Distinct Elmo and Big Bird shapes. Savory, buttery, crisp and flaky like a Ritz cracker. Made with cane sugar. More salty than sweet. Granny Smith apple slices, Chardonnay. Atop a bowl of tomato soup, or on a cheese tray with Gorgonzola or Humbolt Fog.
16. Happy Belly (Amazon brand) Animal crackers Shapes are wild/safari: tiger, camel, kangaroo, lion, elephant, hippo, bear, seal, sheep, horse. Good flavor. Comes in the mail, if you don’t want to leave your house. But it’s Amazon, whatever your political position on that, so. Cold vanilla chai latte Go wild with a cranberry goat cheese log and some safari aninmals.
17. Mother’s Circus Animal Cookies Circus Animals Not super identifiable except generally as mammals. Small size. Delightful pink and white cookies, very iconic.  Nostalgia factor. Crisp, sweet but not overly so. Made with palm oil = NOPE. Owned by Kellogg. Vanilla ice cream Broken pieces stirred into brownie batter and baked.
18. Goodie Girl Magical Animal Crackers Gluten free crackers with fun mythical animals shapes Shapes include three mermaids, a dragon, a narwhal (Note: not mythical), a unicorn playing guitar, riding a scooter, prancing, and dabbing. Truly the hippest group of shapes in the bunch. Great cracker texture, but still has the mildly chemical GF aftertaste. Carrot juice with orange or ginger. Try with a coconut milk yogurt: vanilla, lemon, or berry flavors.
19. Happy Snacks Animal crackers Nine animal shapes. Made with palm oil = NOPE. Light vanilla flavor. Vanilla latte or Starbucks’ Honey-Almondmilk flat white Dunked in your favorite milk/non-dairy mylk.
20. Gamesa Larger size. Little detail. Barely recognizable animals Made by Frito-Lay in Texas. Crisp. Slightly lemony flavor. A bit gummy in texture. Juice box, Koolaid. On a long car trip.
21. El Mexicano Not a wide variety of shapes. On the small side. Stamped with little detail. Made with palm oil = NOPE. Hint of clove flavor. Good Earth or Constant Comment tea — any tea with orange and cinamon. Mix with salty snacks and dried fruit for a snack mix.
22. 365 Iced Animal Cookies Whole Foods brand Somewhat indistinct animal shapes. Larger than Mother’s brand. White frosting only. Cloyingly sweet. Very strong sugar flavor. Only white icing, also made with PALM POIL. NOPE. Mexican hot chocolate (with cinnamon and red pepper) With dark chocolate, esp. 72% cacao
23. Happy Tot Organics Gluten free ABC Multigrain cookies The entire alphabet. Literally. These have the gummy, chemical taste of gluten-free cookies. Not delicious, but if you want to add edible letters to cupcakes or an art project, this would work. Least favorite of all we tried. n/a n/a

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