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June/July 2013

Pepper Jack Cheese

We sought heat, smooth meltability, and cheese with character.

How We Tested

Add hot pickled peppers to ­Monterey Jack, a mild California cow’s-milk cheese, and you’ve got pepper Jack. As American enthusiasm for spicy food continues to rise, pepper Jack has become one of the country’s fastest-growing sellers, according to Datassential, a restaurant market research firm.

Here in the test kitchen, we like pepper Jack for its creamy melting properties, and we’ve used it in enchiladas, biscuits, nachos, seven-layer dip, Tex-Mex meatloaf, and much more. To select a favorite product, we tasted seven nationally available cheeses: six in block form and one preshredded from a prominent brand that doesn’t sell blocks. We tried the cheeses on their own and melted in quesadillas.

Although every product uses ­jalapeños (with one adding habanero), the heat levels ranged. None was tear-­inducingly hot, but some were tear-inducingly tame: “Where is the heat?!” demanded one exasperated taster of an especially bland sample. When we tallied the results, a pattern emerged: We preferred the spicier cheeses.

Peppers aside, the cheeses themselves ranged from “bland” and “kid-friendly” to pleasingly “sharp,” “grassy,” “buttery,” and “tangy.” Tasters compared the products we liked with sharper cheeses, such as cheddar and Swiss, and those with more “bite and sharpness” could take on the hot peppers. Fat played a role in our rankings, too, providing buttery, creamy, rounded background to the tang, saltiness, and heat of pepper Jack, as well as helping the cheese melt smoothly. Unsurprisingly, our bottom two products had 1 less gram of fat than the other samples.

As for the lone preshredded product? It got off to a bad start when we tasted it plain, and it didn’t fare much better in quesadillas: The potato starch and powdered cellulose coating that is added to preshredded cheese to keep the shreds from clumping made it “chalky” and “oddly dry.”

With 9 grams of fat per ounce, our winning product was “creamy” and “buttery.” It melted nicely, and its cheddarlike tang easily accommodated the “assertive kick” of peppers. Made with this cheese, even a plain cheese quesadilla was lively and flavorful.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.