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.