Pepper Jack and Other Chile Cheeses

Pepper Jack and Other Chile Cheeses

Fiery Foods Manager In the Kitchen with Chile Peppers Leave a Comment

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By Dave DeWitt and Harald Zoschke
Illustration & Photos (except Jacks) by Harald Zoschke



Hot Tortilla Wheels

Tex-Mex Cheese Soup

Pepper Cheese and Mustard Bread

Hot Chile Cheese Ball

Chile Cheese Pie

Breakfast Grilled Chile Cheese Sandwich

Pepper Jack Chicken Pizza

cheese-houseOn October 16, 2001, New York-based artist Cosimo Cavallaro dramatically demonstrated his love for chile cheese by covering a house in Powell, Wyoming, inside and out with 12,726 pounds of melted Pepper Jack. The “painting” of the house was part of the town’s “Cheesefest” celebration, which featured a parade and the election of a cheese king and queen. The “fishbait” cheese was outdated and was purchased from Marathon Cheese Corporation in Marathon, Wisconsin., for five cents a pound. The cheese then was melted and pumped through a hose manned by the artist. Cavallaro explained his interest in cheese this way: “It’s milk. It’s life.” The house had been scheduled for demolition,but for a while it shined as a culinary creation–the world’s largest inedible nacho.

Flavored Cheeses

The combination of cheese and chiles has a long tradition, as we know from traditional recipes like chiles rellenos and chile con queso. Of course, no one knows who first added chiles to cheese, but the art of adding colorings and flavorings to cheese goes back centuries. Carrot juice and marigold petals were probably the earliest additives and were used to change the color of cheese from its natural white to yellow or orange. Among the earliest flavorings added to cheese were wine, herbs, and black pepper. But chile peppers? As far as we could tell, except for adding black pepper, there are no historical precedents for spicing up cheese, and no traditional chile cheeses from Mexico or Europe. We think that chile cheeses were the result of two trends that collided: the increasing tendency to add flavors to cheese and the heat wave of chile popularity that has swept America and other countries for the past two decades. And it all started with a man named Jacks.

David Jacks

David Jacks — The famous cheese maker who
gave his name to Monterey Jack and Pepper Jack.

David Jacks was one of the wealthiest landowners in Monterey, California and he had many enterprises, including dairies. He began producing a semi-soft cheese in 1882 that was shipped to San Francisco for sale. It was named after Monterey and Jacks himself–Monterey Jacks–and the “s” was later dropped. The cheese became an American original, and one of the bestselling cheeses in the United States–and the one most commonly flavored, especially during the 1980s and ‘90s.

During that time, California cheese makers experimented with a number of flavorings, including jalapeños. Monterey Jack was thus transformed into Pepper Jack, and cheeses have never been the same. Today, Jack is available in about a dozen different flavors. The most popular are Pesto, Onion, Garlic, and Jalapeño, but a number cheese makers produce more exotic flavors, such as Caraway, Habanero, Green Chile, and even Smoked Salmon.

“People’s needs and tastes change. We have to change with them,” noted Jeff Wideman, Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker at the Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative, in Twin Grove, Wisconsin. “People want hot — the hotter, the better,” Wideman says, noting that the company’s Habanero Jack has become a hit.

Different Cheeses, Different Chiles

Chile cheeses available in the United States

A great variety of
chile cheeses is available
in the United States

During our research, we discovered an astounding number of chile cheeses. Besides the Pepper Jacks flavored with jalapeños, habaneros, and green chile, there are interesting flavored Jacks from Geissbuhler Family Brand Cheese, Inc.: roasted garlic, tomato-basil, habanero pepper, horseradish, and salsa Jack. The famous cheese manufacturer Cabot’s has a Habanero Cheddar and a milder Salsa Cheddar. Other American chile cheeses include:

  • Sierra Nevada Cheese Company’s Cream Cheese Jalapeño

  • The Mozzarella Company’s Queso Blanco with Chiles

  • Sonoma Jack Hot Pepper (with crushed red chile)

  • Drinking Swamp Farm of Haynesville, Virginia’s White Country Cheddar with Jalapeños, Hot Habanero Pepper Country Jack, Rajun Cajun Fromage, Jalapeño Pepper and Cilantro Fromage, and Pepper Pot Fromage

  • Williams’ Hickory-Smoked Hot Pepper Cheese

  • Texas Best Beef Jerky Company’s Mesquite-Smoked Hot Pepper Cheese and Mesquite-Smoked Longhorn Cheddar Cheese

Chile cheeses commonly win at cheese contests. For the past several years Biery Cheese Company has captured top honors in the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, sponsored by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, the largest cheese organization in the world. They out-performed 300 other entries from across the nation, taking first place in the process cheese category with their Hot Pepper Cheese Loaf entry. They also won “Best of Class” at the International Championship Cheese Contest for their Garden Spicy Cheese Loaf, in a field of 500 entries from 13 different countries.

Mexicana Cheddar from England

Mexicana Cheddar from England,
the birthplace of Cheddar Cheese

We also discovered that cheeses from other countries are fired up with chiles:

  • Denmark’s Finest Havarti with Jalapeño

  • Finland’s Mustapekka Pepper Cheese and Kasakku Redpepper Cheese

  • England’s Mexicana Cheddar (from Ilchester, Somerset, England. Spiced up with Mexican spices and 4 percent jalapeños)

  • Italy’s Caciotta al Peperoncino, and from Calabria, a sheep’s milk cheese called pecorino (pecora = sheep in Italian), that’s kicked up with hot peperoncino flakes.


Pecorino con Peperoncini

  • Germany’s “Basils” Original Rauchkäse mit Chili-Paprika, a beechwood-smoked cheese from Bavaria

  • France’s Rambol Cremeux Mexicano Picante (processed fresh cheese made from ementaler, cheddar, and cottage cheese, spiced with chiles)

  • International food giant Kraft sells spicy versions of their Philadelphia brand cream cheese
    (even in Germany, a chile-spiced “Pikanter Philadelphia” is available)

Basils Rauchkäse mit
from Germany,
and Rambol Cremeux
Mexicano Picante

from France

German Rauchkäse and French Rambol Cremeux Mexicano Picante

Bonifaz Peperoni Brie

Bonifaz Peperoni,
a German brie spiced
up with red chile peppers

Even the snack food manufacturers have warmed up to the chile cheese trend. The Moravian Cookie Company has their Habanero Cheese Straws, Frito-Lay makes Cheetos Flamin’ Hot Crunchy Cheese-Flavored Snacks, and Black Kase has an Habanero Cheese Spread. Moore’s, a restaurant service supplier of frozen onion rings, also makes two interesting snacks: Moore’s Spicy Tortilla Jumpin` Jacks (spicy Pepper Jack cheese wedges with a golden, crispy tortilla chip coating) and Moore’s Hot Pepper Cheese Cubes (Monterey Jack cubes with pieces of jalapeño and serrano chiles in a crumb breading).

Restaurants Catch On

One indication of the growing consumption of chile cheeses is how often they appear on restaurant menus. According the Dairy Management, Inc., over the past three years, menu mentions of Pepper Jack in the top 200 chains have grown threefold compared to a 12 percent increase in general cheese mentions. Part of this increase is attributable to the growing use of Pepper Jack as a topping for pizzas, along with other specialty cheeses.

Many restaurants feature chile cheese in their sandwiches–including hot pastrami or tuna sandwiches with melted Pepper Jack. Here’s an imaginative one from the Union Jack Pubs: “Our Certified Angus Beef Burger is smothered with grilled onions, jerk spices, and melted hot pepper cheese, served on a toasted bun with lettuce and tomato.” Main Street Café, at the University of Missouri, offers: “Breaded chicken breast, deep fried, topped with bacon, tomato and melted pepper cheese on grilled marble rye bread.” Another restaurant offering is “Thin- sliced beef summer sausage topped with marinara sauce and hot pepper cheese.” And fast food operations are trendy as well–now Taco Bell is featuring Pepper Jack in their new Chicken Quesadilla along with sharp cheddar and mild mozzarella.

Cooking with Chile Cheeses

The most obvious use of chile cheeses is to replace your standard cheeses with them in snacking and cooking. Below are some of our ideas, followed by some specific recipes.

  • Appetizers with a variety of crackers and chile cheeses make great snacks.

  • Spice up your basic cheeseburgers by using any chile cheese, but a spicy cheddar is suggested.

  • Chile con queso for nachos is very easy.

  • Use chile cheese for chiles rellenos and get a double shot of heat.

  • Think poppers stuffed with jalapeño cheese.

  • Welsh rarebit always needs spicing up.

  • Grated chile cheese perks up pasta of any kind.

  • Why not use chile cheese on pizza?

Pepper Cheese Recipes

Hot Tortilla Wheels


Any chile-spiced cream cheese can be used to make this spicy snack.

  • 1 cup spicy cream cheese like Pikanter Philadelphia or French Cremeux Mexicano Picante

  • 1 tomato, finely chopped

  • 1 clove garlic clove, minced

  • 1 teaspoons chipotle powder or Pimenton de la Vera hot

  • Pinch of salt

  • 4 flour tortillas

In a bowl, combine the cream cheese, tomato, garlic, chipotle powder and mix well.

Spread the mixture on the tortillas like buttering a sandwich, leaving a 1/2 inch border along the edge of the tortillas.

Stack 2 tortillas on top of each other and roll up real tight. Repeat with the other two.

To keep rolls from falling apart, wrap each one tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Shortly before serving, unwrap rolls. Cut into slices about 1 inch thick.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Tex-Mex Cheese Soup


The Texas Jersey Cheese Company, near LaGrange, Texas, makes 750 pounds of cheese a week. The star is a pepper Jack cheese (using large chunks of jalapeño chiles), and this is one of their star chile cheese recipes.

  • 2 tablespoons butter

  • 1 cup chopped red and green bell pepper

  • 1/2 cup chopped onion

  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour

  • 4 cups chicken broth

  • 3 cups shredded Monterey Jack Cheese with Jalapeño (12 ounces)

  • 2 cups half and half or light cream

  • 1 4.5-ounce can diced green chili peppers, drained

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • Chive rounds for garnish
  • Bottled hot pepper sauce (optional)

In a large saucepan, melt the butter. Add the chopped bell pepper and onion. Cook and stir over medium heat until the vegetables are soft. Add the flour and stir until combined. Add the chicken broth. Cook and stir over medium heat until thickened and bubbly. Cook and stir 1 minute more.

Reduce the heat; gradually add the cheese, stirring until the cheese is melted. Add the half and half and diced green chili peppers. Heat through. Add freshly ground pepper to taste. If desired, add several drops of bottled hot pepper sauce. Garnish with the chive rounds after serving.

Yield: 6 servings.

Heat Scale: Medium hot

Hot Chile Cheese Ball


This recipe uses a lot of cheese, but it’s worth it. It is a very attractive ball for a party. Serve with a variety of crackers. Feel free to use chile cheddar and chile cream cheese to make this cheese ball hotter.

  • 1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese

  • 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

  • 1 cup extra sharp shredded cheddar cheese

  • 1 cup shredded Pepper Jack cheese

  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder

  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise

  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

  • 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

In a large bowl, stir together cream cheese, cheddar, sharp cheddar and Pepper Jack cheeses, onion powder, garlic powder, mayonnaise, and Worcestershire sauce. Cover and refrigerate mixture 1 hour.

Shape the mixture into a ball. Roll the ball in chopped pecans.

Yield: 10 or more servings

Heat Scale: Mile

Pepper Cheese and Mustard Bread

This simple appetizer is tasty and quick to make.

  • 1 1-pound loaf French bread
  • 1/4 cup creamy Dijon-style mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded Monterey Jack Cheese with Jalapeño

Halve the bread loaf horizontally. In a bowl, mix together the creamy Dijon-style mustard and ground cumin. Stir in shredded cheese.

Spread the cheese mixture on the cut sides of the bread. Place the halves, spread side up, on a large baking sheet. Broil, 4 to 5 inches from heat, for 3 to 4 minutes or just until cheese is melted. Cut in slices to serve.

Yield: 10 servings.

Chile Cheese Pie

Perfect as a snack or a side dish, this pie is usually served topped with salsa. Dedicated chileheads can also add some hot sauce to the mixture.

  • 3 slices bacon, fat trimmed, diced

  • 1 medium red onion, diced (about 1 cup)

  • 1 small green bell pepper, diced (about 3/4 cup)

  • 1 tablespoon taco seasoning

  • 1 9-inch deep-dish pie shell

  • 2 cups (8 ounces) grated Monterey Jack cheese with jalapeños

  • 1 cup milk

  • 2 eggs

  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour

  • 1 1/2 cups prepared salsa

Place a cookie sheet in the oven and preheat to 375 F. Cook the bacon in a medium skillet about 7 minutes or until it begins to crisp. Drain off the fat, leaving a thin film to coat the skillet. Add onion and pepper; cook and stir over medium-high heat 5 minutes or until softened. Remove from the heat, stir in the taco seasoning, and let cook slightly.

Sprinkle 1/2 cup cheese over bottom of the pie shell. Beat the milk, eggs, and flour in large bowl until well blended. Stir in the remaining 11/2 cups of cheese and the vegetable mixture and mix well. Pour the mixture into the pie shell and smooth the top of the pie. Place the pie on the hot cookie sheet in the oven. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes or until pie is firm and knife inserted in center comes out clean. (Pie will puff up and then sink when removed from oven.) Cover loosely with foil if the crust is browning too quickly. Let stand 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Serve with the salsa on the side.

Yield: 6 servings

Heat Scale: Mild

Breakfast Grilled Chile Cheese Sandwich

Another example of how easy chile cheese is to use is this spin on traditional grilled cheese sandwiches.

  • 12 slices Jalapeño Jack cheese

  • 4 eggs, beaten

  • 4 strips turkey bacon, chopped

  • 2 green onions, thinly sliced

  • 8 slices sourdough bread

  • Butter, softened

Finely chop 4 cheese slices, combine with the eggs in a bowl and set aside. In a pan, sauté the turkey bacon and green onions until the onions are translucent. Add egg and cheese mixture; cook, stirring over medium heat until eggs are set. Remove and keep warm. Butter all slices of bread on one side. Place 4 slices of bread, buttered side down, in a clean skillet. Top each with one slice of cheese and an equal amount of scrambled eggs. Place one slice cheese over the eggs on each sandwich; top with remaining bread, buttered side up. Cook over medium-low heat, turning once carefully, until bread is golden brown and the cheese is melted.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Mild

Pepper Jack Chicken Pizza

Try this amazingly easy pizza with a variety of chile cheeses for a more interesting, non-traditional flavor.

  • 1 pre-baked Italian pizza shell or focaccia

  • 1 14 to 14.5-ounce can chunky tomatoes with Italian seasonings or diced tomatoes with roasted garlic, drained

  • 1 medium green pepper, seeded, sliced into rings

  • 1 cup shredded cooked chicken

  • 4 ounces (1 cup) Hot Pepper Monterey Jack Cheese, shredded

Heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Place the pizza shell on an ungreased baking sheet. Top the shell with tomatoes, green pepper, chicken, and cheese.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until heated through.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Mild

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