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Taste Test: The Best Pepper Jack Cheese

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

The Winners!

  • #1: Cabot (7.3/10)
  • #2: Land O' Lakes (5.7/10)
  • #3: Boar's Head (5.6/10)

First produced by Mexican Franciscan monks of Monterey, California, Monterey Jack cheese is one of the true original American cheeses. The vast majority of Jack cheese (named after entrepreneur David Jack, who first started marketing and selling the cheese in the 19th century) is sold as a young, high moisture, melting cheese, with a nutty tang, and a rich, buttery flavor. Add to that cheese bits of chopped hot peppers (usually jalapeño), and you've got yourself pepper jack, a cheese that's pretty much custom-made for snackfoods.

Any time you've said to yourself, "Gee, this super oozy, melty, mild-mannered cheese is great, but I sure wish it packed a little more heat,"* what you were really saying was, "I gotta go get me some pepper jack."

*Carey claims that she's never said this to herself. I claim that Carey needs some more excitement in her life. By which I mean jalapeños.

Perfect in jalapeño poppers, bang-up on burgers, crazy-good on crackers, top-notch at topping nachos, and, uh... inquedible in quesadillas, it's the snackers' cheese par excellence.

So who makes the ooziest, tangiest, hottest of the bunch?

The Contenders

We picked eight widely available brands for our taste test:

The Criteria

Aside from the odd chain supermarket cheese platter or church potluck, pepper jack cheese is normally eaten melted. As a young, high moisture cheese, it's what it does best. Whether oozing out from a quesadilla, blanketing a burger, or melted over nachos, good meltability is a top priority.

Flavor is also important. Does the cheese portion of it taste like real cheese? Is it sufficiently tangy and nutty?

And what about those peppers? Most often they're jalapeños, though some brands will incorporate bell peppers or even habañeros to the mix. No matter the precise variety, what we want is a balanced bite, as well as some fresh, vegetal notes.

The Results:

We tasted all eight brands melted into plain flour quesadillas, as well as at room temperature. Not surprisingly, the winning brands corresponded with the brands that the tasters found had the highest heat levels, as well as the best melting texture.

Recommended

#1: Cabot (7.3/10, 60¢/ounce)

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The runaway winner, this is the only brand we'd heartily recommend with no reservations. It melted like a dream, with a creamy, oozy texture and a tart, well-developed flavor that resembled a good cheddar. "Plenty of spice," and "best flavor by a mile" were some of the comments. It had the highest spiciness rating by a good margin.

Good In A Pinch

#2: Land O'Lakes (5.7/10, 31¢/ounce)

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Milder in heat than the Cabot, but still a good melter. "Very oozy," said one taster, "mild, but good texture," said another. At 31 cents per ounce, it was the cheapest cheese in the lineup, making this our best buy.

#3: Boar's Head (5.6/10, 75¢/ounce)

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The priciest of our non-organic entries, but the favorite of quite a few of our tasters. After the Cabot, it was the second highest rated on the spiciness scale. It had a few points knocked off for its lack of stretchability. "Smooth texture, but not stretchy," said one taster. "Spicy and flavorful!"

#4: Trader Joe's (5.4/10, 33¢/ounce)

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Trader Joe's was available only in pre-grated form, and thus came with the addition of powdered cellulose and potato starch, added to the cheese to prevent the shreds from caking during shipping and storage. Luckiily, most tasters did not notice any ill effects of pre-shredding in the quesadillas—it had our second highest score on the texture scale ("this one stayed melted longest"), which makes sense, given its starch-enhanced properties.

If it only had more flavor, it could have been a frontrunner.

#5: White Rose (5.2/10, 36¢/ounce)

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A East coast-only brand, it lost marks for a somewhat rubbery texture and a spiciness that appeared only after some serious tasting.

#6: Maple Leaf (4.7/10, 44¢/ounce)

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This nationally available Canadian brand had "good pepper flavor," but "no real heat." Lack of flavor was its downfall.

#7: Kraft (4.6/10, 62¢/ounce)

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"Kinda rubbery" and "why does the flavor disappear so fast?" were comments here. They are the only brand to enhance their peppers with acetic acid, as opposed to using plain peppers, which might explain an initial tart jolt that quickly dissipates into milky blandness.

Not Recommended

#8: Organic Valley (3.8/10, 87¢/ounce)

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Our only organic brand, our most expensive, and unfortunately, the only one we'd advise avoiding. With rare exception, tasters ranked this at the bottom of the barrel, calling it greasy with little flavor and barely any heat.

Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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