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Pepper Jack Cheese

Published June 2013

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

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*