To counter the cold winter weather this year, warm up your taste buds with spicy cheese. Whether it’s through sprinkling soft cheeses with powdered spices, rubbing rinds with handfuls of cayenne, studding blocks of cheese with peppers or some other approach, cheesemakers have come up with all kinds of ways to infuse their products with intense flavors and sensations that range from slightly peppery to flaming hot.
Americans are increasingly turning up the heat on their foods. A 2021 survey by the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) found that 66% of consumers said they liked spicy and strong flavors — a huge increase over 2020, when only 25% of people said the same thing. The trend seems to be driven at least in part by young people; in the survey, 45% of Millennials and Gen Zers said they preferred spicy snacks over those with little flavoring.
People have also expanded their palates through travels to countries where spicy food is more common, visits to the growing number of restaurants that serve cuisines from other cultures, and their own experimentation with new ingredients and cooking methods while they were stuck home during the pandemic. As the United States becomes more diverse, there are more people looking for spicy food who are shopping at grocery stores, delis and other cheese retailers. As demand for spicy cheese has boomed, makers have responded by turning out new and interesting products for people to enjoy.
Spicy Cheeses and Perfect Pairings
One way to make cheese spicy is to stir in peppercorns. That’s what Twin Sisters Creamery in Ferndale, WA, has done with its award-winning Farmhouse with Whole Black Peppercorns cheese. Cheesemaker and co-owner Lindsay Slevin describes it as “a bold, creamy, rich, raw-milk cheese with a pop of spicy peppercorn.”
To make the cheese, Slevin boils the whole peppercorns first. The purpose is partly food safety and partly so the farmhouse cheese keeps its signature dense and creamy texture. “It has the added benefit of hydrating the whole peppers so they do not draw too much moisture out of the actual cheese,” she says. The result is perfect for people like her who love the flavor of black pepper.
Slevin likes to add her peppercorn cheese to simple dishes like omelets, tomato bisque soup, baked potatoes or burgers. “It’s perfect on a charcuterie board with cured meats, pickles, olives and savory chutneys. Add dense, crusty breads and make a meal,” she says. “On your cheese board, pair it with robust reds like Merlot, Malbec, Syrah and Petite Sirah.”
Another way to add spice to cheese is to add powdered peppers. Idyll Farms in Northport, MI makes a version of its G.O.A.T. cheese called Chili Billy that is dusting with Aleppo pepper, a spicy pepper that is common in the Middle East and Mediterranean. The spices mingle with the cooling cheese in your mouth, creating “a push/pull of heat and relief that keeps dancing on your tongue,” says owner Amy Spitznagel.
Spitznagel got the idea for Chili Billy from a chef friend, who thought the addition of spicy pepper would make an interesting contrast to Idyll Farms’ plain Spreadable Pastures goat cheese. “It was genius!” she says. “We took this concept and took out allergens such as soy to make it more accessible for those with soy allergies. With the help of some local chefs, we developed a well-rounded recipe with just the right amount of heat.” Add it to dips, soup, tuna salad, deviled eggs and omelets. Or drop a delicious dallop on top of a bowl of chili.
Cheeses can also be rubbed with spices to create a flavorful coating. Frederik’s by Meijer produces a Cajun-Style Rubbed Cheddar coated in cayenne pepper, garlic, celery seed and other spices. Schuman Cheese’s offers the Toasted Chili & Spice fontal cheese under its Cello brand. It is coated in a spice blend that includes toasted chilis and Szechuan peppercorn, which are famous for creating a tingling sensation in the mouth. And Heber Valley Artisan Cheese in Utah coats its farmstead cheddar in red or green salsa to give it a powerful kick of flavor.
Pepper Pieces Bring Flavor and Texture to Spicy Cheese
One of the most common ways to add heat to cheese is with chunks of pepper. Oregon’s Tillamook makes three with different flavors and capsaicin intensities. The Pepper Jack is studded with small piece of jalapeños. The Farmers’ Collection Garlic Chili Cheddar contains peppers and garlic. The hottest is the Farmers’ Collection Spicy Habanero Jack, packed with both habaneros and jalapeños. All are made by folding the peppers into the cheese curds after the salting process.
Jill Allen, director of product excellence for the Tillamook County Creamery Association, has recommendations for how to enjoy all of these cheeses. “For the Tillamook Garlic Chili Cheddar, pair a fig compote and crostini,” she says. “For the Tillamook Spicy Habanero Jack, pair prosciutto and a drizzle of local honey.”
Her family loves to make mac and cheese with Tillamook’s Medium cheddar, then top it with Tillamook Pepper Jack, panko crumbs, butter and perhaps a little bacon. “You can substitute any of the three Tillamook spicy cheeses for different flavors and levels of heat intensity,” she says. Her second, more simple recommendation for the pepper jack is to serve it atop cornbread slathered in strawberry jam.
In addition to using them in various dishes, Tillamook’s peppery cheeses can be served alongside alcoholic beverages. “I suggest a semi-sweet wine to compliment these spicy cheeses, as it is a great complement to the capsaicin within the cheese,” says Allen. “I also like a good pilsner with our spicy cheeses, as it also pairs well with Pilsner’s malty sweetness.”
Hatch Pepper Gouda from Marieke Gouda, a farmstead, raw milk creamery located in Thorp, WI, is also made by evenly blending bits of pepper into wheels of cheese. (The brand also makes Gouda flavored with a blend of black pepper, jalapeños, mustard seeds, chipotle chiles and horseradish.) Marketing specialist Alexanndrya Barnickle-Miller’s favorite way to enjoy the Hatch Pepper Gouda is to make a bacon grilled cheese sandwich with a swipe of berry jam on the inside of the bread. “I love a sweet heat, so I would pair it with berries, chocolate or sweet mustards,” she adds.
Continue to feed a fondness for Southwest peppers with Red Butte Hatch Chile from Beehive Cheese. The Uintah, UT-based company started making the flavored cheddar when a local grocery store put out a call for products that celebrated the flavors of the Southwest.
“Beautifully layered like Entrada Sandstone, the paste of Red Butte is tumbled with Hatch Chiles, and the exterior is rubbed with a complex spice blend,” says director of marketing Katie Schall when asked to describe the cheese. “Expect meaty, peppery, smoky notes within this buttery cheddar.”
Schall says Beehive was intrigued to find that the addition of the peppers seemed to accelerate the curing process. “Red Butte Hatch Chile takes half the amount of time to age, and it seems like the New Mexico Hatch Chiles somehow increase the pace of fermentation,” she notes.
Red Butte Hatch Chile goes great with the crunch and tang of pickled veggies or the sweetness of tomato jam and honey. “It’s a fantastic melter and can be used in queso dips, mac and cheeses, or on a burger,” says Schall. Drink IPAs, hard apple ciders and fruit-forward cocktails alongside slices of it.
Those who like it hot will love 4 Alarm Cheddar, made with a blend of chili, chipotle, jalapeño and ghost peppers. Rufus Junior Musser IV, CEO of Milton, IA’s Milton Creamery, also said his company came up with the recipe for after a local grocery store asked for a spicy cheese with lots of flavor. “This combination creates layers of flavor that offer a sneaky yet medium burn, leaving you with a pleasurable flavor that allows you to get more than just heat,” he says.
Making 4 Alarm Cheddar mandates some changes in the Milton cheesemaking room. “The hot peppers in the blend require our staff to wear facemasks to avoid irritation in their nasal passages and eyes while incorporating the peppers in the cheese,” he says. It’s well worth the extra work, though. 4 Alarm Cheddar has grown to become of Milton’s top five sellers.
Tame the heat of this cheese with a sweet wine such as a Moscato or Zinfandel, Musser recommends. “The fruity notes calm the spicy flavor. Crackers and berries are a nice paring as well.” The cheese is great on burgers or as a taco topping.