The mighty jalapeño pepper is both feared and revered. For those who can’t handle the heat, even the mere sight of these bad boys can set off a case of psychosomatic sweats. For chiliheads making pilgrimages up the Scoville scale, these peppers are old friends, always there to deliver a scorching slap in the face. What happens if you add cheese to the mix? Welcome to strange new territory.
On one hand, cheese and jalapeños seem like a natural match—think of jalapeño poppers; jalapeño cheddar–cheeseburgers; nachos. Latin American cuisine features dozens of cheesy jalapeño dishes, many of which have infiltrated United States food culture with pleasing ubiquity.
Yet on the other hand, jalapeños are an intense food. Just a few slivers can transform your steaming bowl of pho into a pool of hurts-so-good spice. Many creamy, mild cheeses are overwhelmed easily by the strongman jalapeño, and funky notes of certain pungent cheeses are masked by the peppery punch.
The answer to the cheese jalapeño paradox lies in chemistry. One of the central active compounds in jalapeño peppers is capsaicin. When capsaicin comes in contact with our mouth, nose, and skin, certain pain receptors translate that sensation as heat, and the body does its best to eliminate it—excess saliva, runny nose, teary eyes. Some people love the sensation (thus, Tabasco); others do not.
One of the most effective counter-thrusts to fiery capsaicin is casein, a major building block of cheese. Casein proteins push aside capsaicin and bind to the same pain receptors, in some cases almost immediately cutting heat—and perhaps creating interesting new flavors in the process.
The trick to pairing cheese with jalapeños, then, isn’t erasing the pain—it’s mitigating it just enough to let the flavors of both shine.
Those looking for some serious spice, head here: Capsaicin is concentrated in the inner white flesh of the jalapeño (where seeds are), so slice the pepper raw for maximum intensity.
Texture plays a key role—crumbly cheeses pair well with raw jalapeños since they break down quickly on the palate. To mix things up beyond standard Mexican cotija, try fresh, mild feta. For something a little older, play around with a cheddar-style. Both will lock in step with the jalapeño’s earthy, vegetal, spicy notes.
Cow’s milk feta
Fiscalini Cheese San Joaquin Gold
If raw peppers are too spicy for you, mellow those jalapeños in the oven or on the grill (broil or grill until skin is blackened, about 10 to 15 minutes). External charred bits add a whole new dimension of smokiness, while raw spiciness gives way to a wonderful, unexpected sweetness. A classic, milky Monterey Jack will taste almost like dessert in its delectable creaminess when eaten with the roasted peppers. For more depth, try Spring Brook Farm Reading, a raclette-style with wine-like flavors that intertwine with the jalapeño’s charbroiled sweetness.
Cabot Monterey Jack
Spring Brook Farm Reading
Rounding out the jalapeño triumvirate are pickles, gracing nacho party platters for decades. But there’s more to these jarred slices than meets the eye—the heat takes one step back while tart vinegar leaps forward. Take this pairing in two directions: meet those pickled notes headon with strongly flavored cheese (for a fiesta in your mouth, try Sartori Salsa Asiago) or let nuanced vinegar balance out with a more subtle cheese (the rich butter-biscuit profile of Belgium’s sheep’s milk Beringse Gouda contrasts without overwhelming).
Sartori Salsa Asiago
This article originally appeared in our 2015 Cheese+ ultimate Pairings issue. If you’d like to see all 26 amazing cheese pairings, purchase a copy today!