Pepper jack cheese is an American cow's milk cheese which blends the creamy, buttery flavor of jack cheese with the intensity of spicy peppers, especially jalapeños. Some producers make special varieties of this cheese which are named for the peppers they contain, like habanero jack and serrano jack. This cheese can be used in a wide variety of recipes, and it is particularly popular in the American West, where people have an acquired taste for spicy peppers.
Jack cheese originated in California, where it was originally made by Franciscan monks. An enterprising entrepreneur by the name of David Jacks realized that a market for the cheese could be developed, and he created a distinctive semi-soft, mild, creamy cheese which proved to be a big hit. Jack cheese is also known as Monterey jack, and it is famous for its delicate flavor, which allows it to be used in a variety of ways.
When producers make pepper jack cheese, they add small pieces of spicy pepper to the curds of their jack cheese, adding a zing to a normally fairly bland cheese. As the cheese ages, the peppery flavor intensifies, with some older pepper jacks being quite zesty. Generally, the cheese ages only for a few months, acquiring a creamy color and a semi-firm texture.
This cheese melts extremely well, making it suitable for things like quesadillas and hot sandwiches. The moist texture also makes it suitable for grating, so people often sprinkle grated pepper jack cheese on a variety of foods; the cheese pairs especially well with barbecued meats such as beef, and it can be used on burgers, steaks, and various broiled dishes. Pepper jack may also be cubed or sliced and set out on a cheese platter with bread and crackers, and it goes best with slightly sweet white wines, for people who wish to include it in wine and cheese pairings.
The quality of pepper jack cheese varies widely. Some artisan producers create truly exceptional pepper jack which captures the illustrious origins of this sometimes maligned cheese, creating a cheese with a powerful buttery flavor and a strong peppery kick. In mass production, pepper jack can alas turn a bit dull and rubbery, making it a less exciting cheese which is more suited to blending with other cheeses or use in complex, layered dishes where the weaker flavor will not present a liability.