Appreciating an icon: Pimento Cheese

by Marion on May 24, 2017

Pimento cheese, a versatile, easy-to-make appetizer/spread/sandwich filling/burger topping/etcetera, is rightly enjoying a moment. One taste and you’ll see why. Recipe below.

Pimento Cheese

People talk about pimento cheese like it’s always been around—as if it’s been a fixture of Southern life since time immemorial. Not so. The “caviar of the South” actually originated in New York state around 1910.

The original product was made in a factory, of cream cheese and canned pimentos, and sold in little wooden boxes. Within a couple of years, it was popular all over the country. Pretty quickly, farmers—especially in the South, and especially in Georgia—began growing pimentos, taking over a market that previously depended on imports from Spain. Notably, all the way up to the 1940s, pimento cheese was still not a particularly Southern thing. It was a practical everyday all-American thing. Thrifty mothers made it at home, but throughout the Depression, it remained a store-bought basic, a modestly priced, sensible convenience food. As Serious Eats says, it was “an example of modern, up-to-date eating.”

After World War II, industrial pimento cheese began to vanish, but somehow, in the South,  it evolved into a far more interesting made-from-scratch dish. While the industrial product was usually mild processed cheese plus roasted, diced peppers, the homemade version became awesome, and wildly various.

No two recipes are quite alike. The basic recipe is sharp cheddar (or Velveeta); mayonnaise (or Miracle Whip); and roasted, diced pimentos, traditionally served with Ritz crackers or the softest most airy white bread. But everyone plays with this. Cream cheese; cayenne pepper; diced pickled ramps; smoked paprika; beer; Dijon mustard; hot sauce; various vinegars; of course bacon—served on whole-grain crackers, or on a burger or tossed with pasta, or baked with potatoes, or stuffed into a chicken.

For this version, we start with top-quality very sharp cheddar, and we grate it by hand on the biggest holes of a box grater (that is, please, please don’t use pre-shredded cheese). This time, I used half Tillamook extra sharp cheddar and half some mysterious very sharp cheddar from Mariano’s—a newish Chicago grocery chain—that was labeled, in its entirety, “3 yr aged.” I asked the guys in the cheese department, “Is this cheddar? Is it sharp?” “Oh yeah,” they said hungrily. “Oh yeah.” And it really was.

We used Hellman’s mayonnaise, which is our favorite commercial mayo. And our version also takes a bit of inspiration from Rosalynn Carter’s cheese ring recipe, which includes a lovely bit of diced onion.

When I had finished putting this together, I saw why pimento cheese has become one of those foundational recipes. It tastes wonderful—sharp and tangy and suave and highly addictive. It is useful in many contexts. It’s a great game day treat. It’s wonderful party food. You can make it into sandwiches (and next, we are trying this as grilled cheese). A couple of sites suggest to use it in a potato gratin, and I can also see just spooning it over boiled tiny potatoes or stirring it into grits.

Pimento takes almost no time to make. Start to finish, this took 15 minutes tops—that is, it makes a fabulous impression on short notice. Especially when you serve it as crostini, as we’ve done here, on pan-grilled slices of baguette.

Pimento Cheese
Makes 1-1/2 to 2 cups

8 ounces very sharp cheddar cheese (see Kitchen Notes)
3 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/3 cup mayonnaise
4 – 5 ounces roasted, diced pimento (see Kitchen Notes)
1 tablespoon diced red onion
1/8 teaspoon (or less) cayenne pepper (see Kitchen Notes)
1/4 teaspoon vinegary hot sauce (see Kitchen Notes)
salt (optional)

Grate the cheese on the biggest hole of a box grater. Put it in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Add the cream cheese and the mayo. Mix together using a hand electric mixer at a low setting until everything is evenly distributed. Next, add in the cayenne and the hot sauce and mix a bit more.

Add the onion and the pimento. At this point, I recommend switching to a rubber or silicon spatula to keep the veggie bits from breaking up. Taste and adjust the seasonings. You may want a bit more spice or vinegar, and of course, the addition of salt is optional. You may not need it at all.

Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes, but ideally overnight.

Kitchen Notes

The quality of ingredients is key in pimento cheese. You can make this dish using any firm cheese you’ve got—you can go retro and use Velveeta and I will not judge you, but it will taste best with high-quality, non-commodity cheese.

Pick your peppers. As for the peppers, you have choices. You can get a red bell pepper and roast it and chop it up. That isn’t very onerous. Or you can do what we did and buy a jar of roasted pimento and use that. I would tell you what brand we used, but I forgot to write it down, and the jar has gone to the recycling. However, grocery stores have a dazzling array of prepared roasted red peppers in jars, at many price points. Pick the one that looks nice to you.

Cayenne? Oh come on, try it. Try just a bit. It adds a subtle little kick.

Same for the hot sauce. Do try it. The extra vinegary zip is really transformative. This time, we used our beloved Cholula brand, but Tabasco or even Louisiana would be great.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

John/Kitchen Riffs May 24, 2017 at 8:24 am

Pimento cheese is outstanding! Junky,but really, really good. So maybe not so junky after all! We love it as a dip or in a sandwich. Haven’t made this in a couple of years — now of course you have me hungry for it again. :-)

karin bugge May 24, 2017 at 5:15 pm

I don’t believe I’ve ever had this. You make it sound tempting, and yet …

Marion May 24, 2017 at 6:42 pm

Yes, it may be a total fat bomb, but it is a total fat bomb of the most delicious sort.

Dani H May 24, 2017 at 10:43 pm

I definitely have to try this, Marion. Can you believe I’m 65 and have never had it!

Thanks so much for the recipe.

Marion May 25, 2017 at 7:50 am

Dani, you are going to love it!

Eeka May 26, 2017 at 8:59 am

I had never heard of pimento cheese before college, but once tried, those squishy sandwiches from the student union became a guilty pleasure. Now I am salivating to try making it myself!

Marion May 26, 2017 at 3:24 pm

Eeka, it is so simple! And the perfect treat for this holiday weekend.

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