Recipes: Finally, a Pimento Cheese Recipe Everyone Can Agree On
To spice up a conversation with a Southerner, ask them how they make their pimento cheese. Just three ingredients—cheese, pimentos and mayo—typically make up the popular picnic staple. But some versions can include as many ingredients as imaginations and pantries provide. These variations make the dish simultaneously crowd-pleasing and subject to endless debate.
The best way to create your own version is to understand what pimento cheese is, what it isn’t and why all that matters to so many people.
You May Also Like: What the Blue Cheese Haters Are Missing
What Is Pimento Cheese?
At its most elemental, pimento cheese is a spread made from shredded cheese, mayonnaise and pimentos. Pimento is sometimes written as pimiento, and is a small, mild red pepper that’s often sold diced in jars.
Within that three-ingredient rubric lies untold deliberations. The type of cheese, mayo and pimentos you use can vary. Plus, how you prep the spread, the consistency and spice level of your finished spread are all personal decisions.
How to Make Pimento Cheese
First, you start with the perfect cheese. “There are some people who say a really good pimento cheese must be with sharp Cheddar, says Adrian Miller, the James Beard Foundation Award-winning food writer. “And then you have a bunch of people that are like, ‘Nah, American cheese is fine.’”
Miller prefers “really good sharp Cheddar” in his pimento cheese, as does Mississippi-born chef Brad McDonald. “You need to start with the very best sharp Cheddar you can find,” McDonald writes in his cookbook, Deep South.
But don’t reach for the bagged, shredded Cheddar. Pre-shredded strands often contain stabilizers and preservatives. These can alter the taste and consistency of your finished dish. Those who are serious about their pimento cheese use a box grater and shred their cheese by hand. It’s an easy step that makes a world of difference.
“I want to know if it’s made from scratch and not [in a] factory,” says Cory Chaney, executive chef of Juleps and Revel Market and Bar, both in Richmond, Virginia. “There should be some texture, some authenticity. Smooth puréed pimento cheese is not authentic.”
You May Also Like: A Beginner’s Guide to Beer Cheese
The appearance of pimento cheese is similarly sensitive. Some say that you have to start with a yellow cheese to achieve a brightly colored spread. Others contend that pimentos provide enough pigment on their own, creating an ochre-hued spread. “Because the color is so important, I’ve read that some people, if they have a white Cheddar, will actually add turmeric,” Miller says. Mayonnaise is divisive, too. In Deep South, McDonald’s pimento cheese recipe features homemade mayonnaise to lend a rich tang. Meanwhile, many cooks swear by Blue Plate or Duke’s, cult brands from Louisiana and South Carolina, respectively. Miller is partial to Duke’s, though he sometimes mixes in Miracle Whip, too.
Pimento Cheese Recipe
- 6 ounces extra sharp Cheddar
- 2 ounces sharp Cheddar
- 3 ounces jarred pimentos, drained
- ½ cup mayonnaise, preferably Duke’s
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne (optional)
Shred extra sharp Cheddar and sharp Cheddar into a bowl using a box grater. Stir in pimentos, mayonnaise and cayenne, if using. For best results, refrigerate at least one hour and preferably overnight before serving. Serve with crackers or celery sticks. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to one week.
*This straightforward recipe is customizable. Add more or less cayenne, stir in grated onion or try different cheeses.
What Are Pimento Cheese Variations?
Cheese, mayonnaise and pimentos are the holy trinity of pimento cheese gospel. But cooks customize their versions with all sorts of additions and substitutions. You might find grated onions in some pimento cheeses, diced jalapenos, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce and/or cayenne.
Some people even swap part or all of the mayonnaise in their pimento cheese for sour cream or cream cheese. In The UpSouth Cookbook, author Nicole A. Taylor includes a mayo-free pimento cheese recipe with mascarpone and creme fraiche. “I’m an ‘I eat mayo sometimes’ gal, and I love experimenting with dairy to achieve the same texture as mayo but with different flavors,” she writes.
How Do You Serve Pimento Cheese?
“Ideally, in the South, it’s just [served] with Ritz crackers, or on plain white Sunbeam bread,” says Chaney. “It goes well with a variety of things, but simple crackers or white bread are the staple.”
Crackers, bread and celery sticks are perhaps the most common ways to serve pimento cheese, but they’re hardly your only options. Whether you think of it as a dip, condiment or something else entirely is up to you.
You May Also Like: How to Build a Cheese Board Like a Pro
For instance, Food Network’s Claire Robinson griddles hers between slices of brioche to make pimento grilled cheese. At Stock and Barrel restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee, chefs top the Hurt Locker burger with pimento cheese, bacon and fried green tomatoes. Rob McDaniel, the chef of Helen restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, combined two Southern classics to make individually sized pimento cheese tomato pies. And, at Juleps, Chaney serves pimento cheese in an elegant appetizer with fried green tomatoes, Nueske bacon and peppadew aioli.
Why Is Pimento Cheese So Popular?
The versatility of pimento cheese is part of its appeal.
“Because of its simplicity, it’s easy to put your own spin on it,” says Miller, who compares it to the role that pound cake plays in soul food. “You have really simple, straightforward ingredients, but you’re making something where you can show off your virtuosity as a cook.”
It’s also a deeply nostalgic dish. People who grew up with pimento cheese associate it with brown-bag lunches, after school snacks, family picnics and similarly unpretentious occasions.
The ingredients in pimento cheese tend to be accessible, but the ability to recreate one’s fondest memories in approximately three ingredients is priceless.
Last Updated: August 22, 2023