I love pimento cheese. There, I said it. If you’re not from the South, you might be wondering, “What is pimento cheese?”
Pimento cheese is a classic Southern cheddar cheese and pimento pepper dip. It’s affectionately referred to as “pâté du Sud,” or Southern pâté. If you appreciate cheddar cheese, pimento cheese is going to be your new favorite party dip and sandwich spread.
My grandmother, Mimi, made pimento cheese when I was little. I was a picky eater back then, but at least I had the good sense to appreciate her pimento cheese. I order pimento cheese every time I find it on a menu, which to my delight, seems to be happening more frequently these days.
I tried to find Mimi’s recipe in her handwritten recipe books, which are among my treasured possessions, along with her ring that I’m wearing on my left hand. I got lost in nostalgia and found my great-aunt’s Jell-o cucumber salad recipe, but not Mimi’s pimento cheese.
So, I came up with my own pimento cheese recipe. Let’s make some!
What are pimento peppers?
Pimento (also spelled pimiento) peppers are small red peppers that are not at all spicy. They’re often called cherry peppers when you find them sold fresh in grocery stores.
Pimento peppers are even more mild than red bell peppers. You might recognize them as the little red peppers stuffed inside green olives.
If you’re from the Midwest, rest assured that pimento cheese has nothing to do with pimento loaf. Pimento peppers are the only common ingredient.
Pimento Cheese Ingredients
In its most essential form, pimento cheese is made with cheddar cheese, pimento peppers and mayonnaise. I’ve played with the proportions of common elements to find my ideal levels of cheesy, tangy, peppery (spicy if you wish), and spreadable.
Freshly made, homemade pimento cheese tastes far superior to store-bought options. By making it yourself with quality ingredients, you can avoid strange preservatives. Here’s what you’ll need.
Extra-Sharp Cheddar Cheese
Be sure to buy a delicious extra-sharp variety so the cheddar flavor shines above all else. I used Tillamook.
Grate your cheese by hand on the large holes of a box grater. Don’t buy pre-shredded cheese, which is coated in powder that mutes the flavor and interferes with its creamy texture.
Cream cheese enhances the cheddar flavor and ensures that your pimento cheese is tangy and spreadable.
Not all pimento cheese recipes include cream cheese, but it just doesn’t taste right to me without it. I’d bet money that Mimi’s pimento cheese was made with cream cheese. If you read Serious Eats’ lengthy history on pimento cheese, you’ll see that cream cheese and pimentos have been friends for a long time.
Pimento peppers are a given. They infuse the dip with mild pepper flavor and provide its signature reddish hue. Be sure to drain your peppers well, and give them a few extra chops if they come in slices rather than a tiny dice.
If you can’t find pimento peppers, roasted red peppers are a great substitute. Chop them up until you have a scant one-half cup. I used jarred peppers for my recipe tests, but you could go the extra mile and roast your own peppers.
Mayonnaise lends a silky texture and some key flavor. If we weren’t using cream cheese, we’d make up for it with additional mayonnaise, but I’ve found that a combination of the two yields the tastiest results.
Duke’s brand of mayonnaise is standard in Southern pimento cheese. I used Sir Kensington’s instead, since that’s the brand I keep on hand.
A Few Simple Seasonings
Pimento cheese flavorings vary by recipe. A combination of garlic powder and onion powder lend subtle and irresistible savoriness.
I like my pimento cheese a little spicy, so my recipe includes cayenne pepper as well. The heat is subtle but makes me go back for more. Take it up a notch with fresh jalapeño pepper, which adds seriously fresh flavor and a light crunch. A little bit goes a long way.
If you’re sensitive to spice, you can reduce or omit both the cayenne and jalapeño. You can always add more heat, but you can’t take it away.
How to Make Pimento Cheese
Pimento cheese is super easy to make, and ready in 10 minutes. You essentially just need to stir the ingredients together until combined.
I use my hand mixer to beat the ingredients together, which yields a nice, lightly fluffy texture. Don’t mix it up in a food processor, since pimento cheese is best when the individual ingredients retain some texture.
How to Serve Pimento Cheese
Here are a few classic serving ideas:
Pimento Cheese Sandwiches
You haven’t lived until you’ve had a pimento grilled cheese sandwich. You can also follow tradition and serve pimento cheese between two slices of bread, sliced into tea sandwich form if you’re throwing a party.
If you want to build a more substantial sandwich, pimento cheese is great with sliced cucumber (or dill pickles), tomato, sprouts or arugula, and even a fried egg.
As a Dip or Spread
Pimento cheese and crackers is a winning combination. If you want to lighten up your party spread, serve it with substantial strips of bell pepper (any color but green), cucumber, or celery.
You can take cues from pimento cheese and add pimento peppers to your favorite cheddar dishes. I can’t wait to add some to my go-to mac and cheese.
Pimento CheeseCourse: AppetizersCuisine: Southern
This pimento cheese is the best! It’s cheesy, tangy, peppery (spicy if you wish), and spreadable. Recipe yields 2 cups.
4 cups freshly grated extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
16 ounces cream cheese, cut into 2” cubes and softened at room temperature*
8 ounces pimento peppers**, well drained and chopped if in strips
4 tablespoons mayonnaise (Duke’s is traditional but I also like Sir Kensington’s)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (decrease or omit if sensitive to spice)
1 medium jalapeño pepper, ribs and seeds removed, and minced (about 2 tablespoon; omit if sensitive to spice)
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste
- In a large mixing bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the cheddar, cream cheese, pimento peppers, mayonnaise, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne pepper and jalapeño (if using), and several twists of black pepper.
- Beat the mixture together with a hand mixer, your stand mixer, or by hand with a sturdy wooden spoon or spatula. Beat until the mixture is thoroughly combined.
- Taste, and add more black pepper if desired, and/or salt for more overall flavor (I usually add a pinch of two). If you’d like your pimento cheese to have more of a kick, add another pinch of cayenne. Blend again.
- Transfer the mixture to a smaller serving bowl. Serve your pimento cheese immediately, or chill it in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Pimento cheese hardens as it cools; let it rest for 30 minutes at room temperature to soften.
- *CREAM CHEESE TIP: If you, like me, always forget to pull the cream cheese out of the fridge in advance, simply cube it into a microwave-safe mixing bowl. Warm it in the microwave for 15 to 30 seconds, just until it’s more pliable. We only need it warm enough to mix into the other ingredients, but not warm enough to melt the cheese.
- **WHERE TO FIND PIMENTO PEPPERS: You’ll find pimento peppers in well-stocked grocery stores, typically near the roasted red peppers. If you can’t find them, substitute a scant ½ cup chopped roasted red pepper. You’ll hardly tell a difference.