How to make the best pimento cheese according to top Southern chefs
There's no need to fancy up pimento cheese. It is not, as some food writers are fond of proclaiming, the "pate of the South." It is what it is: a blend of mayo, cheese, peppers and spices. If you're a fan, you have a hard time putting it down once you've tucked into it.
Here, we've gathered some of our favorite recipes from three top Southern chefs: Kelsey Barnard Clark, Linton Hopkins and Anne Byrn, the Nashville-based cookbook author who also provided Southern Kitchen with a little history about this quintessential Southern spread.
For one thing, she told Southern Kitchen, pimento cheese isn't even originally Southern.
"It’s well documented that the first pimento cheese was a blend of Neufchâtel cheese and diced pimento peppers," she said. "It was sold by the slice or in a jar in early 1900s groceries all over the country, from Richmond to Portland. And with the onset of World War I, and the need to feed troops and volunteers easily and inexpensively, sandwich spreads like pimento cheese came into vogue."
Pimento cheese may have fallen in and out of fashion, but it holds a dear place in our hearts. It's also a favorite of Top Chef winner Kelsey Barnard Clark, who keeps it ready in her refrigerator for drop-in guests. Her secret? Hellmann's mayonnaise. Here's her recipe:
Top Chef Pimento Cheese
Makes 4-6 servings or 2 cups
- 1 cup freshly grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese
- ⅓ cup freshly grated smoked Gouda
- ½ cup jarred pimento peppers
- ¼ cup sour cream
- ¼ cup (60 g) Hellmann’s mayonnaise
- ½ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
- ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
- freshly ground black pepper
In a mixing bowl, stir together the cheddar, Gouda, pimentos, sour cream, mayonnaise, Old Bay seasoning and smoked paprika with a wooden spoon until completely incorporated. Season with salt and pepper. Serve chilled or at room temperature. The mixture will keep refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Once refrigerated, this pimento cheese will firm up. It develops in flavor overnight, so, if possible, make it a day ahead. Add as much onion as you like. You can finely grate the onion, or you can coarsely grate it for more texture.
Anne Byrn's pickled jalapeno pimento cheese
According to Byrn, the earliest home pimento cheese recipes were a mix of grated hoop cheese, canned pimento peppers and mayonnaise, either homemade or one of the new store brands.
There was Hellmann’s, born in 1905 and popular in much of the upper South, specifically Kentucky and Tennessee. Duke’s was the regional brand of South Carolina. In fact, founder Eugenia Duke sold pimento cheese sandwiches to soldiers at Camp Sevier near Greenville, South Carolina, before she sold her mayonnaise in 1917.
This recipe uses Duke's. Also, if you're wondering why there's no salt in the recipe, that's by design. The cheese and pickled jalapeño peppers add enough, but you can adjust to your personal preference.
- 12 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese
- 4 ounces Vermont sharp cheddar cheese
- ½ cup Duke’s mayonnaise
- 4 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 1 tablespoon grated Vidalia onion
- 1 tablespoon diced pickled jalapeño pepper, plus additional pickled jalapeño pepper juice
- Dash cayenne pepper, if desired
- Freshly ground black pepper
- ½ to ¾ cup chopped roasted red bell pepper (canned is fine)
Grate the cheese and set it aside. You should have 3 cups extra-sharp cheddar and 1 cup Vermont cheddar, for about 4 cups of cheese in total.
Place the mayonnaise in a large mixing bowl. Soften the cream cheese in the microwave if needed so that it is easily spreadable. Add it to the mayonnaise and whisk until smooth.
Add the onion, jalapeño pepper, a dash of jalapeño pepper juice, cayenne and black pepper. Stir to combine. Fold in the roasted red pepper, followed by the grated cheese. Taste for seasoning, and add more mayonnaise or jalapeño pepper juice as needed to make the pimento cheese spreadable. Refrigerate before serving.
Holeman and Finch-worthy Southern pimento cheese
This pimento cheese is served at Holeman and Finch and the former Restaurant Eugene, where it appeared in mini pimento cheese macarons. The base recipe is one that Hopkins and his wife, Gina, created together at home when they first started dating.
- 3 red bell peppers
- 2 cups coarsely shredded sharp yellow cheddar cheese
- ½ cup cream cheese, softened
- ¼ cup mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon juice from a jar of bread and butter pickles (optional)
- ¼ teaspoon Tabasco
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- saltine crackers, for serving
Light a grill or preheat the broiler. Place the bell peppers over the hot fire or under the broiler and cook, turning until charred all over. Transfer the bell peppers to a plate and let cool to room temperature.
Peel the roasted peppers and discard the cores and seeds. Cut the peppers into ⅛-inch dice and pat dry with paper towels.
In a large bowl, mix the diced peppers with the cheddar cheese, cream cheese, mayonnaise, pickle juice (if using) and Tabasco. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Serve with the crackers.