Monterey Jack cheese is a cheese which originated along the central California coast, and has since spread throughout the United States. It is one of the few cheeses which can rightfully be called “American,” since it was developed in the United States, although it certainly owes inspiration to European cheeses. Two versions of these cheese are available, a fresh one and a version called dry Jack, which tends to pop up only in specialty shops. A variant, Sonoma Jack, comes from Sonoma County, California.
Although Monterey Jack is an American cheese, it was developed before California entered the Union, and it actually has a long and colorful history. Franciscan monks in monasteries around the Monterey region first started making the cheese in the 1700s, creating a cheese which is aged only briefly before being served. The cow's milk cheese is semi-firm with a creamy, mild flavor and a high moisture content. Mexican and Spanish inspired cuisine in California often uses Monterey Jack, and the cheese also melts very well, making it quite suitable for grilled cheese sandwiches.
In the late 1800s, an entrepreneur named David Jack realized that a commercial market for the cheese might exist, and he started selling it in other parts of California. The cheese acquired the name “Monterey Jack's” or “Jack's Monterey,” which later evolved into the current name. Since the cheese is highly versatile, it quickly became a popular seller. Other dairies around California and elsewhere in the United States also began producing this cheese, although some consumers prefer the cheese from Monterey county.
There are a number of variations on the classic Monterey Jack cheese. Some producers add herbs or hot peppers to make herbed Jack or pepper Jack cheeses. This cheese is also sometimes blended with Colby, another mild American cheese, to make Colby Jack. One of the most coveted varieties of Monterey Jack is dry Jack, an aged version of the cheese which can be difficult to find outside of California. Dry Jack acquires a much more complex, sharp flavor and it turns hard enough to be grated and used like Parmesan.
When seeking out Monterey Jack cheese, look for a smooth, evenly colored specimen without signs of cracking or discoloration. The young cheese is somewhat perishable, so it should be used quickly. Dry Jack is more shelf stable, when it can be obtained, and the unique cheese is well worth experiencing, should an opportunity present itself.