Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dry Jack

Monterey Jack does not have to be the boring, nearly tasteless cheese most of us encounter only in Tex-Mex dishes. Dry Jack can be wonderful and indeed is considered by many to be one of America's greatest cheeses.

The best known maker of Dry Jack is Vella Cheese Company in Sonoma, CA. I had the pleasure of stopping by there a few weeks ago during my stay in Napa Valley.

Dry Jack is made from the pasteurized milk of grass-fed cows. Unlike regular Monterey Jack, Dry Jack undergoes an extensive aging process, during which time its moisture content is greatly reduced. The resulting cheese is hard, pale yellow in color, intensely flavored and similar in texture to Parmesan.

The Vellas coat the rind of their Dry Jack with a mixture of cocoa, pepper and soybean oil. The coating serves two purposes: (i) it keeps the cheese from cracking as it loses moisture and shrinks in size during the aging process and (ii) it imparts a unique spiciness to the cheese.

Mr. Vella told me the Dry Jack that I bought at his creamery was almost four years old. It boggles my mind to think I am eating a cheese that has been around longer than my daughter.

Vella Dry Jack is not currently available in Buffalo, but I have just requested that Premier Gourmet order some. They are good about honoring customer requests. So, I'll let you know when it comes in.

The one thing I can't figure out about Monterey Jack cheese is what conditions must be satisfied for a cheese to count as Monterey Jack. When I asked Mr. Vella about this, he simply told the common story of how a man named David Jacks allegedly invented the cheese in Monterey County during the California Gold Rush of the 1800s. However, in order for Mr. Jacks to be credited with "inventing" a new cheese, there must be something novel about his product. The mere fact that he made cheese from cow's milk in Monterey County hardly counts as a new invention. I have consulted reference books on American cheese and have scoured the internet but cannot find anything that distinguishes Monterey Jack as a distinct type of cheese from any other.

Here are some things that might distinguish a cheese as unique: (i) the type of starter culture (i.e., bacteria) added to milk to break down the lactose, (ii) the type of rennet (a coagulating enzyme) used to separate liquids (whey) from solids (curds), (iii) the process of cutting and pressing the curds, (iv) the method of treating the rind, and (v) the aging process. However, as best I can tell, Monterey Jack is not significantly different from cheddar in any of these categories, and Mr. Jacks certainly did not invent cheddar. The fact that he made some cheddar in California hardly seems to qualify his product as a new invention.

The mixture of cocoa, pepper and oil the Vellas use to coat their rinds seems to be a feature of their unique version of Monterey Jack rather than something that is common to all Jacks. So, if anyone knows what makes Monterey Jack Monterey Jack, please let me know.


Taihlo said...

I believe the cheese got it's name and uniqueness from the original manufacturing method, that used a press, rather than a weight in cheddar... The press was known as a "jack" so perhaps thats what made it different enough?

Karl said...

Monterey Jack was made and sold by Mr. Jack of Monterey. He didn't invent it; there is nothing unique about it. It was easy to make in a time and place of cheese scarcity. It is distinctive, so the name is useful, but not diagnostic. However, Monterey Jack is nothing like, and couldn't be confused with by even the most casual consumer, any cheddar cheese, which derives from a different process entirely.

CheeseSnob said...

The FDA defines Monterey Jack cheese as: "cheese made by the monterey process or by any other procedure which produces a finished cheese having the same organoleptic, physical, and chemical properties as the cheese produced by the monterey process. The cheese is made from pasteurized cow's milk. It may contain added common salt and contains not more than 44 percent moisture, its total solids content is not less than 50 percent milkfat, and it conforms to the applicable provisions of ...'Cheeses and Related Cheese Products' as issued by the FDA."

However, for the interesting story on how Monterey Jack was really invented (not, by the way, by "Mr. Jack of Monterey" -- nor David Jacks) read the entire details in: For those too busy to read such an entertaining story, be assured that "taihlo" is correct -- the name is from the device used to apply pressure to the cheese called a housejack.