One origin story attributes the name to businessman David Jacks, who branded and sold the cheese under his own name in the mid-1800's. Another, older origin story points to both the Franciscan friars and a home cheesemaker by the name of Juana Cota de Boronda.
According to Gianaclis Caldwell, author of the excellent book, Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking, "Both parties were making a semi-soft cheese based on a Spanish queso de pais (cheese of the country) that they pressed with wooden house jacks (tools meant to lift heavy structures still used today--think of a car jack used for changing a flat tire) and may have called 'jack cheese'."
Most recipes call for a mesophilic culture to be used, although even this is not always the case; a recipe in the book Goats Produce Too, The Udder Real Thing, (groan) calls for thermophilic culture to be used. Even the milk that is used is somewhat variable; a cheese made with skim milk will produce a hard cheese sturdy enough to grate, while a whole milk makes the more familiar semi-soft cheese, and a part-skim milk will produce a cheese somewhere in the middle.
Generally, Monterey Jack cheese is a washed curd cheese, meaning that once the curds have set and been cooked and stirred for a time in their own whey, the whey is then drained off and replaced with water of a cooler temperature than the curds. This washed-curd process is also used in cheeses varying from Gouda to Colby, and it results in a cheese that is soft and mild, with a smooth texture and a higher pH.
The water wash temperature can also be varied. While the differences in the various recipes may seem confusing to the beginner, I like to think of it as reassuring, in it's own way. It illustrates the way that cheese is a continuum rather than a fixed recipe that must be followed exactly. Obviously, careful attention to the recipe and the process will result in the most consistent product; however, great discoveries have been made when small mistakes have changed the finished cheese for the better.
The following Monterey Jack cheese recipe is made with goat's milk fresh from our Alpine does, although the recipe is not specific to goat's milk and could just as easily be made with cow's milk. Learn more about choosing the right milk here.
Before (and during!) any food preservation project, it's important to keep sanitation first in mind. For cheesemaking, this means having a clean workspace; sanitize the pot, as well as any utensils that might come into contact with the milk, such as the thermometer, knife, and spoon. It is sufficient to wash the pot and utensils in soap and water, and then to boil a small amount of water in the bottom of the pot for 10 minutes, with the utensils inside. The steam will sterilize everything.
Warm the milk slowly to 90 degrees Farenheit.
Add the culture. Sprinkle it over the surface of the milk and allow it to rehydrate for several minutes before stirring it gently into the milk with an up and down motion. Stir throughly, for a full minute. After stirring, cover the pot and allow the milk to ripen for 30 minutes.
If you are using pasteurized milk, you will want to add the recommended amount of calcium chloride after the milk has ripened for 30 minutes. Pasteurization damages the milk proteins, which can lead to a weaker, softer curd; adding CaCl helps to restore the strength of the curd. It is important to add the CaCl before adding any rennet. See our FAQ on how to choose the right milk when making cheese for more in-depth advice on your milk.
Pour the diluted rennet evenly over the milk and begin stirring immediately. Stir as before, with an up and down motion, as opposed to a circular motion, for 2-3 minutes.This is important, as the rennet will form clumps if not properly mixed into the milk. At the same time, the milk must be kept still after the rennet is added, and milk stirred in a circular motion will tend to keep swirling for too long after the rennet is added.
Let the milk set for 30-45 minutes, or until a clean break is achieved. A clean break is evident when the tip of a thermometer or a knife slices easily into the curd mass, leaving a clean, straight edge, or break, rather than a jagged tear. The whey should appear as clear, and not chunky, or milky. If the break is not "clean" at 30 minutes, wait another 15 and test again.
Once a clean break is achieved, it is time to cut the curd. Using a sharp knife, cut the curd into 1/4" cubes. This is generally done using a knife that is longer than the milk is deep. A specially designed curd knife is perfect for this, as it is sharp on both sides and has a curved bottom that will not scratch the bottom of the pot and will glide easily through the curd.
To begin, place the knife 1/4" from the edge of the pot and draw it slowly through the curd, making sure to reach the bottom of the pot. Make slices every 1/4" across the pot, and then rotate the pot 90 degrees, to make slices that horizontally intersect the first cutting. Repeat the method of cutting every 1/4", until you have a pot full of tall rectangular slices in a grid.
Next, hold the knife at a 45 degree angle, and use the previously cut lines as a guide. retrace the cuts across the pot, while holding the knife at a slant. Repeat again, from the opposite side.
When you are done cutting, gently stir the curd so that the pieces float in the whey, and use the knife to cut any cubes that are too large. While it is not vital that each cube be the exact same size, you do want to have the curds be as close to the same size as possible, so that they lose whey at the same rate. Treat the curds as gently as possible, being careful not to stir too much. The curds at this stage are soft, with a texture something like a soft jelly. Stirring too vigorously will result in the loss of too much butterfat, altering the final texture of the cheese.
Let the curds rest for 40 minutes after cutting.
Slowly begin to heat the curds again, stirring slowly as the temperature is gradually increased to 102 degrees farenheit. The temperature should rise no more than 2 degrees in 5 minutes, so it will take about 35 minutes to reach the desired temperature. During this process, the curds will gradually lose their moisture; if they are heated too quickly, they will develop a skin that traps the whey inside, which may create a cheese that is too moist or is not able to reach the correct acidity.
Stir gently throughout the heating process, to prevent the curd from matting together.
Maintain the curds at 102 degrees for 30 or more minutes. The curds should feel springy, will have shrunk considerably from their original size as cut cubes, and become more softly rounded. The ideal texture will be springy, with an interior that is not custardy or soft inside.
Pour off the whey to the level of the curds.
Now it is time to wash the curds. Gradually add cold water to the curds, while stirring, until the temperature reaches 86 degrees farenheit. Allow the curds to set for 20 minutes, stirring as needed to prevent matting, then drain the whey down to the level of the curds and continue stirring for another 10 minutes. Then drain the curds completely and pour them into a colander lined with cheesecloth. Sprinkle the salt over the curd in 2 applications, mixing throughly and allowing the curds to rest for 10 minutes between applications. This will allow them to knit together more easily.
Place the curds in a cheesecloth-lined mold, and press with 5 pounds of weight for 15 minutes. Remove the cheese from the press and flip it over, then press it at 20 pounds for 12 hours.
Remove the cheese and allow it to dry at room temperature to dry, until a light rind is formed, usually 1 or 2 days. Flip it over several times during this process, so that all sides of the cheese are exposed to the air.
Refrigerate the cheese so that it is cold when you are ready to wax it.
Heat up the cheese wax in a double boiler, until it is completely melted but not boiling. Dip the cold cheese into the wax, as far up the sides as you can manage. Allow the wax to harden on the cheese, so that you can grasp the cheese by the waxed portion, and dunk the other half of the cheese into the hot wax. Repeat this process once or twice more, allowing the wax to cool between layers, so that the cheese is uniformly coated.
Age the cheese for at least 3 weeks, in a cool dark place. If you haven't got a cave, a refrigerator will do. It is best aged for a longer period of time, from 1-3 months. The flavor will sharpen and become drier as it ages.
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