What's the Difference Between Monterey Jack, Pepper Jack, Cheddar Jack, and Colby Jack?

Also, who is Jack??

The other day, I found myself standing in the dairy aisle staring at the variety of cheese selections and scratching my head. I was shopping for a recipe that called for Colby Jack cheese, which is a cheese I would never seek out myself, but as I sorted through all the different cheeses on the shelves, it dawned on me just how many "Jack" cheeses there are. This realization caused me to immediately spiral — what is the difference between Colby Jack and the other "Jack" cheeses? Is pepper Jack just a spicy version of other Jack cheeses? What is Monterey Jack cheese and what sets it apart from the others? And seriously, who is Jack!?! This yearning for Jack truths led me on a Google search that uncovered some pretty fascinating origins of these cheeses.

My first discovery is that Monterey Jack is the base cheese for all of the others. This is a semi-firm, creamy, mild flavored cheese made from cow's milk that's aged for a short period. It originated during the 1700s with Spanish missionaries in present-day San Diego. These missionaries relied heavily on their cattle which provided milk that they then turned into a soft cheese called "Queso blanco pais." In the late 1800s, a businessman located in central California (now Monterey county — if you watch Big Little Lies, yes, it's that county) by the name of David Jack took control of the land previously occupied by these missionaries (this new acquisition of land was later referred to as the Rape of Monterey) and is said to have been the first person to sell this cheese, popularizing it as "Jack's Cheese." The name eventually evolved to be Monterey Jack. So there IS a Jack. However, his first name is David. Iconic.

From there, you have the other cheese derivatives, which include pepper Jack, Colby Jack, and Cheddar Jack. All of these cheeses are a mixture of Monterey Jack and another cheese. In the case of pepper Jack, as the name might imply, sweet peppers, fresh herbs, habañero chilies, garlic, and jalapeños are added (though every pepper Jack is a little different and varies in spiciness). Colby cheese — which is an orange, semi-hard cow's milk cheese, originally from Wisconsin, that offers a subtle, nutty flavor — is mixed with Monterey Jack cheese to give you Colby Jack cheese. You might be able to guess that Cheddar Jack is a mix of Cheddar and Monterey Jack. See how it works? Monterey Jack is basically the poodle of the cheese world; it mixes extremely well with other breeds/varieties.

So, what's with all the cross-breeding? Well, all of these cheeses melt super easily, making them the perfect product to play around with and create subtle variations. Monterey Jack is a great baseline cheese because it's mild in flavor, so by mixing it up with peppers and/or sharper cheeses, it makes for a more exciting product. There you have it. Dairy aisle existential crisis has been averted.

So which cheese is the best and which should you buy? Well, that pretty much comes down to personal preference. Because they all possess similar textures and tastes, they're mostly interchangeable when it comes to cooking. Monterey Jack will give you the most basic, slightly tangy flavor profile. Pepper Jack will obviously give you some heat. Cheddar Jack will give you some sharpness, and Colby Jack will give you added nuttiness and a rich orange hue. So, it's entirely up to you — as only you know what you're looking for in your melty, cow's milk cheese.

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