The Many Uses of Mexican Cheese

Cotija cheese with cilantro on cutting board .

As diverse as they are flavorful, these varieties provide a bevy of options

Gooey enchiladas… quesadillas dripping with stretchy, stringy goodness… creamy queso fundido dotted with spicy chorizo… Mexican cuisine is a cheese-lover’s dream. It’s hard to think of a dish that isn’t packed with rich, savory flavor.

The next time tacos and chile rellenos are on the menu, skip the jack and cheddar and seek out high-quality Mexican-style cheeses instead. They are increasingly available in the United States and lend more authentic flavor to dishes of all kinds.

Even the uninitiated can confidently use these products because of the many parallels between Hispanic cheeses and American or European ones. Tomas Rizo, vice president of sales and marketing for Rizo Lopez Foods, based in Modesto, CA, which produces Don Francisco and Rizo Bros. cheeses, says that people from numerous cultures have traveled to Latin America throughout the centuries to trade and establish new homes. When they immigrated, they brought their traditions with them. As a result, “many Mexican cheeses are very similar to other cheeses throughout the world,” he says. “There’s almost always an equivalent.”

Mexican cheeses are also designed for cooking. “It’s said that in Mexican gastronomy, there are three mother cuisines: Oaxacan, Puebla and Yucateca,” says Carlos Yescas, director of the Boston-based Oldways Cheese Coalition and co-owner of Mexico-based Lactography Cheesemongers. “These cuisines are complete in the sense that they have ingredients, techniques, an oral history and people who cook traditionally with those cuisines. Each one of those big cuisines uses cheeses in different ways. On top of those Mexican gastronomic traditions, there are also traditional foods from the north, near Mexico City and from the mountainous regions.

“What’s important to know is in all of these cuisines, cheese is always used as an ingredient,” Yescas continues. “That’s different than the culture of France, where there’s table cheese that you eat as a dessert, or in Spain, where you eat it as tapas and enjoy it by itself. Every traditional cheese is part of a recipe.”

The other important thing to note is that cheeses that are available in the U.S. should more accurately be called Mexican-style cheeses.

Cheese has terroir, or distinct flavors, that originate with the milk and come from the type of nutrition the animals consume. “A big conversation about the current moment in the U.S. is that many of the ingredients—and here I’m thinking of cheese as an ingredient—are not authentic as they are produced in the U.S.,” says Yescas. “What that means for cheese is that they’re not original, not because of the people but because something changes when you have your animals on pasture in a very specific region of Mexico.” Many Mexican cheeses are also made with raw milk and sold fresh, something that is not allowed in the U.S.

“I’m always happy that people are eating more Mexican food and trying to understand more about it,” says Yescas. But eating truly Mexican cheese typically means getting products made in-country, and there are few exported to the United States.

Getting the real thing also isn’t cheap, which stands in contrast to people’s perception of Mexican food being inexpensive. “If we want those products, we have to be willing to pay that higher price. Otherwise, you’re getting the basic stuff that can be made in the U.S.,” says Yescas.

Whether you buy cheese from Mexico or products made from recipes and techniques brought to the U.S., there are lots of delicious options in this category. Since winter is the time to tuck into hearty, comforting foods like soups and casseroles, there’s no better time to try cooking with them.

Also, in the spirit of the international influences that inspired many cheesemakers, don’t feel limited to putting Mexican cheeses on Mexican foods. “You can use them for everything,” says Francisco Ochoa, who owns Albany, OR-based Ochoa’s Queseria, maker of Don Froylan products, with his wife, Lisa. “They’re not just for Mexican food. Put them on any dish you like.” While it is possible to find cheeses spiked with hot peppers or sprinkled with chile powder, most are mild and pair well with a number of delicious dishes.

Popular Mexican Cheeses

“The most famous Mexican cheese is queso Oaxaca,” says Yescas. (In Mexico, it is called quesillo or queso de hebra.) It is made with soured skim milk, which gives it the flavor and texture of good-quality Italian mozzarella. Like the Italian cheese, it is also very easy to make at home. “When people are experimenting with making their own cheese, they always start with paneer. The second cheese they should experiment with is queso Oaxaca.”

Traditionally, the cheese is hand-stretched to create a product similar to string cheese. At Ochoa’s Queseria’s brand-new production facility in Salem, OR, visitors can watch workers pull lumps of cheese like taffy until they form ropes almost 300 feet long. Each rope is sliced into smaller pieces and wound up like oversized balls of yarn before being placed in a package.

Ochoa recommends using queso Oaxaca for nachos, chile rellenos and queso fundido. It also makes a great snack.

Rizo Lopez Foods’s best-selling product is queso fresco, which Rizo describes as a fresh farmer’s cheese. “It’s lower in salt, higher in moisture and has a high pH, so it’s a delicate cheese.” Different regions tend to produce different cheeses, but nearly all Latin American cultures make a queso fresco. Depending on where it’s crafted (or what area the maker comes from), it may be more or less crumbly; aged a shorter or longer period of time; served plain or mixed with herbs or chiles.

In Mexico, queso fresco is typically eaten with a corn dish, such as tacos, tortillas or enchiladas, Yescas says. “Some people on the coast of Veracruz will eat queso fresco with a piece of fruit for breakfast because it’s really hot in the morning.”

“Queso fresco is often made on the farm with the morning milk, and it will be on the table for lunch. That’s why you often see ‘ranchero’ on the label,” says Rizo. “You can cut a little wedge off and it’s got a lot of moisture, a little salt and a lot of freshness. It’s just a fresh respite on the plate.”

Ochoa suggests adding queso fresco to baked potatoes or green salads. “Local people tell us this is the perfect salad cheese because it’s not overwhelming like feta or blue,” she says.

Like queso Oaxaca, queso fresco is relatively easy to make at home. People who want to try it should seek out the freshest milk possible. “The taste of the milk really comes through in the cheese, so you have to have the highest-quality milk possible,” Ochoa says.

Another option for soft cheese is panela, which is a cottage cheese-style product with a high moisture content and fresh flavor. “Queso fresco is the most popular cheese in the U.S. for Mexicans, but panela is more popular in Mexico,” says Rizo. “They’re very similar; the panela is just not ground. Our panela is a basket cheese, so you put it in a basket, strain it, let the curds knit together and then flip the basket to get the whey out. You see a lot of basket cheeses in eastern Europe and the Middle East.”

Cheese for Cooking

If panela is most similar to cottage cheese, requesón can be compared to ricotta, only it is drier and saltier. It is used in much the same way: as a filling in casseroles and other savory dishes, or as a main ingredient in desserts.

Queso botanero tastes and performs in much the same way as good-quality Monterey jack or mozzarella. In addition to the original variety, Ochoa’s Queseria make a version with fresh jalapeños and cilantro. It’s delicious melted over a burger or pile of tortilla chips.

Menonita or queso Chihuahua is a semi-hard cheese that was brought to this region of northern Mexican by Mennonites—thus the name. It has a mild flavor similar to white cheddar. It is often used in quesadillas, queso fundido and other recipes that call for melted cheese.

Any discussion about Mexican cheese isn’t complete without talking about cotija. “It’s a hard cheese that’s very crumbly and high in salt,” said Ochoa. When young, it has a fresh flavor and soft texture. It can also be aged, making it similar to Parmesan. Since it doesn’t melt, it is great for sprinkling over finished dishes such as tacos, enchiladas and soups.

Cotija enchilado is a variation that gets an extra punch of flavor from a coating of brick-red chile powder on the exterior of each block. Yescas’s very favorite cheese is called mountain cotija. It is made by people in the Michoacán region who practice transhumance, where they travel into the mountains during the rainy season to give their animals access to the freshest grass possible. Unlike crumbly cotija, mountain cotija comes in 50-kg wheels and has a more paste-like texture. The general flavor profile is strong, lactic and fresh, with grassy notes and a finish of roasted pineapple, says Yescas. But the taste can vary depending on where in the mountains the animals are grazing. When they’re farther up, their milk takes on the aromatic smell of pine. When they’re lower in the mountains, the cheese tends to be sweeter. Whether it was made at high altitudes or low, it provides a delicious and distinctive taste of Mexican craftsmanship.

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