Authentic Mexican Cheeses
Nowadays the thought of Mexican cuisine without cheese is ludicrous, but it hasn’t always been so. Before the arrival of Europeans in what now is Mexico, animals like cows and goats—and their milk products—were unknown there. These animals (and most other common livestock) arrived with the Spaniards.
The Spanish word for cheese is queso, pronounced KEH-soh.
There are dozens of delicious, genuine Mexican quesos, each one with its own charm, so don’t settle for the often uninspiring product labeled “Mexican cheese” or “Mexican blend” that is so often sold in the United States. (Don´t even get us started about canned “nacho cheese product” or “cheese dip” in a jar. They may be yummy in some contexts, but they are not Mexican!) It is well worth your time to look for a Hispanic store or merchant who sells authentic Latin American cheeses, so you can savor the rich varieties of products that are out there.
Queso Fresco and Queso Añejo
Queso fresco (“fresh cheese”) is made with whole milk and is soft and almost spongy in texture. There are salty varieties and non-salty varieties. In Mexican markets queso fresco is often sold wrapped in a banana or corn leaf, adding to its rustic charm. Since it is so naturally crumbly, queso fresco is often used sprinkled over beans or antojitos.
Queso añejo “(old cheese”) is the aged version of this product. It is white and crumbly, just like its fresh version, and is most often used sprinkled over antojitos, beans, and salads.
Mexican manchego cheese shares a name with a famous Spanish cheesethat is made with goat’s milk. The Mexican version, however, is most often made with cow’s milk. It is light yellow and works deliciously plain as an appetizer or snack. Manchego cheese is also easy to shred and melts easily. If you can find it (not always easy to do in the United States), this is a wonderful multi-purpose Mexican cheese.
Soft and white, panela cheese is made with skim milk and thus is firmer and considerably more flexible than queso fresco. Panela can be easily cut but not crumbled. Its slightly rubbery texture makes it “squeak” a little bit when it is bitten into. Panela cheese is slightly salty and is most often eaten alone or with other ingredients as a snack or an appetizer or cut up into a salad. It is also often sliced thick for sandwiches or for making fried cheese since panela will not melt when heated.
One variety of panela cheese is queso canasta or basket cheese, named for the rustic basket in which it is sometimes packed in Mexican markets.
The name translates as “white cheese,” and this is another soft, crumbly cheese. Upon being heated, it becomes creamy without melting completely, making it perfect for sprinkling on hot foods such as refried beans or enchiladas. Queso blanco is quite versatile, though, and is delicious sprinkled on salads or other cold or room-temperature foods, too.
Oaxaca cheese, a type of string cheese, is also known as quesillo. It takes its name from the State of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. This cheese is creamy white and moderately soft. Queso Oaxaca’s unusual appearance owes itself to its production process: upon curdling, many strings are formed. These strings are wound in such a way to form a ball of cheese.
Oaxaca cheese can be used when strings of cheese are desired, and it melts very nicely and easily. It is often used for quesadillas, stuffed chilis, or other dishes when melted—but not runny—cheese is desired.
Named after the northern Mexican state, this cheese is also known as queso menonita because it originated in the Mennonite communities of the area. (Occasionally you will see a tall, blond, overalls-clad youth selling this cheese at an intersection in Mexico.)
Queso Chihuahua is a firm, light yellow aged cheese. It has a stronger flavor than most Mexican cheeses, comparable in sharpness to an American cheddar. It is easy to melt and often used to make queso fundido (melted cheese eaten with chips or other “dippers”).
Considered Mexico’s answer to an aged parmesan, Cotija cheese takes its name from the town of Cotija in Michoacán state. It is a strong-smelling and –tasting, salty, aged cheese. Easily shredded or crumbled, queso Cotija really comes into its own as a flavor-adding topping for salads, beans, pasta, and antojitos.
Other Mexican Cheeses
The 8 or 9 types of cheese selected just scratch the surface of the vast variety of quesos Mexicanos. Don´t waste the opportunity to try any variety you might come across, including the following:
Queso asadero or queso quesadilla is a creamy, smooth, semi-soft white cheese that melts beautifully. It is often used to make quesadillas, pizzas, queso fundido (melted cheese served as an appetizer or side dish) or for cheese-topped baked dishes.
Queso doble crema (“double cream cheese”) is a very soft, white cheese made with additional cream to make it, well, creamier. It is smooth and rich and used for spreading, and it is a cheese often used in dessert-making, as well.
Queso de bola (“ball cheese”) is a national version of the Dutch Edam cheese, a semi-firm yellow cheese that is traditionally covered with a layer of bright red wax. This Mexican rendition is used in Yucatán State to prepare queso relleno, a delicacy created by partially hollowing out a whole queso de bola, filling it with a special picadillo mixture then baking it or steaming it until the cheese is soft.