FoodMexico

Queso Monster: A Guide to Mexican Cheese

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Mexican Cheese Guide

In all it’s glorious dairy delight, cheese is one of my favorite things to explore in a foreign country. I want to know everything about it — the varieties, how they’re made, the textures, the flavors. My obsession with cheese is so intense that I’ll eat entire meals of the stuff, and I spent a month of my life learning how to make it in Spain. I always considered myself pretty familiar with Mexican cheese. Growing up in Southern California, words like cotija and queso fresco were not foreign to me. But it wasn’t until I was deep in the Yucatan Peninsula, shopping for groceries, that I fully realized the variety and quality of Mexico’s cheese. Here’s a guide.

Mexican Cheese Guide
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A Guide to Mexican Cheese

Oaxaca

Oaxaca Mexican Cheese

It’s Mexican Mozzarella! Or at least it’s very similar to the Italian classic in texture and taste. It’s formed into a rope and wound up into a little ball of dairy deliciousness. You can grate it to sprinkle it on top of just about anything to give it a fresh, creamy lift. Or you can slice it and pop it in a tortilla for quesadillas (this is my favorite use for it). It doesn’t have a strong flavor, so tossing in a little jalapeno, chorizo, or sauteed onion (or all of the above) will really bring the cheese to life. Anything spicy is the perfect counterbalance to this easy-eating cheese, so dig in!

Chihuahua

First came the dogs. Then came the… cheese? The state of Chihuahua in Mexico has provided many wonderful things to the world, and this semi-firm white cheese is one of them. It has a less stringy texture than Oaxaca Cheese and it is a tiny bit more salty. Many cheesemongers liken it to a mild white cheddar, but even that might be a little extreme. Like most Mexican cheeses, this is meant to be the supporting actor, not the star of the show. It’s melting point is great for quesadillas, but I like to grate this in heaping amounts and stuff it into burritos best.

Panela

Panela Mexican Cheese
Photo by Pyb, used under Creative Commons

Panela is the wallflower of Mexican cheeses, light in texture, light in flavor, easily overlooked. The name and flavor are often compared to the Indian cheese, paneer. It’s a vehicle for flavor rather than a flavor explosion in itself, and Mexican chefs have turned out dozens of incredible dishes using this as their base. It’s a soft cheese, but it holds it’s shape remarkably well under heat, so you can flash-fry this to get a crust on the outside. Or you can smother slices of it in a chili-garlic sauce and serve it as an appetizer (my favorite way to eat it).

Queso Fresco

Queso Fresco Mexican Cheese
Photo by Chispita_666, used under Creative Commons

The crumbly, clean goodness of queso fresco cannot be rated highly enough. It literally means ‘fresh cheese’ in Spanish, and the bright and mild flavor is generously crumbled over everything before it’s served. Since a lot of Mexican food can be heavy, this cheese gives a lift that keeps it from weighing down your palate too heavily. It has a hint of salt to it, but only enough to tease your tastebuds into taking heaping bite after bite, hoping to get more. Black beans are nothing without a crumble of queso fresco on top, and this is the ultimate salad cheese.

Cotija

Cotija Mexican Cheese
Photo by NuestroMercadoQuesos, used under Creative Commons

People often confuse cotija and queso fresco. To be fair, they look similar, and their texture is similar. But in flavor they are no more than distant, distant cousins. Like 4th cousins twice removed. Like ‘it wouldn’t be illegal to get married’ cousins. Okay that might be a little dramatic, but cotija definitely offers a saltier bite than uber-smooth queso fresco. Kinda like my flirting style… Okay, back on topic! Cotija is my favorite cheese to put on tacos of any kind, and it is the only one I serve with my signature beer-battered fish tacos. No, you can’t have the recipe for that one! But it’s also a core component of my Southwest Corn Salad, which you can have the recipe for.

Queso Anejo

Asadero Mexican cheese
Photo by Queseria La Antigua de Fuentesaúco, used under Creative Commons

Crumbly, firm, aged goat cheese. So much yes in those words. Though goat’s milk is the traditional recipe for queso anejo, of late it’s mostly made with cow’s milk. It’s dry, it’s salty, it’s basically parmesan but with a special Mexican flair. You can grill some corn, slather it with butter or oil, and roll it around in this cheese (and maybe some cilantro) and die a happy camper. It adds a depth of flavor to fresh ingredients and deepens savory flavors to awesomeness.

Getting hungry yet? What’s your favorite ‘unusual’ cheese country? Have you checked out my guide to Balkan Cheese? Let me know in the comments!

41 Comments

  1. This post is after my cheese-loving heart! We can get good queso fresco where I live, but not the Anejo. At least not yet. More reason to travel to the source in Mexico.

    1. Queso fresco is a decent consolation, though! Even in California we have a hard time finding some of these, and even when we do they’re not QUITE the same as the versions in Mexico. It’s definitely worth a trip!

  2. I am a cheese lover too!!! Love the oaxaca cheese photo. I can imagine the gooeyness and the taste. Moza is my favorite cheese thats why. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Ahhh I just made some queso fundido with Oaxaca cheese… I have to go to the Mexican grocery store to find it but it’s worth the extra trip! The recipe will be up tomorrow, check it out! 🙂

  3. Queso Oaxaca is the reason why I’ve been to Mexico eight times so far – it is the most delicious thing on our planet! Sad it’s hard or nearly impossible to get somewhere else 😢

    1. I know! You are my travel soul sister I think… I’d travel just for cheese as well! And you’re right about it being tough to find outside of Mexico. Fortunately in Southern California we have enough Mexican markets that I can usually find it if I need to, but it takes a separate trip.

  4. I think that travel has made me even more of a cheese fan. I enjoy mild cheeses, so a lot of these seem just right. I enjoy me a good queso fresco on pretty much anything! The Oaxaca cheese sounds perfect for me too!

    1. It’s definitely elevated my taste in cheese! Some of the European cheeses… don’t even get me started! If you prefer mild cheese, you will love authentic Mexican food! Everything is pretty mild, lower salt content, etc. Hopefully you can make it to Mexico to find out for yourself! 🙂

  5. WOW I love cheese it is a major food group for our family! My fave I think is the cotija cheese from mexico it looks amazing! This is a fun guide, as I love to go shopping and seriously I hover over the cheese isle when I travel.

    1. Cotija is my favorite too Stacey — I put it in almost every Mexican dish that I make! And I do the exact same thing whenever I travel — I always say the best way to get to know a country is to go to the market or grocery store!

  6. I feel like I’ve finally found someone who loves cheese as much as I do!! I love most the dairy delights (except blue cheese – have never gotten used to the mold thing) I would love to try all of these but I think my clear favorite would have to be the firm aged goats cheese – it sounds delicious!

    1. Oh man, YES to all of the above. Usually I like cheese to have a LOT of flavor, but I make an exception when it comes to buffalo mozzarella. It’s so creamy and light, the texture sends me into raptures. Yumm you’re making me want to go back to Italy!

  7. Mmmmm cheese. What’s funny is I found the food in Mexico to be a lot less cheesy than when you buy mexican food in the states. I assumed cheese wasn’t a big thing in Mexico. Maybe I was eating in the wrong places!

    1. You’re totally right Martin! In the US, they throw in cheddar, Monterey Jack, and other high-salt, low-melt-point cheeses into their Mexican food. Most of these cheeses are completely different from what you’ll find on Mexican menus in America. They’re not as prominent in flavor so they’re a little easier to miss… unless you order a quesadilla or queso fundido.

  8. I didn’t know there were so many types of Mexican cheese. I would love to try the Oaxaca, Panela, and Queso Anejo – since I am a lover of goat cheese. I’m not sure I have a favorite cheese country, but I certainly love cheeses, particularly aged cheese.

    1. It’s one of my food-nerd things that I like to do — find out everything I can about the cheese of the place I’m visiting! I’m personally pretty partial to European cheese, but I’ve rarely found a cheese I don’t like anywhere in the world.

  9. Oooooh I love a bit of cheese! I’ve been dying to go to Mexico for so many years and didn’t even know that they were big on their cheeses. I would love to go on a food tour, that would be a great start to be introduced 🙂

    1. Well, Mexico definitely isn’t like, say, France when it comes to cheese. But they have a few interesting varieties that many people don’t know about. Totally worth a visit. And a food tour is a brilliant idea — regional cuisine is so different state by state!

  10. OMG! As soon as I started to read your title I though “I’m gonna love this post”! I’m kind of crazy about cheese and love to try different kinds. Didn’t know that Mexico had such a variety of cheeses. Thanks for showing me that and, yes, I’m hungry now! 😉

    1. Haha I know, Mexico doesn’t get enough credit! Cheese is something that was brought over by the Europeans, so it’s not indigenous per-se, but they’ve really made it their own. Hopefully you get a chance to try a few!

  11. I’ll be the first to admit I did not know that Chihuahua was a region or a cheese. Cheddar happens to be my favorite so I’ll definitely have to try it!

    1. You thought it was just the dog, yeah? 😉 What’s funny is I actually have a Chihuahua… the dog! So I feel a special affinity for that particular area of Mexico. Though I learned that they don’t call that breed chihuahua in Mexico. They just call them “small dog” in Spanish!

  12. Loved this, I just wish I could buy those cheeses in Australia. I am a massive cheese fan and I love queso dips as well. I’ve tried to make them in Australia but without the right cheese, it’s just never the same.

    1. Ah they ARE hard to find in Oz! That’s the one thing about being back in the US that makes me happy — I can find all the chilies and cheeses I’m used to using on Mexican cooking! When I lived in Sydney I tried to source habanero peppers for my ceviche — NOWHERE to be found!

  13. That s such a cool article. I love Mexico and I love cheeses. These look more like Spanish cheeses though. They probably adopted the cheeses from the Spanish

  14. Hah! I love that you have both a Mexican and Balkan guide to cheese! I’ve always liked the Oaxacan cheese, and that photo of it is splendid.

    1. I know, I’m sure there will be more cheese guides to come also 😉 Thank you for stopping by and commenting — there will be a Oaxaca Cheese Queso Fundido recipe up this week!

  15. Wow sounds like you’re a real cheese-aholic 😉 I love cheese too, it’s interesting to know there are so many different varieties in just one country!

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