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.
A Guide to 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!
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 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).
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.
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.
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!