By Victoria Freixa
Cheese. The way to most people’s hearts. Whether you’re the subtle and mild cheese type, or an aged stinky cheese lover, cheese is a common weakness amongst most. And for good reason—cheese is incredibly dynamic yet it has the power to put the “comfort” in any comfort meal. It’s the perfect topping and complement to most dishes, but has earned the respect and admiration to stand on its own.
We’ve been making cheese for thousands of years, and it shows. We’ve perfected the process and now have over 1,800 types of cheeses being made around the globe. One could say, like math, it’s a universal language—and I’m undoubtedly fluent in cheese, like most of you. Which would make us fluent in Swiss too, right? Just kidding, I don’t know Jack. Okay, okay… no more cheesy puns.
Some joking aside; cheese, like Pitbull, is Mr. Worldwide. It can be found on traditional dishes from Asia, to Europe, all the way to the Americas. We all know that France takes the crown when it comes to cheese creation and quality, however, I think most people would agree that it’s a toss-up between Italy and Mexico for which country’s dishes are complemented most by cheese. You can’t really do pizza without cheese, but quesadillas…? You’re left with a tortilla. And that’s just the start: Enchiladas, tacos, burritos, tortas, chile relleno, and the list goes on. Hungry yet? ‘Cause I may or may not be drooling.
So, I brought you here to talk about Mexico’s famous cheeses, their origins, and the delicious roles they play in our favorite Mexican dishes. Some of you may know, while others are not aware yet, that the best Mexican cheeses can be found at almost any major super market, or even the hole-in-the-wall Mexican market where they sell that good Coca Cola and chile candy. It’s that popular, and that good. So, let’s get into some of the big boys.
1/ QUESO FRESCO
QUESO FRESCO is probably Mexico’s most famous cheese. It is also called Adobera cheese and originated in the Jalisco area of Mexico. They call it “adobero” for its likeness to adobe bricks. It is ivory in color, mild in taste, and firm and grainy in texture. What this cheese lacks in strong flavor, it makes up for in versatility. The soft and grainy texture allows for easy crumbling, grating, melting and shredding. So, it is no surprise why it is the most popular of the Mexican cheeses. We see it shredded on tacos and tortas, melted in enchiladas and burritos, and crumbled on salads and soups.
COTIJA is another all-star in the Mexican cheese game. It’s a hard cow’s milk white cheese from the town of Cotija in Michoacán. It’s crumbly, salty, fresh, and usually compared to a feta cheese. It’s not the melting kind of cheese, so this is the cheese you normally see sprinkled on most Mexican salads, soups, and tostadas. It serves many purposes but its main reason for existence is to add that salty subtle flavor to your meal, the way parmesan does to pasta. And hey, they’re primos! Cotija is in the parmesan cheese family and, fun fact, it’s even referred to as “the parmesan of Mexico.”
PANELA is a soft and creamy cow’s milk cheese from the cottage cheese family. It’s mild and smooth and known for its ability to blend well with pastes and sauces. Panela is also called queso canasta, or basket cheese, referring to the basket that is used to mould the cheese. Not to be confused with “mold”—a distinction that must be made when talking about cheese. The origins of panela cheese are disputed but there’s no question that it is one of Mexico’s most used and loved cheeses. The most common use for panela cheese is in the beloved quesadilla and even served on its own with garlic paste and chili pepper.
OAXACA cheese, also known as Asadero, is a soft white string-like cheese from…? You guessed it: Oaxaca. It’s compared to a mozzarella cheese in texture and a young Monterey jack cheese in flavor. It’s mellow, buttery, and works great as a melting cheese. This is why it is the most commonly used cheese in a quesadilla. Because Oaxaca cheese is so mild in flavor, it is known as a kid favorite and complements most dishes beautifully without overpowering any flavor.
ENCHILADO cheese is my personal favorite because of its spice. It is a white firm salty cheese, usually aged, and rolled in paprika, giving the outer edges that extra kick. It can be made with goat or cow’s milk but cow is the more common version nowadays. Another popular variation is anejo enchilado which is aged for longer periods of time, making it stronger and more pungent in flavor. It’s similar to a cotija cheese but more savory and far more versatile. It is the preferred cheese in an enchilada, chile relleno, and if you’re smart, you’ll use it in a jalapeño popper to give it that extra little zing.