By Esther Sung, Epicurious
Diana Kennedy sets the record straight on Mexico's most popular cheeses and dairy products, including Cotija, queso fresco and añejo
Clockwise, from top left: Zucchini and Red Pepper Enchiladas with Two Salsas, which uses queso fresco; Molletes, with Chihuahua cheese; Shrimp and Cotija Enchiladas with Salsa Verde and Crema Mexicana
When you think of some of Mexico's most iconic dishes -- tacos, enchiladas, frijoles -- chances are, there's cheese involved. Crumbled, grated, sliced and melted, the cheeses in Mexican dishes contribute salty, tangy flavors and offset some of the heat from chiles and spices. But when it comes to identifying some of Mexico's traditional cheeses (and other dairy products) -- namely, the ones you encounter in Mexican restaurants and cookbooks -- you're probably stuck at queso fresco and Cotija. Or perhaps your idea of Mexican cheese is the white and orange cheese mix found in your grocery's dairy section. Whichever the case may be, we turned to Diana Kennedy, the authority on Mexican cuisine, to help set the record straight on what is -- and isn't -- Mexican cheese.
The Truth About Mexican Cheeses
First, let's clear up several popular misconceptions about Mexican cheese. According to Kennedy:
- Queso blanco is not a type of Mexican cheese. It's a general term for "white cheese," used primarily in Central and South American recipes.
- Queso añejo is not an aged version of queso fresco; it is its own kind of cheese, "totally different in texture, moisture, and form."
- Queso quesadilla "does not exist in Mexico."
- Queso jalapeño "is just a variation of any cheese mixed with jalapeños."
Mexico's cheese tradition has relied almost exclusively on using cow's milk, but according to Kennedy, goat's- and sheep's-milk cheeses can be found in Mexico in small quantities.
Where to Find Mexican Cheeses: It used to be that Americans in search of Mexican cheese had only one option: to go to Mexico. These days, though, cheeses made in Mexico -- as well as domestic products made in the Mexican style -- can be found much closer to home. In cities with a large Mexican-heritage community, look for the cheeses in ethnic-food marts or grocery stores. Some gourmet shops may also carry the cheeses. Kennedy recommends the Mozzarella Company as one online source. Others include MexGrocer.com, Marky's, and igourmet.com.
Cooking with Traditional Mexican Cheeses: Diana Kennedy shared with Epicurious her expert tips for identifying and cooking with seven traditional Mexican cheeses, as well as two other dairy products. Along with their key characteristics, Kennedy provides workable substitutes for each cheese, which both suggests their flavor profiles and offers an alternative solution if you can't find a particular cheese. Of course, the best way to enjoy these cheeses is to cook with them, so we've included recipes from the Epicurious recipe database that make the most of these delicious foods.
Dry and salty, this cheese is generally sold pre-grated. Sprinkle on enchiladas, antojitos [small plates], and refried beans.
Recipe to try: Charcoal-Grilled Corn with Cream, Cheese and Chile
Mild-tasting with a pleasant acidity, this fresh cheese is slightly chewy yet tender. Because it melts wonderfully, use it to top a bowl of chile con queso or as stuffing for chile rellenos.
Substitutions: Teleme, domestic Muenster, provolone
Recipe to try: Pork Chili Verde Enchiladas
Named for the Mexican state from which it originates, this cheese is also sometimes referred to as queso menonita, for the Mennonite farmers who first made this cheese. When fresh, it resembles a mild Cheddar in taste and texture. As it ages, its flavor becomes tangy. You can grate it to top dishes, or stuff it into chile rellenos or tamales.
Substitutions: Monterey Jack, mild Cheddar
Recipe to try: Molletes
This strong-flavored cheese is sold aged, making it a bit dry, salty, and almost granular in texture. Often served crumbled, Cotija doesn't melt so much as soften.
Recipe to try: Shrimp and Cotija Enchiladas with Salsa Verde and Crema Mexicana
The name means "fresh cheese." In this case, it's a salty cheese that's usually enjoyed crumbled but can also be sliced or melted. Use it on refried beans, enchiladas, or stuffed in chiles.
Substitutions: Ricotta salata, French feta (milder and less salty than the Greek and Bulgarian varieties)
Recipe to try: Zucchini and Red Pepper Enchiladas with Two Salsas
Queso de Oaxaca
The "mozzarella of Mexico" (sold as quesillo in Oaxaca) is a ball of cheese created by rolling up broad skeins of cheese whose texture resembles that of string cheese. Shredded, it can top refried beans, tostadas, and soups. Sliced, it melts wonderfully for quesadillas or served with chile de agua. Small 1-inch balls are often eaten as snacks and enjoyed with a drink.
Substitutions: String cheese, mozzarella, domestic Muenster
Recipe to try: Poblano, Potato, and Corn Gratin
Molded in a basket, this fresh cheese is sometimes sold as queso de canasta (canasta meaning basket). The unusual shape and textured exterior help distinguish this cheese -- which is best enjoyed while still moist and fresh -- from its counterparts.
Substitutions: Farmer's cheese, Monterey Jack
Recipe to try: Tortilla Casserole with Turkey
Other Mexican Dairy Products
Soft, creamy, and mild-tasting, this ricotta is a by-product of cheesemaking. To produce the ricotta, whey -- with its residual small pieces of curd -- is heated. The curds then form a layer on the surface that is skimmed off and strained. It is perfect for stuffing chiles.
Substitution: Full-fat ricotta
Recipe to try: Chiles Rellenos
In Mexico, real crema is a naturally soured cream similar to authentic French crème fraîche. (Note that many of the versions available in the U.S. are commercially cultured products.) Drizzled or dolloped over dishes, crema adds a rich, tangy bite.
Substitutions: Crème fraîche or sour cream watered down with a little milk
Recipe to try: Rajas con Crema
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