If you're lucky enough to live in Mexico or near a Hispanic market, chances are you'll have access to all the wonderful Mexican cheeses called for in traditional Mexican recipes. But even good Hispanic markets in the USA don't carry all of the cheeses, and some of those they DO carry are processed in such a way that they don't retain the character of the cheeses made locally in Mexico. Note that only a few Mexican cheeses are sharp or zesty in flavor; the majority are fairly mild in flavor.
Here, for your edification, is a list of Mexican cheeses, along with some substitutes you can use if you can't find the real deal.
SOFT & SEMI-SOFT CHEESES:
Queso Oaxaca (pictured above) or Quesillo Oaxaca is a white, semi-soft cheese that's similar to unaged Monterey Jack but with a mozzarella-like string cheese texture. It is named after the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, where it was first made. It is available in several different shapes. It is also known as thread cheese when shaped like a ball. Shaped in bricks for slicing, it is called asadero (meaning "roaster" or "broiler"-- see below) or queso quesadilla. Queso Oaxaca is especially popular for use in quesadillas.
Queso asadero is a variety of Oaxaca cheese that is mild, chewy and white or pale yellow in color. It is specifically a melting cheese, used to make the Mexican fondue called queso fundido/chile con queso, a dish which adapts well to the inclusion of a variety of ingredients and is usually eaten as a late-night supper. It is also widely used as a filling for chiles rellenos or as a base for nachos. Fontina, Muenster and Monterrey Jack will work as substitutes.
Queso chihuahua, also called queso menonita, after the Mennonite communities of northern Mexico that first produced it, this semi-soft cheese is now made by both Mennonites and non-Mennonites all over the country. Unlike most Mexican cheeses, it is pale yellow rather than white, and can vary in taste from mild to a nearly cheddar-like sharpness, depending on how long it's been aged. It's available in braids, balls or rounds. Queso Chihuahua is good for melting, and is similar in taste to a mild, white cheddar or Monterey Jack. It can be used in queso fundido, choriqueso, quesadillas, chilaquiles, or sauces and is especially good for making queso frito, a breaded, fried cheese dish. Chihuahua cheese is widely sold outside of Mexico, so it shouldn't be hard to find, but in a pinch a very mild cheddar or a flavorful jack cheese could be substituted. On a personal note, a well aged Queso Chihuahua is just about my favorite Mexican cheese.
A smooth, soft white cow's milk cheese with bits of jalapeño chile in it, this cheese is served as a snack or used to make quesadillas. Very similar to Jalapeño Jack cheese.
Queso blanco is a creamy, soft, and mild unaged white cheese that originated in Spain and spread to Mexico and other American countries. It is traditionally coagulated with lemon juice, giving it a fresh, distinctive lemon flavor, although nowadays it is often commercially made with rennet. In Mexico it is often made at home, as is queso fresco, so the word "fresco" (fresh) can be taken literally. It softens when heated, but doesn't melt, and is a good choice for stuffing enchiladas. Substitute: Monterey Jack.
Queso fresco is a spongy white cheese, used to crumble over botanas (snacks) as well as on enchiladas and taquitos. It is probably the most common Mexican cheese found in Mexico as well as the U.S. Often used interchangeably with queso blanco, this type of cheese is usually made with a combination of cow's milk and goat's milk. Both blanco and fresca are often used as a topping for Mexican dishes such as enchiladas and empanadas, or crumbled over soups or salads. You can substitute a very mild feta if queso fresco is unavailable.
Queso panela, is also called "Queso Canasta" or "Queso de la Canasta" (Cheese of the basket) because it carries the impression of the basket in which it molds itself. This is a white, fresh and smooth cheese of pasteurized cow milk with the texture of a moist mozzarella, served most often as part of a appetizer dishes such as nopal salads or quesadillas. This cheese absorbs other flavors easily and is sometimes coated with a garlic-and-chile paste, or wrapped in toasted avocado leaves, to be served with cocktails. It may also be fried, although it holds its shape and does not melt very easily.
Queso Requesón is the Mexican version of ricotta, a loose, lumpy cheese used in salads, tacos, cooked foods, and desserts. It is also used to fill enchiladas and to make cheese spreads. Requesón has a very mild and semisweet flavor. It is white in color and has a soft, moist, and grainy texture. In the markets requesón is most often sold wrapped in fresh corn husks. A mild,unsalty ricotta can be substituted for requesón.
FIRM & SEMI-FIRM CHEESES:
Queso añejo is simply an aged version of queso fresco (see Fresh Cheeses above). It is a firm cheese with a zesty flavor traditionally made from skimmed goat's milk but most often available made from skimmed cow's milk. After it is made it is rolled in paprika to add additional flavor to its salty, sharp flavor. Easily shredded or grated, queso añejo is a good baking or grilling cheese, and is generally sprinkled on top of or stuffed into enchiladas, burritos and tacos. It is used primarily as a garnish, crumbled or grated over a variety of dishes. A good substitute for aged añejo in both taste and texture would be Romano or Parmesan.
Queso cotija, named for the town of Cotija, Michoacan, where it originated, is a firm, sharp, crumbly goat cheese. It has been called "the Parmesan of Mexico" and is usually served over beans and salads. Cotija comes in two primary versions. El Queso Cotija de Montaña is dry and firm, with little taste beyond salt (the cheese is usually several times saltier than typical cheese, traditionally for preservative reasons).] "Tajo Cheese" is a moister, fattier, and less salty version of the cheese that holds its shape when cut, with a flavor similar to Italian Parmesan and Greek Feta.
El Queso Cotija de Montaña is a seasonal cheese and is of limited production because it's produced only during the months of July through October when the cows are fed only on the rich grass that grows naturally on the mountains during the rainy season. This gives the cheese its unique color and flavor. Queso Cotija is an artisan cheese made by hand, thus every cheese has something unique. It is not widely available outside of Mexico.
This is perhaps the sharpest of all Mexican cheeses, and though the flavor is distinct from parmesan, the latter is an acceptable substitute.
Queso criollo is a pale yellow cheese that's a specialty of the region around Taxco, Guerrero. It is very similiar in taste and texture to Muenster, and the two can easily be used interchangeably.
Queso manchego,introduced to Mexico from the Spanish region of La Mancha, is a tangy, buttery yellow cheese that's popular outside of Mexico as well. It is good for melting, or for serving with fruit or crackers. Manchego is widely available north of the border, but a flavorful Monterrey Jack is an acceptable substitute. Note that this cheese bears little resemblance to its Spanish ancestor. I love manchego on top of Wheat Thins with strawberries or kiwi. Yum!
Queso manchego viejo is, as its name implies, manchego that has been aged to the point where it hardens and becomes more intense in flavor. It is often shaved over botanas and is also good grated into refried beans.
There are more types of cheeses available, especially artisan cheeses that are regional specialties in various pockets of the country. But this list covers the cheeses most commonly used throughout the country. I hope you will try them out!
If you have a favorite recipe for a Mexican or Mexican-inspired dish, I'd love to add it to our recipe box! email email@example.com (and put "recipe" in the subject box so I'll know what it's about)