The first job I ever had was washing dishes in a mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant in Oklahoma when I was thirteen. I hated the job, but I loved the food! The owner’s mother would cook “family meal” for the staff every night after we closed, and that was what kept me coming back into work every weekend. Her cooking inspired in me a die-hard love for Mexican cuisine that remains with me to this day.
Cheese is an essential ingredient in most quality Mexican food. However, how to cook with the various cheeses of Mexico remains somewhat unfamiliar to many Americans, so today I want to shed some light on three of the most popular ones.
Cotija is a Hispanic-style cheese named after the town of Cotija in Michoacán, about 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean. This hard, crumbly cheese was historically made from raw cow’s milk, but now is predominantly pasteurized. Cotija is aged around 3 months, a 12 month aged version of Cotija is referred to as añejo or “mature.” I infinitely prefer the aged version.
Cotija is very salty, strongly flavored, firm, and does not actually melt — worth noting if you’re planning to cook with it! It is exclusively used as a grated cheese. In Mexico, it is used to enhance the flavor of many savory dishes by mixing it directly into them or sprinkling on top.
My favorite use is on top of cheese enchiladas, with a spicy green sauce, toasted under a broiler until the tips of the cheese brown. Sprinkled on nachos or any melted Mexican dish. This cheese can be found at most groceries, but, if you can, go to a Mexican grocery store and search their options.
Queso Fresco is a creamy, soft, and mild unaged white cheese. Queso fresco is traditionally made from cow's milk, It is mild enough to be eaten straight, but is primarily used as a staple ingredient in traditional Mexican cooking. It acts as a flavor sponge. Some versions of these cheeses melt well when heated, but most will only soften.
Queso fresco is tasty when blended into the cheese mix for enchiladas, quesadillas and fried empanada. I like it tossed into a cold salad of grilled veggies as well.
Queso Oaxaca, from southern Mexico, is similar to mozzarella, it melts well and adds great flavor, without being overpowering. Queso Oaxaca is most often used in quesadillas and empanadas, where it is melted with other stuffings, such as huitlacoche (corn fungus) and squash flowers. It is the base cheese for a lot of dishes, and adds a pleasant consistency. This is my favorite cheese on the Mexican sandwich, torta, when combined with beans, avocado, salsa and lettuce. I am also very fond of it melted into a mushroom and spinach omelet in the morning.
These three Mexican cheeses are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is offered today from a diverse array of Mexican dairies. These cheeses are extremely versatile and have many uses outside of Mexican cooking; try experimenting with them as alternatives to your typical European cheeses for a new take on some of your favorite old recipes.
Additional reporting by Madeleine James.