Cheese is an important part of Mexican and Latin American cooking –but not just any cheese. There’s a whole world of specialty Hispanic cheeses out there. Mild crumbly cheeses to garnish a salad. Creamy, rich, meltable cheeses for sauces and pasta. Hard, intensely flavored cheeses to perk up any dish.
Smart U.S. cooks are finding out just how versatile these cheeses are, too. They not only make your Mexican dishes more flavorful and authentic, but they are a good, value-conscious substitute for many other kinds of commonly used cheeses. Here’s a starter guide to some of the most commonly found Hispanic cheeses – look for these varieties in the market section of your local store.
Asadero: Traditionally used in queso fundido – a kind of Mexican fondue that is similar to the chile con queso that’s popular in the U.S. It’s smooth, has just a bit of a bite, and melts easily, so it’s a good substitute for any melting cheese like Monterey jack, Colby-jack, fontina or American cheese.
Cotija: This is a firmer, stronger-tasting cheese that is typically crumbled or grated. Often called the “Parmesan cheese of Mexico,” it can be sprinkled over pasta or refried beans, over salads, or used to flavor tostadas or tacos. It’s salty and flavorful so you don’t need to use very much. Use instead of Parmesan, Romano, grana padano, or other hard, stronger cheeses.
Manchego: Creamy and meltable, with a nuttier, slightly stronger flavor than many of these other types. It’s good in sandwiches, pastas, or simply served with bread, crackers or olives. Mexican-style manchego is softer and milder than most Spanish-style manchego cheeses.
Panela: Mild and soft, this fresh cheese is often crumbled into tacos and burritos, or is good as a snack. It’s so mild that children will eat it like string cheese. It doesn’t melt well, though.
Oaxaca: The state of Oaxaca, in the southern part of Mexico, contributed this mild cheese, which is sometimes referred to as Mexican string cheese, as you can separate it into strands before eating or cooking. It’s somewhat similar in taste and texture to mozzarella, and good in quesadillas or even pizza.
Queso Fresco: A mild, crumbly cheese that’s often used atop beans, salads or tostadas; it doesn’t have the bite of cotija. You can substitute it for feta, which has a similar texture, but queso fresco doesn’t have quite as strong a taste as that traditional Greek cheese.
Quesadilla: A very mild, meltable cheese, perfect for grating and using in quesadillas, but also good in sandwiches, panini, or even melted on cheeseburgers. You may also find this cheese in a jalapeno flavor; it’s got the same texture but a hint of heat. It’s a great substitute for American, Monterey jack or Colby cheese.