Queso fresco, which means “fresh cheese” in Spanish, is a type of unaged white cheese popular in Mexican and Latin American cuisine. It has a fresh, mild, and slightly tangy flavor. Whether or not queso fresco needs to be refrigerated is a common question for those unfamiliar with this cheese.
The Short Answer
Yes, queso fresco should always be refrigerated for food safety and to maintain quality. Unlike aged cheeses which can sit at room temperature for extended periods, queso fresco is a soft, unaged cheese that can spoil quickly without refrigeration.
What is Queso Fresco?
Queso fresco is a fresh, crumbly, white cheese made from cow’s milk. It originated in Spain and was brought over to Latin America during colonial times. The name literally translates to “fresh cheese” in Spanish.
Some key characteristics of queso fresco include:
- It has a mild, slightly tangy flavor.
- The texture is moist and crumbly when cut or crumbled.
- It does not melt well, so it maintains its shape when heated.
- It has a high moisture content, typically around 50%.
- It has not been aged so it does not develop a rind.
- It is a quick, simple cheese to produce without much processing.
Queso fresco is made by curdling milk with an acid like vinegar or lime juice. The curds are drained and pressed into molds, then salted to draw out more moisture. It takes about 24 hours to make queso fresco from start to finish.
This fresh white cheese is a staple in many Latin American and Mexican dishes. It is commonly crumbled over tacos, tostadas, enchiladas, pupusas, and tamales to add a salty, mild kick.
Does Queso Fresco Require Refrigeration?
Yes, queso fresco should always be stored in the refrigerator to prevent spoilage and foodborne illness. As a soft, high-moisture cheese with no preservatives or aging, queso fresco is very perishable.
Refrigeration is necessary for several reasons:
- To inhibit bacterial growth – The high moisture content of queso fresco makes an ideal environment for bacteria like Listeria and E. coli to rapidly multiply if left unrefrigerated. This can lead to foodborne illness. Cold refrigerator temperatures help significantly slow bacteria growth.
- To prevent mold – Being an unaged fresh cheese, queso fresco has no rind or coating to protect it from mold. Refrigeration helps prevent mold from developing.
- To maintain texture – When stored at room temperature, queso fresco will quickly dry out and become hard. Refrigeration keeps it moist and crumbly.
- To preserve freshness – Refrigeration slows the chemical and enzymatic processes that lead to spoilage over time. It keeps queso fresco tasting fresher for longer.
For food safety, the FDA recommends storing queso fresco at 40°F or below. At these cold temperatures, bacterial growth is significantly inhibited.
How Long Does Queso Fresco Last in the Fridge?
When properly stored in the refrigerator, queso fresco typically lasts around 1-2 weeks before going bad. However, always rely on your senses over the expiration date, as times can vary.
Here are some signs that refrigerated queso fresco may be spoiled and should be discarded:
- Mold growth on the surface
- Unusual odors like sourness or ammonia
- Liquid pooling around the cheese
- Dark or yellow discoloration
- Drying out, or hard and chalky texture
For maximum freshness, use queso fresco within 5-7 days of purchasing or making it. Be diligent about storage and inspect it before eating.
How to Store Queso Fresco Properly
Follow these tips for properly storing queso fresco in the refrigerator:
- Wrap queso fresco tightly in plastic wrap or parchment paper. This prevents drying out.
- Place wrapped cheese in a resealable plastic bag, squeezing out excess air. This protects against off-odors in the fridge.
- Store in the coldest part of the refrigerator, typically the bottom shelf or designated cheese drawer (around 40°F).
- Keep for only 1-2 weeks for best quality.
- Discard immediately if any mold appears or other signs of spoilage.
Avoid prolonged storage at room temperature. For picnics or potlucks, pack queso fresco in a cooler with ice packs.
Freezing can extend the shelf life to 2-3 months. Thaw overnight in the fridge before using frozen queso fresco.
Can Queso Fresco Be Left at Room Temperature?
It is not recommended to leave queso fresco unrefrigerated at room temperature. As a fresh cheese, it can quickly spoil and become unsafe once outside of refrigeration.
Room temperature provides ideal conditions for hazardous bacteria like Listeria monocytogenes to rapidly grow. Listeria is a concerning pathogen found in many raw dairy products that can lead to the serious infection listeriosis.
One study inoculated queso fresco samples with Listeria bacteria. Samples left at room temperature reached over 10 million cells per gram within 24 hours due to extensive bacterial multiplication. Refrigerated samples had minimal microbial growth.
In addition to increased bacteria risks, queso fresco left out will dry out, develop mold growth, and begin deteriorating in quality. For food safety and quality purposes, always refrigerate queso fresco.
Short Term Storage at Room Temperature
Queso fresco should be eaten or refrigerated promptly after purchasing or making it. The FDA recommends discarding perishable dairy products like queso fresco that have been left out for over 2 hours.
If briefly left out for immediate use, it is best to keep queso fresco no more than 1 hour at room temperature. Discard any remaining portions after serving.
When transporting queso fresco, use a cooler bag and ice packs to keep it cold if refrigeration is not available.
Can Refrigerated Queso Fresco Be Left at Room Temperature?
Once refrigerated, queso fresco should not be left to sit back out at room temperature. The cold temperatures of refrigeration do not destroy bacteria – they only inhibit growth. Removing queso fresco from refrigeration will allow bacteria to reactivate and proliferate quickly.
Several studies tested this by refrigerating various cheeses including queso fresco, then shifting them to room temperature storage. Just a few hours at warmer temperatures was enough for dangerous Listeria levels to spike upwards of 100,000 cells per gram.
To avoid this safety risk, refrigerated queso fresco should be promptly consumed or returned to the refrigerator. It should not sit for extended periods at room temperature.
Does Proper Freezing Allow Storing at Room Temperature?
Freezing queso fresco gives it a much longer shelf life by halting bacteria growth. However, once thawed back out, queso fresco still requires refrigeration and should not be left at room temperature.
The bacteria are not killed off when frozen – they become dormant. As the cheese thaws, the bacteria reactivate and can quickly multiply without refrigeration. Proper thawing is gradual in the refrigerator.
So while freezing buys some time, queso fresco is still a perishable item requiring refrigeration after defrosting. Thawed cheese should be treated like fresh cheese.
Safely Using Thawed Queso Fresco
Here are some tips for safely handling thawed, previously frozen queso fresco:
- Thaw slowly over 24-48 hours in the refrigerator. Do not thaw at room temperature.
- Use thawed queso fresco within 5-7 days for best quality.
- Discard if any unusual odors, textures, or appearance develop.
- Avoid refreezing thawed cheese.
- Keep refrigerated until ready to eat.
Properly frozen and thawed queso fresco should maintain a similar taste and texture as fresh. Exercising care when thawing and refrigerating after will provide the best safety and eating experience.
How is Queso Fresco Different from Other Cheeses?
Queso fresco has a shorter shelf life compared to many other cheeses due to how it is produced:
- No aging – Queso fresco is not aged so it does not develop preservative qualities.
- High moisture – The high moisture content makes it more perishable.
- No rind – No rind means less protection against mold.
- Fewer preservatives – Most queso fresco has no added preservatives.
- Higher pH – The higher pH makes it more susceptible to bacteria.
In contrast, aged hard cheeses like parmesan can sit unrefrigerated for weeks thanks to lower moisture, acidic pH, rinds, and salt content. Soft cheeses like brie and camembert also build up rinds.
Being a fresh, unaged, high-moisture cheese gives queso fresco a deliciously mild, creamy quality. But it also means it requires more refrigeration than many other cheeses.
Is Queso Fresco Shelf-Stable Like Panela Cheese?
While queso fresco requires refrigeration, some similar fresh cheeses like panela are often marketed as shelf-stable when packaged. But in most cases, refrigeration is still recommended for optimum food safety and quality.
Panela is a fresh cheese common in parts of Latin America. Much like queso fresco, it has not been aged. Some key differences are that panela:
- Is pressed longer to remove more moisture
- Often has salt or other preservatives added
- Gets molded into balls or bricks
These attributes allow properly packaged panela to be shelf-stable at room temperature for a certain timeframe before opening – typically about 1 month. But it will still last longer and taste fresher when refrigerated.
Once opened, both queso fresco and panela should be treated as perishable cheeses requiring prompt refrigeration. Storing an opened package at room temperature can quickly lead to spoilage.
Tips for Enjoying Queso Fresco
Here are some tips for safely enjoying queso fresco:
- Purchase queso fresco from reputable suppliers and inspect for freshness.
- Refrigerate promptly in original packaging or rewrap securely in new wrap.
- Use within 5-7 days for optimum flavor and texture.
- Discard if any mold, smell, or stickiness develops.
- Avoid leaving queso fresco unrefrigerated more than 1-2 hours.
- When serving, replace lid and return any leftovers to the refrigerator.
- Enjoy it crumbled over your favorite Mexican or Latin dishes!
The Bottom Line
Queso fresco is a delicious, moist and mild fresh cheese popular in Mexican cuisine. Unlike many aged cheeses, it does require refrigeration due to its high moisture content and lack of preservatives. Leaving queso fresco unrefrigerated at room temperature can lead to quick spoilage and food safety issues.
Always store queso fresco in the refrigerator in proper packaging for up to 2 weeks. Do not leave it sitting out more than 1-2 hours. Refrigerate promptly after purchasing or making, and enjoy its signature crumbly, mellow quality within a week for best results.