Mexican cheeses are renowned worldwide for their unique and delicious flavors. With a long history and tradition of cheesemaking, Mexico produces many distinctive varieties that reflect the country’s diverse culinary culture. From crumbly aged Cotija to soft, milky Oaxaca, authentic Mexican cheeses impart complex tastes that complement traditional south-of-the-border dishes.
What makes Mexican cheese unique?
Several factors contribute to the one-of-a-kind qualities of genuine Mexican cheeses:
- Raw milk – Many are made from raw, unpasteurized milk, which yields fuller flavor.
- Heritage techniques – Time-honored artisanal practices ensure depth and character.
- Diverse influences – Indigenous, Spanish, and European cheesemaking traditions shaped Mexican varieties.
- Regional diversity – Cheeses from different parts of Mexico have distinct traits.
- Ageing – Extended ageing concentrates flavors for sharp aged cheeses.
- Ingredients – Use of diverse milks like cow, goat, sheep, enrich taste.
From the creamy fresh cheeses of northern Mexico to Oaxacan mole cheeses colored with chili peppers, traditional practices impart authentic Mexican cheeses with inimitable complexity.
Most popular authentic Mexican cheese varieties
Numerous traditional Mexican cheeses exist, but the following are among the most prized and recognized both within Mexico and abroad:
Also called quesillo, this mozzarella-like cheese has a soft, mild flavor and melty, stringy texture when melted. Made in the southern state of Oaxaca from cow’s milk, it is used to make quesadillas, empanadas, and chile rellenos.
Hailing from Mexico’s central highlands, Cotija is considered the country’s parmesan. Aged for months to achieve a hard, crumbly texture and sharp taste, it is grated over soups, beans, tacos, and more in Mexican cuisine.
Named after Mexico’s largest state, Chihuahua cheese has a mild, buttery flavor that melts smoothly. Young versions are semi-soft while longer aged is hard and crumbly. It is excellent for melting in quesadillas and tacos.
Fresh, young, white cheeses like queso fresco and panela are common on Mexican tables. Their mild, milky taste contrasts wonderfully with spicy salsas and fillings. They hold shape when cooked but also crumble nicely.
With a firm texture and pronounced salty-sharp taste, aged cheeses like añejo and cotija impart bold flavor. Their crumbly texture makes them perfect for sprinkling, and they’re often paired with fresh cheeses for contrast.
Also called queso para freir (“cheese for frying”), Oreado is a lightly aged semi-soft cows’ milk cheese that becomes beautifully browned and crispy when fried yet stretches upon melting. It’s indispensable in quesadillas.
Similar to ricotta or cottage cheese, queso crema is a fresh, spreadable cheese with a mild tang. Often whipped with cream, it is used as a base for dips, fillings for chiles rellenos and gorditas, and to thicken salsa verde.
A simple fresh white cheese made from cow’s milk, queso blanco has a subtle milky flavor, dense texture, and melts smoothly when cooked. It is a common filling for chiles rellenos and often fried or sautéed.
Resembling a small pressed cottage cheese, panela originated in the state of Jalisco. It has a fresh, mild taste that pairs well with sweet and spicy flavors. It is eaten fresh or lightly fried in strips or cubes.
Noteworthy regional Mexican cheese varieties
Beyond those above, Mexican states are known for their own special varieties. Here are some of the most significant regional quesos:
Ocosingo cheese – Chiapas
Named after the Chiapas town, this semi-soft white cheese is rubbed with red chile paste, giving an eye-catching marbled orange appearance. It has a mildly spicy flavor.
Quesillo – Oaxaca
While quesillo refers to Oaxaca cheese, in Oaxaca it specifically means an aged, tangy string cheese handmade into balls. It has a robust flavor for crumbling over foods.
Adobera – Chihuahua
Adobera is a pale yellow Chihuahua cheese matured in a chile-spice adobo. The brick-shaped cheese absorbs a mildly hot taste and aroma from the traditional adobo marinade.
Queso de Bola – Ocosingo
Also called bola de Ocosingo, these Edam-like cheeses from Chiapas are shaped into balls and wrapped in fragrant hoja santa leaves to age. They have subtle herbaceous notes.
Quesillo de Hoja – Veracruz
Quesillo de hoja means “leaf cheese” in Spanish, referring to how this fresh Veracruz cheese is wrapped and set to age in banana leaves, which impart a delicate flavor.
Queso Jalapeño – Chihuahua
As the name suggests, this young, semi-soft Chihuahua cheese is studded with spicy jalapeño chili peppers for a kick of heat and piquancy. It nicely melts while adding heat.
Queso Ranchero – Aguascalientes
Ranchero cheese originated in the ranches of Aguascalientes. It has a dense, slightly crumbly texture similar to feta but with a sharper, saltier taste. It is used for crumbling.
Queso de Tulum – Yucatán
Tulum cheese is a stark white aged cheese from the Yucatán Peninsula. With a hard, granular texture and robust salty flavor, it is excellent grated over local dishes.
Queso de Poro – Tabasco
Unique to Tabasco, this cheese is wrapped in poro leaves, which lend a complex earthy, herbaceous quality. The texture is semi-firm and sliceable when young.
Factors in evaluating authenticity
When looking for genuine Mexican cheeses, here are some key points to evaluate:
- Ingredients – Authentic cheeses use quality fresh milk like raw cow’s, goat’s, or sheep’s milk.
- Cheesemaking process – Traditional handcrafting and long ageing develop depth of flavor.
- Place of origin – Protected designation of origin (PDO) certifications verify geographic authenticity.
- Appearance – Irregular handcrafted shapes signal authenticity over uniform industrial cheeses.
- Type of rind – Traditional natural rinds provide authentic complexity versus modern plastic coatings.
- Texture – Genuine cheeses should have distinctive dense or crumbly textures.
- Flavor – Look for complex, intense taste profiles over mildness.
Why buy authentic Mexican cheese?
Seeking out genuine Mexican cheeses is worthwhile for several reasons:
- Supports traditional producers and rural economies in Mexico.
- Preserves heritage cheesemaking methods at risk of disappearing.
- Provides complex, nuanced flavors mass-produced cheeses lack.
- Allows experiencing Mexico’s food culture more authentically.
- Higher quality raw ingredients and artisanal production.
- Enables appreciating the diversity of Mexican cheesemaking.
Where to buy real Mexican cheeses
Quality queserias (cheese shops), Mexican specialty food stores, and some gourmet grocers offer selections of authentic Mexican cheeses. Seeking out PDO certified varieties can help identify genuine cheeses like Cotija and Oaxaca. Though rarer, visiting cheesemakers at local Mercados in Mexico provides cheese at its source. When shopping in the US, check labels for manufacturing locations in Mexico, and be wary of “Mexican-style” cheeses likely made abroad. For freshness, purchase cheeses with longer time until sell-by dates when possible.
How to identify imitation Mexican cheese
With rising popularity, some Mexican cheese names now appear on products made outside Mexico. Here are tips for spotting inauthentic imitations:
- Generic labeling like “Mexican cheese product.”
- “Made in USA” or other non-Mexican origin.
- Flavorless, rubbery texture when melted.
- Uniform block shape and plastic coating.
- Overly mild or bitter taste.
- Extremely low price point.
- Lack of specific cheese variety on packaging.
- Absence of any recognizable Mexican certification seals.
When in doubt, inquire with cheesemongers or retailers about a product’s authentic connections to Mexico.
Popular Mexican cheese dishes
Mexican cheese make iconic appearances in beloved local dishes. Their unique textures and tastes make them irreplaceable in these preparations:
Perhaps the most ubiquitous use of Mexican cheese is in quesadillas, where fillings are encased in a tortilla with Oaxaca, Chihuahua, or other melted cheese.
Chiles rellenos feature roasted, battered, and fried poblano peppers filled with stringy melted Oaxaca or other soft cheese.
These oval masa cakes are often topped with bean spread, fresh cheese like queso fresco, and hot sauce for an authentic snack.
Gorditas and Sincronizadas
Small stuffed masa cakes called gorditas and sincronizadas frequently incorporate crumbled aged cheese for a satisfying meal.
Whether baked into the sauce or used as filling, Mexican cheeses like queso añejo pair perfectly with enchiladas.
Tortilla chips tossed with cheese make the classic entrée chilaquiles, often served for breakfast with fried egg and salsa.
In these “drowned sandwiches” from Jalisco, melted Oaxaca cheese beautifully balances the bite of the chili sauce.
Mexico’s version of fondue features oozing melted cheese with chorizo and served with warm tortillas for dipping.
Sopes and Huaraches
These thick masa pancakes are often finished with crumbled authentic Mexican cheese for added flavor.
Pairing Mexican cheeses & drinks
Certain beverages complement and bring out new dimensions within Mexican cheese flavors:
- Craft beer – Pair complex, bold stouts with aged hard cheeses.
- White wine – Fresh, acidic Sauvignon Blanc matches soft mild cheeses.
- Sparkling wine – Cleansing bubbles work with creamy, stringy Oaxaca.
- Cold Mexican beer – Lagers like Modelo ease salty aged cheeses.
- Sangria – Fruity sangria’s sweetness contrasts crumbly Cotija.
- Mexican soda – Jarritos mandarin soda complements mild queso fresco.
Incorporating Mexican cheeses into cooking
Mexican cheeses shine in much more than just Mexican food. Their unique traits make them versitile ingredients. Consider these tips for use in global cuisines:
- Grill quesadillas with Italian mozzarella and Cotija for depth.
- Add crumbled añejo cheese to pasta carbonara for enriched flavor.
- Use melted Oaxaca cheese instead of mozzarella on homemade pizza.
- Fill omelettes with queso fresco or Chihuahua with herbs like in a French-Mexican fusion.
- Mix creamy queso crema into potato salad just as you would sour cream.
- Make Brazilian pão de queijo cheese bread with queso Oaxaca and queso fresco.
Mexico’s cheeses have rightfully earned appreciation for their delicious distinctiveness. Seeking out authentic quesos like Oaxaca, Cotija, and Chihuahua supports cheesemaking traditions while providing invaluable complexity of flavor. By understanding key regional Mexican cheese varieties and how to identify their genuineness, anyone can enjoy a taste of this cherished culinary heritage.