Oaxaca cheese, also known as quesillo, is a white, stringy Mexican cheese that originated in the state of Oaxaca. Its other common names provide insight into its unique characteristics and preparation method.
Quesillo, meaning “little cheese” in Spanish, is the most common alternative name for Oaxaca cheese. This fresh cheese has a soft, stretchy, string-like texture that makes it perfect for grilling or melting. The name quesillo refers to Oaxaca cheese’s origins as a hand-stretched curd, as opposed to other cheeses made by pressing curds into a mold.
Queso Oaxaca simply translates to “Oaxaca cheese” in Spanish. This name directly ties the cheese to Oaxaca, the southern Mexican state where it originated. Calling it queso Oaxaca acknowledges its roots in the rich food traditions of the Oaxacan region.
Asadero is another common name for Oaxaca cheese, especially outside of Mexico. It means “roastable” or “broilable” cheese. This refers to Oaxaca cheese’s excellent melting ability that makes it perfect for heating and cooking. The stretchy texture allows it to melt smoothly without separating. In areas like the Southwestern United States, Oaxaca cheese is often sold under the name asadero.
Some other names combine elements like quesillo and Oaxaca to identify it more specifically. Quesillo Oaxaqueño translates to “little Oaxacan cheese.” This distinguishes it from other types of quesillo cheeses while still tying it directly to its home state of Oaxaca.
Method of Preparation
The unique production method also inspires some alternative names that provide insight into Oaxaca cheese’s distinctive characteristics:
Pasta hilada means “spun paste” in Spanish. This refers to the process of spinning and stretching the fresh curds into long stringy pieces to achieve Oaxaca cheese’s signature texture.
Similarly, queso estirado means “stretched cheese.” This again highlights the hand-stretching that gives Oaxaca cheese its unique string-like texture that ropes and melts so well.
Other names for Oaxaca cheese refer to some of its common flavor notes and comparisons:
Queso de Mazapán
Queso de mazapán translates to “marzipan cheese.” This name compares Oaxaca cheese’s sweet, nutty flavor to that of marzipan, a sweet almond paste. It has a lighter and more milky flavor than most aged cheeses.
Queso blanco means “white cheese” in Spanish. Oaxaca cheese has a bright, pale off-white color and mild flavor. Queso blanco is a fitting descriptor for its fresh white appearance and taste in comparison to more aged cheeses with deeper yellow hues and sharper flavors.
Given its stringy melting texture, Oaxaca is sometimes likened to mozzarella cheese. While they share some cooking properties, Oaxaca has a more pale white color and mildest taste compared to mozzarella.
History and Origins
Examining the history and origins of Oaxaca cheese also sheds light on some other names and descriptions used for this specialty Mexican cheese:
Quesillo de Oja
Quesillo de oja translates as “leaf cheese” or “cheese of the leaf.” This refers to the long green banana leaves that Oaxaca cheese curds were traditionally wrapped and pressed in to form balls or long tapered sticks.
Queso de Tiras
Similarly, queso de tiras means “cheese of strips.” This again references the traditional preparation where hand-stretched curds were layered into strips that were then pressed together into balls or loaf shapes.
Queso del Pais
Queso del pais means “country cheese” or “cheese of the land.” This speaks to Oaxaca cheese’s centuries-long history in the rural communities of Oaxaca. It’s a cheese deeply rooted in the customs and food culture of the people of the region.
Given Oaxaca cheese’s prominence and significance in Mexican cuisine, it is sometimes referred to as “Mexican mozzarella.” Though distinct from Italian buffalo milk mozzarella, Oaxaca can be used in similar melted cheese applications thanks to its abundant strings and smooth melting texture.
There are some regional differences in Oaxaca cheese across different parts of Mexico that impact local names:
Quesillo de Oaxaca
In some areas of central and southern Mexico like Oaxaca, quesillo refers specifically to Oaxaca cheese. Adding “de Oaxaca” distinguishes it from other fresh white string cheeses that may also be called quesillo elsewhere in Mexico.
Quesillo de Guerrero
In the neighboring state of Guerrero, a very similar stretched and braided fresh cheese is made. To differentiate this locally, Oaxaca cheese is sometimes called Quesillo de Oaxaca to distinguish it from the version made in Guerrero.
In northern Mexican regions, quesillo refers to a crumbly fresh farmer’s cheese. So Oaxaca cheese is often labeled as queso Oaxaca to avoid confusion with the local fresh cheeses called quesillo.
Looking at how Oaxaca cheese is commonly used in Mexican cuisine also reveals some descriptive names:
With its excellent melting abilities, Oaxaca cheese is a popular choice for quesadillas. The stringy melted cheese smoothly coats the tortilla and fills each quesadilla bite. This had led to Oaxaca cheese sometimes being called “quesadilla cheese.”
For the same reasons, Oaxaca is a favorite melting cheese for tacos as well. The satisfying strings of melted Oaxaca cheese help fill and top all kinds of tacos while also lending a touch of flavor.
Oaxaca also shines when grilled or browned. The cheese becomes beautifully golden on the exterior while melting into a molten interior. This makes it an ideal cheese for grilled sandwiches, burgers, or vegetables.
The mild taste and fresh, dairy-rich qualities of Oaxaca cheese come from its nutrition content and production process:
Oaxaca cheese is a fresh cheese, meaning it is not aged. It is made to be consumed shortly after production rather than cured for months or years to develop stronger flavors.
Authentic Oaxaca cheese is made from part-skim milk, giving it a lower fat content. This contributes to its smooth, mild flavor and texture.
Like other cheeses, Oaxaca is an excellent source of calcium and contains over 200mg per ounce. The milky freshness provides a boost of this important mineral.
With no salt added during the cheesemaking process, Oaxaca cheese is relatively low in sodium compared to many aged and processed cheeses.
The traditional production of Oaxaca cheese relies solely on acid and heat to coagulate the milk rather than commercial rennet. This retention of milk’s natural microbes makes Oaxaca cheese a source of probiotics.
Demand and Availability
As Oaxaca cheese gains global popularity, renaming it has also helped make the specialty ingredient more accessible worldwide:
Over the past few decades, Oaxaca cheese has spread well beyond Mexico. This increased distribution and demand required adapting naming and marketing to different regions.
Using names like asadero cheese helps non-Spanish speaking consumers easily identify its purpose as a melting cheese for cooking.
Larger scale production and export also led to standardized commercial labeling as Oaxaca cheese rather than more localized names.
Regulations now ensure that cheese labeled quesillo Oaxaca/Oaxaca cheese/queso Oaxaca indeed follows traditional production methods from Mexico’s Oaxaca region.
While commonly called Oaxaca cheese in the global market, this Mexican specialty has many other descriptive and insightful names. Quesillo, quesillo Oaxaqueño, queso Oaxaca, asadero, and pasta hilada all provide a glimpse into its origins, texture, flavor, and applications in Mexican cuisine. Whatever you call it, Oaxaca/quesillo cheese offers a tasty and nutritious addition to both traditional and modern recipes.