Cheese was brought to Mexico by the Spanish. But like so many other foods, such as bread, rice, and desserts, as soon as it arrived the Mexicans began to create their own distinctive versions. A visit to any modern Mexican marketplace will confirm that the result is a dizzying number of Mexican cheeses, especially when they are multiplied by their regional variations.
Fortunately for cooks in the United States, there are just a very few types needed to prepare the most popular Mexican dishes, and either they or decent substitutes are readily available in most parts of the country. The following is a short description of each one with links to some delicious recipes featuring cheese. Included is Jims Melting-Cheese Blend that combines cheeses that are both more familiar and available into one that is ideal for Mexican dishes that require a good melting cheese.
Fresh soft cheeses
These cheeses are difficult to melt and are usually—but not always—used as garnishes for items like enchiladas and tostadas.
Queso fresco is a fresh cheese that is used to garnish everything from antojitos mexicanos to soups, but does not melt well. Probably the best substitutes are Muenster or the soaked feta mentioned below under Queso Panela. Because of that we are lucky that decent queso fresco is now available in many supermarkets.
This fresh, fairly soft cheese has a distinctive texture that the great Mexican chef, Ricardo Muñoz, describes as porous and spongy. It is used to garnish antojitos and is essential to the famous tacos potosinos. Fortunately, good versions are often available in U.S. supermarkets. Feta, which has a similar texture, is often suggested as a substitute, but I find its flavor is usually so much stronger than panela that it doesn’t work. However, if you start with a very mild feta, break it into small pieces, and soak them in several changes of ice water over about 30 minutes, it will serve in a pinch.
Requesón is fresh cheese that is very similar to ricotta, a mild version of which makes a decent substitute. It is used very much like queso fresco to garnish everything from gorditas to enchiladas, but is also used in salads and to stuff peppers.
Semi-firm or soft cheeses
These are the melting cheeses used to make quesadillas, as a topping for enchiladas, and for dishes like chile con queso and queso fundido.
This cheese is especially popular in northern Mexico. It is often made at least partially with milk that is allowed to age and become slightly sour overnight, giving it a wonderful tart flavor. It is otherwise similar to Queso Oaxaca. I have never found a good version in the United States, but queso Oaxaca or mozzarella make good substitutes.
Queso Oaxaca or Quesillo
This delicious cheese is very similar to whole milk mozzarella and string cheese, which are excellent substitutes. It is perfect for everything from quesadillas to enchiladas.
Queso Chihuahua or Queso Menonito
These cheeses were traditionally made by Mennonite communities in northern Mexico, but are now made in other areas. As you can imagine, the quality varies widely from one brand to another. It is delicious wherever a melted cheese is necessary. A mild white cheddar is a reasonable substitute.
These cheeses have a texture similar to Parmesan and are usually grated and used to garnish anything from hot tortilla chips and tacos to soups, pasta, and egg dishes.
Queso Cotija and Queso Añejo
For all practical purposes these cheeses are identical, although queso cotija, whose name comes from the town of Cotija de la Paz in the state of Michoacán, is the most common version in the United States. They are hard like Parmesan and just slightly salty. They are sold both in small blocks and finely grated, which I think is the best way to buy it. (The grated version may not last as long, but what you don’t need at the moment can be kept in the freezer). Although some people suggest Parmesan as a substitute, I think its flavor is much too different to be suitable. Fortunately, queso cotija is widely available in the Southwest and frequently in other parts of the country.
This cheese consists of queso anejo or cotija whose outside has a thin layer of chile, giving the exterior a reddish color. You can make your own by rubbing a little, mild ancho chile powder into the outside of a block of queso cotija.
LINKS TO RECIPES FEATURING CHEESE
Chile con queso Chihuahua Style
Jim's Melting-Cheese Blend