When you think about most every Mexican dish we Americans have come to love, one of the most common denominators in each recipe is Mexican cheese. Mexican cheese is delicious and especially wonderful to cook with. Here is a little information about a number of traditional Mexican cooking cheeses.
It has a traditional brick red, colorful exterior that is formed by rolling the cheese in paprika. This adds extra spicy flavor to the already salty, sharp cheese, making it somewhat similar to Parmesan cheese or Romano cheese. Añejo means “aged” in Spanish. When fresh and young, the cheese is crumbly and breaks into small pieces very easily. As it ages, the cheese becomes firmer, allowing it to be easily shredded or grated. It is frequently used in baking and grilling, particularly in making burritos, enchiladas and tacos.
An off-white, semi-firm Mexican cheese often sold in a log shape for convenient and easy slicing. It is an excellent cooking cheese: when it melts, it becomes quite creamy without giving off any oil, even at higher temperatures. It has a light, fresh taste with just a bit of tang to it. It is very creamy, and layered almost like fresh Mozzarella. In some parts of Chihuahua, in the Northern part of Mexico, a plant is used to curdle the milk instead of animal rennet.
Named for the Mexican state from which it originates, this cheese is also sometimes referred to as queso menonita, for the Mennonite farmers who first made this cheese. When fresh, it resembles a mild Cheddar in taste and texture. As it ages, its flavor becomes tangy. You can grate it to top dishes, or stuff it into chile rellanos or tamales.
This strong-flavored cheese is sold aged, making it a bit dry, salty, and almost granular in texture. Often served crumbled, Cotija doesn't melt so much as soften.
The name means "fresh cheese." With its crumbly texture and slightly acidic flavor, it can be crumbled atop beans, salads, or even rice dishes. Queso Fresco is probably the most common Mexican cheese found in Mexico, as well as the U.S. In some regional areas of Mexico, the cheese curds are still ground on a metate then hand pressed into round molds. Sadly, most the versions in the U.S. are not made of whole milk so they tend not to melt very well. In Mexico, the cheese is used to stuff chiles or for quesadillas.
Queso de Oaxaca
Is a Mexican name for a semi-soft, white, string-type cheese made from cow's milk. Similar to a Mozzarella, Oaxaca is a stretched curd cheese, kneaded and sold in long ropes gently wound in balls. One of the artisanal cheeses, Oaxaca has savory, mellow, buttery flavor, and is a great melting cheese. The little salty and mild flavor make it is one of the most popular cheeses for preparing quesadillas. In addition, Oaxaca is an excellent stuffing cheese in baking recipes.
This white, fresh and smooth cheese is similar to Indian paneer. Panela has a soft and creamy texture and a delicious fresh milk flavor. When heated, it will soften but not melt or lose its shape. Also, the cheese absorbs flavors easily and at times is sold covered with garlic or pepper paste. It will turn a golden brown when seared as well as crumble easily on appetizers such as quesadillas. Panela tastes excellent on its own as a fried cheese, but is served most often as part of appetizer dishes such as nopal salads.