We turned to Diana Kennedy, the authority on Mexican cuisine, to help set the record straight on what is—and isn't—Mexican cheese. Learn more about Mexico's most popular cheeses and dairy products, including Cotija, queso fresco, and añejo.
Image Credit: clockwise from top left - Romulo Yanes; Todd Coleman; Maria Robledo
Where to Find Mexican Cheeses
It used to be that Americans in search of Mexican cheese had only one option: to go to Mexico. These days, though, cheeses made in Mexico—as well as domestic products made in the Mexican style—can be found much closer to home. In cities with a large Mexican-heritage community, look for the cheeses in ethnic-food marts or grocery stores. Some gourmet shops may also carry the cheeses. Kennedy recommends the Mozzarella Company as one online source. Others include MexGrocer.com, Marky's, and igourmet.com.
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Cooking with Traditional Mexican Cheeses
Diana Kennedy shared with Epicurious her expert tips for identifying and cooking with seven traditional Mexican cheeses, as well as two other dairy products. Along with their key characteristics, Kennedy provides workable substitutes for each cheese, which both suggests their flavor profiles and offers an alternative solution if you can't find a particular cheese. Of course, the best way to enjoy these cheeses is to cook with them, so we've included recipes from the Epicurious recipe database that make the most of these delicious foods.
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 rellenos or tamales.
The "mozzarella of Mexico" (sold as quesillo in Oaxaca) is a ball of cheese created by rolling up broad skeins of cheese whose texture resembles that of string cheese. Shredded, it can top refried beans, tostadas, and soups. Sliced, it melts wonderfully for quesadillas or served with chile de agua. Small 1-inch balls are often eaten as snacks and enjoyed with a drink.
Molded in a basket, this fresh cheese is sometimes sold as queso de canasta (canasta meaning basket). The unusual shape and textured exterior help distinguish this cheese—which is best enjoyed while still moist and fresh—from its counterparts.
Soft, creamy, and mild-tasting, this ricotta is a by-product of cheesemaking. To produce the ricotta, whey—with its residual small pieces of curd—is heated. The curds then form a layer on the surface that is skimmed off and strained. It is perfect for stuffing chiles.
In Mexico, real crema is a naturally soured cream similar to authentic French crème fraîche. (Note that many of the versions available in the U.S. are commercially cultured products.) Drizzled or dolloped over dishes, crema adds a rich, tangy bite.
Substitutions: Crème fraîche or sour cream watered down with a little milk
When you think of some of Mexico's most iconic dishes—tacos, enchiladas, frijoles—chances are, there's cheese involved. Crumbled, grated, sliced, and melted, the cheeses in Mexican dishes contribute salty, tangy flavors and offset some of the heat from chiles and spices. But when it comes to identifying some of Mexico's traditional cheeses (and other dairy products)—namely, the ones you encounter in Mexican restaurants and cookbooks—you're probably stuck at queso fresco and Cotija. Or perhaps your idea of Mexican cheese is the white and orange cheese mix found in your grocery's dairy section. Whichever the case may be, we turned to Diana Kennedy, the authority on Mexican cuisine, to help set the record straight on what is—and isn't—Mexican cheese.
Check out the slideshow above to get to know your basic Mexican cheeses.