Mexican Cheese Battle Royale: Cotija vs Queso Fresco

Written by Peter Allen on . Posted in food

A few types of Mexican cheese have become more popular than ever in the last several decades. Two of the most common you see in this country is cotija and queso fresco. If you are unfamiliar with these cheeses, then stay with me as I explore the differences and highlights of each variety. 

Armed with a little information before you sample these culinary delicacies, you can decide which is your favorite and know what qualities to look for in each version. Keep in mind that the fun lies in deciding which is king in your own battle of cotija vs queso fresco

Not every type of cheese is the same across the board. This is also true of both cotija and queso fresco. Each has variations and can be very different in texture and flavor depending on where you buy it and how it was created. 

Mexican Cheese

If you are not knowledgeable in regards to Mexican cheeses, then you will be in for a surprise when you explore these versatile, delicious flavors. They can range in texture and flavor as much as any European cheeses. Mexican cheese can be hard and tangy like a manchego cheese or soft and mild like one of the stars of this article, queso fresco. Each has its own unique properties and few are even blends of goat and cow’s milk such as manchego. 

Although Mexican cheeses are becoming increasingly popular because of the popularity of Mexican cuisine in this country, they are relatively obscure and can be hard to find in smaller cities and communities. If you have a Mexican specialty or grocery store in your town, this would be the best place to discover these cheeses. You will probably also get a much better quality cheese than you would if you found it at a national chain grocery store. 

If you truly want to explore Mexican cheeses in their high-quality form, but can’t venture to Mexico, then you can always order some online. Large companies such as Amazon carry these types of cheeses and can have them delivered to your door from quality vendors who carry quality products. To truly discover your passion for Mexican cheese, always buy your cheese from a reputable vendor. If you have access to artisan cheese, then that will always be the best bet.

In this article, however, we are going to explore Mexican crumbled cheese, in particular, cotija cheese vs queso fresco because it is the most popular varieties to date. I hope that exploring these commonly found cheese varieties will encourage you to expand your Mexican cheese knowledge base and discover other types that can easily become a new favorite. 

What is Cotija Cheese?

This cheese gets its name from a city in Michoacan, Mexico of the same name. Cotija cheese is made from cow’s milk and can be hard and crumbly, much like a Parmesan cheese if it is aged. It also has a saltiness that comes from aging. This cheese can also be used in a soft form if it is not aged for long. This is the most common form found across the country in local grocery stores. Although it has a touch of saltiness, it is much less noticeable in the softer varieties. Traditionally, the aging process lasts from 3 to 12 months.

Unlike queso fresco, which is a fresh cheese that has a mild flavor, this particular variety of Mexican cheese adds a bold dash of flavor whenever it is used. If you are using the version that is aged longer, you will want to use restraint when applying it to a dish so it does not become overpowering.

One of the most common uses we see in Mexican cuisine today is elotes, or Mexican street corn. The soft variety of cotija cheese is used in conjunction with mayonnaise, lime juice, chili powder, and cilantro to deliver a bold taste to this incredibly popular snack. 

Cotija cheese is a fabulous addition to just about any dish that can use a kick of flavor. It’s versatility and bold taste make a great accent to meats, beans, and even salads. The flavor of this cheese can also vary depending on how it was made. If the old artisanal method is followed, you get a slightly bolder flavor and a harder consistency. The variety that uses enzymes in a factory production setting to speed up the aging process, will not be as flavorful and a bit milder. Both versions are delicious, but you will have to pay more for artisanal cheese if you can find it in your area. 

What is Queso Fresco?

The name of the cheese itself is a clue as to the origins and method of creating it. Of course, queso means cheese, but the name fresco eludes to the fact that this is a fresh cheese. If you were to compare queso fresco with a more well-known cheese you find in your local grocery store, it would compare to a fresh mozzarella or goat cheese.

The method for creating this delicious cheese isn’t very different than the process of creating other more well-known cheeses in other parts of the world. It does have a bolder, more tangy flavor than mozzarella cheese, but a smoother, saltier flavor than the goat cheese. Cow’s milk cheeses tend to have a smoother flavor than goat’s milk cheeses. Queso fresco is used in a variety of classic Mexican dishes such as tacos and bean dishes. Any dish that would benefit from a delicious, cheesy accent can benefit from queso fresco. 

Something you may be wondering is, does queso fresco melt?

It is a common misconception regarding queso fresco is that it is good for melting. In fact, if you were wanting to enjoy a Mexican cheese for a dish or just for dipping your tortilla chips in, you would want to use a cheese such as Oaxaca or Asedero.

These types of cheeses are those you find when you order chile rellenos or queso dip at your local Mexican restaurant. Queso fresco is most commonly used in black bean dishes, or on carnitas. It pairs well with Pico de Gallo, a sprinkle of cilantro, and a twist of lime juice. The cheese itself is mild and adds a slightly creamy texture to the dish, but doesn’t drown out the other flavors of the dish. 

Cotija Cheese Substitute

Unfortunately, cotija cheese isn’t available in every store across the country. You may be able to find it at a big box retailer that has groceries, or if you have a specialty grocery store in your area.

If you can’t find cotija cheese to complete a recipe, then there is a substitute for cotija cheese for both versions that you can find in just about every grocery store. If you are wanting to use the soft version of cotija cheese for a salad or elotes, then you could use feta cheese as a substitution. The flavors are very similar and they have almost the same texture and consistency. 

If you want to use cotija cheese for a dish requiring the harder aged variety of cotija cheese, then you can either substitute a Parmesan or Romano cheese.

Don’t use the kind that you sprinkle from a can. In some instance, fillers and other flavors are featured, which can have a negative effect on your dish. You want to use the kind that comes in a wedge or a block. If you attempt to use any other type of hard cow’s milk cheese, you won’t accomplish the flavor you are trying to achieve with the cheese in question. 

If you have already experienced either cotija or queso fresco, it is important to know that the quality of the cheese can vary from company to company, and hand-made artisan cheese will taste much different than the kind you find in grocery stores. I urge you to explore your options to truly discover what each is intended to taste like and discover which you will enjoy the most.

When it comes to creating Mexican dishes at home, you may run into an issue finding the right type of cheese to complete the recipe. Never fear, because there are great substitutions available at your local grocery store. They may not be genuine Mexican cheeses, but they will help you out of a jam and allow you to enjoy new Mexican inspired meals. 

Although we explored two types of Mexican crumbled cheese, cotija vs queso fresco, keep in mind that there are many other varieties of Mexican cheese out there for you to discover. These two, in particular, are the ones you will most likely encounter, so it helps to be knowledgeable about what they are and how they taste. Consider ordering these cheeses online if you can’t find them locally. It will be worth the extra effort and will allow you to choose from a wider variety and can give you access to more high-quality brands.

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Peter Allen

Peter Allen

Peter's path through the culinary world has taken a number of unexpected turns. After starting out as a waiter at the age of 16, he was inspired to go to culinary school and learn the tricks of the trade. As he delved deeper, however, his career took a sudden turn when a family friend needed someone to help manage his business. Peter now scratches his culinary itch on the internet by blogging, sharing recipes, and socializing with food enthusiasts worldwide.

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