Say Si to Real Mexican Cheese

Please do as our Mexican-born cousins and eat only authentic cheeses on your Mexican recipes. Why? If I may be allowed to damn with faint praise, using anything else is just eh. Cheddar or colby cheese? Good for mac n' cheese, only so-so on authentic Mexican food, especially when it is so smothered with the stuff you can hardly taste the forrest for the cheese. And please don't even mention gooey nacho flavored "cheese product" that is just one molecule away from plastic in my delicate presence, porque me voy a morir--because I'll die if you do.

Taste these quesos and see for yourself that they are just perfect for the strong flavors of Mexican food. Somehow they just go together in a beautiful ballad of heat and cool, salty and sweet that makes me want take in all of that chili-laden flavored deliciousness until I can have no more. If you are mystified as to what is the right cheese to put on enchiladas and other Mexican dishes, then look no further. Here is a list of some excellent Mexican cheeses that, while no means complete, will make you say bye-bye to radioactive nacho-cheese poison:

COTIJA (coh-tee΄hah): A white cheese that is dry and grainy, salty, sometimes with the texture of feta. Like Parmesan, it has a strong aroma with a sharp flavor. It tastes oh so sabroso grated over refried beans or a large platter of enchiladas, in salads, soups, on tostadas and tacos. It also available pre-grated for added convenience.
QUESO FRESCO (keh-so fres´coh): In Spanish it means "fresh cheese". It is also known as queso casero and queso ranchero. Slightly grainy in texture, it is part-skim and more delicate tasting. Its slightly salty, slightly sweet flavor is perfect crumbled over beans, or enchiladas, in salads, soups or tostadas. If cotija is too strong for your palate, then queso fresco is the way to go. Some say that feta cheese is a good substitute, but I disagree. Feta is much saltier than queso fresco.
PANELA (pah-nel´a): A semi-soft, cool, delicately flavored, part-skim cheese. It is smooth textured and, like queso fresco, is the perfect accompaniment for the hottest chili sauces and salsas. Just cut it up in wedges and serve it to your guests. For a quick snack or pick-me-up, just put some in a hot corn tortilla with a bit of super hot salsa. Or, eat it with a piece of fruit. I don't know about you, but I'm hopelessly in love with panela.

QUESO CREMOSO (keh´so creh-moh´soh): A rather soft and creamy cheese with a high fat content.

QUESO ENCHILADO(keh´soh en-chee-lah´doh): (See top picture.) This lovely cheese is coated with chili powder and is crumbly and semi-soft, but firm. Don't let its fiery exterior fool you—the inside is as mild as can be. It is a good topping for tacos, beans, or salads.

QUESO QUESADILLA (keh´soh keh-sah-dee´yah): Okay, this is it—the perfect cheese for all of those Mexican dishes, like chiles rellenos and quesadillas that call for a cheese that melts beautifully. It's a nice topping for nachos or if you prefer melted cheese over your enchiladas. Once you taste it, you will forget that ghastly orange stuff for all time. Also available with bits of roasted chili peppers.

ASADERO (Ah-sah-deh´roh): With the same properties as queso quesadilla, but stronger tasting.

QUESO REQUESON (keh´soh reh-keh-sohn´): The Mexican ricotta cheese. Stuff a chile relleno with this cheese and cubed queso quesadilla. After eating one, I think you can die happy now. QUESO OAXACA (keh´soh huah-hah´kah) This cheese is braided into a cute ball and melts easily. When served fresh, it is just like string cheese. Similar to mozzarella cheese, but a little more flavorful. I love it in soup or over some calabacitas (zucchini) with tomato and poblanos.
What I especially love about these cheeses is that contain only milk, salt and enzymes—that means nada artificial ingredients and colors. Auuuuuja!

Where to buy them? Right in the cheese section of your grocery store. If it doesn't carry them, then talk to your grocer and ask him or her to order some for you. Better yet, go across the tracks to the other side of town and shop for them at the Mexican foods market. (For those readers who are not familiar with Mexican markets, you will find foods that you will never find in a regular supermarket. (Prickly pears, anyone?) If all else fails and you cannot find these sabrosisimos cheeses, well, perhaps Monterey Jack, feta, or any Italian style cheese, such as parmesan, ricotta, or mozzarella will have to do I suppose.
Just make sure it's an honest piece of queso.


Emma said...

Panela. Ohhhh, panela. My favorite queso mexicano. Un taco, I think, un taquito de panela, and the next thing I know, it's half gone. I'm not proud of that, but I'm not ashamed, either.

Elra said...

Fantastic, now I can go to mexican market without feeling puzzled by the name of the cheese. Thanks for the informative post.

La Traductora said...

Dear Elra,
Thanks for visiting my little ole blog!

tacosam said...

Thank you for your beautiful blog. I love your writing and your photos. I especially love how you put the phonetic spelling next to the palabra.

Un plato de frijoles is simply not done if there is no queso to sprinkle on top. Sort of like serving a hamburger with no bun.

I have also found that the Queso Monterey sold in Mexican markets, sliced directly from the big, waxy wheel, is much different and better tasting than the American version of Monterrey Jack Cheese.

I came to your blog via Pearmama. Saludos desde Camarillo.

tacosam said...

By the way, Nordstrom's in Thousand Oaks sells Mexican Hot Chocolate in their cafe now. I was incredulous, and after purchasing a cup, was surprised that it tasted just like a Mexican grandmother would make it.

I asked the woman behind the counter, "how do you guys make this, do you actually have somebody grind those chocolate discs down into powder?" She said, "no it already comes in powder form in a bag." I asked her to show me the bag and it was "Ibarra" brand chocolate. She said they were selling small bags of it during Christmas and it was a big hit and sold out.

La Traductora said...

Dear Senor Taco Sam, or Proud Papa,
Gracias for your kind comments!
I tried to comment on your blog, but it didn't take for some reason.
Thank you for the tip on Mexican Monterey cheese. I think I will update this post.
As the pre-grated Mexican chocolate, I love the idea, but for some reason I resist buying it. I realize that I love that little wheel of bittersweet chocolate and truly enjoy the small ritual of grating it myself as I mother used to do. Sentimental I know, but there it is.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the explanation of all
of the cheeses. I have only used a few before.
I also would like to tell you that I made the Hot Chocolate per your recipe and my husband said it was a good as his Nana Hernandez. He had bragged on her hot chocolate for so long...
Next, how about making chili rellanos with a gravy to go with them? I make pretty good ones, but I now know which cheese to use from your recipe. I would love to see how you do them. Really, I would love to eat them!
Candee (mother of Maureen A. that you know)

La Traductora said...

Hi Candee!
Yes, I will be featuring chiles rellenos on this blog, but first I will write about all the different kinds of dried and fresh chilies you can use. There are so many, and each with its unique flavor, not just HOT. But the chile rellenos will come--I am going to have to "experiment" and eat them all to find the ones I like best--it's a "hard" job, but someone has got to do it!
Please give a big hug to Miss M for me! Hope to meet you one of these days, and gracias for visiting!

Anonymous said...

I am one of the guilty ones who use the wrong cheeses in my mexican dishes. Your cheeses sound wonderful but are so hard to find. Some of them I've never even heard of. So this post for me is a teaching post. Thank you so much. I love mexican food and this will help me make it more authentic. I still love the photo in your header :)

La Traductora said...

If any of you like Italian food (and who doesn't?), go visit Maryann, above. Her food is stupendo!
Maryann, I have had Mexican friends who have lived in NY and they have the same lament. However, NYC has a vibrant community (they are mostly from Puebla, Mex.), so there's gotta be some good Mexi cheese out there somewhere. What you can do: the next time you go to some fancy NYC restaurant, ask if the waiter if there are Mexicans in there (mostly likely, there are). He'll probably wonder if you are the INS, but after a bit of explanation, I'm sure that they will point you in the right direction.
If all else fails, go ahead and use Italian cheeses. They are fine substitutes.

Pearmama said...

Mmmmmm, cheese. When I die, just stuff me a casket of cheese. I will die happily. I am a huge fan of cotija....I love, love LOVe it sprinkled on my beans, on sopes, enchiladas. I always buy this giant block. But I think hands down, my fave it queso fresco. It is delicious in a warm, thick corn tortilla, with thinly sliced red onion, tomatoes and some kickin' salsa. Mmmmmm. Such a simple meal and it is soooo delicious.

Droppin' science on cheese. Thank you!

La Traductora said...

Hi Pearmama!
What is it about little piece of dairy fat that makes us go forget our diets and makes us wax poetic? Take away everything, but just don't take away mi quecito, "o te voy a pegar con un palo!" as mi suegro used to say.

Anonymous said...

Hi there!

I was googling,and came across your wonderful blog!

Just today I was at Canoga Park Nordstroms "e cafe" and tried the Mexican mocha. It was so good, I bought the bag of Ibarra chocolate. It was nice to see it comes in a bag, as the round circles never worked right for me. Granted, it was back in the 80's lol

I see from above that I am not alone in ejoying this drink! :)

Clementina said...

Hola, Anonymous!
A little tacita of hot Mexican chocolate on a rainy night . . . how enjoyable!
Canoga Park? That place brings back memories . . .

Anonymous said...

what in the world is this.

Clementina said...

Hola, Anonymous
Is that a question or a statement? At any rate, I will tell you what Mexican cheese is NOT: phoney cheese.

Barbara and Nancy said...

Hi Clementina,
I have a blog about avocados ( and was just thinking about doing a post about Mexican cheeses (a subject I've always been puzzled about). It seems that Mexican cheeses and avocados could go hand in hand. I was wondering if you would let me use your photos of the cheeses and the explanations on my blog. I will of course refer to your blog. Let me know. Thanks.
Ladies of the grove