UNQUESTIONABLY… Mexican food is growing ever more popular in the world of good eating, and the pressure is on for quality authentic ingredients. One of the most essential is queso… Mexican cheeses which are rapidly moving beyond Latin enclaves into mainstream markets.
There are at least a dozen different Mexican cheeses which are now being produced in the West, about half of them widely distributed — the rest you have to search out locally or over the Internet. Some are known by more than one name, and most are made from cow’s milk. Most are white or cream colored with a mild, fresh taste, though a few are sharp and intense, perfect for garnishing spicy Mexican dishes.
The way they behave in cooking divides them into three categories: Fresh, mild cheeses that hold their shape when heated; good melting cheeses; and aged, sharp, crumbly ones.
Fresh and melting-type cheeses should be used quickly, as they tend to spoil. Once the package is open, eat or use within a few days — the melting types may hold up to a week. If the taste and smell is sour or the cheese is discolored, toss it.
Saltier cheeses contain less moisture and keep longer under refrigeration. The same rules apply — if it smells or looks off, out it goes.
Look for Panela, a very fresh, mild cheese made from curds drained in a basket — the cheese will bear the attractive pattern. It has a squeaky texture similar to fresh Italian buffalo mozzarella. It softens but doesn’t melt and is great in sandwiches, salads and soups. Try pan-frying slices in a nonstick skillet over medium heat, or grill it.
Queso fresco (also known as ranchero) is another fresh cheese with a slightly salty taste and somewhat crumbly texture. Substitute farmer’s or ricotta cheese. Softens when heated, but holds its shape. Traditional topping or filling for tacos, tostadas, chiles rellenos, enchiladas, quesadillas, beans, etc.
Chihuahua (get Menonita if you can) melts beautifully like jack or cheddar. Shred or slice into quesadillas, enchiladas or anywhere a melting cheese works. Can become stringy if overheated.
Oaxaca is a string cheese wound into balls of varying sizes, or sold in strands which may be pulled apart like a typical string cheese. Great in quesadillas, nachos etc.
Manchego is another common melter — use like Chihuahua.
Cotija (or añejo, aged cheese) is crumbly, salty and a bit pungent. Depending on how it’s made, it can be soft like feta, or firm and more complex, like parmesan. It can be used like feta or parmesan, and is the traditional garnish on tacos, enchiladas etc.
There are many more, but I hope this will get you working with whatever Mexican cheeses are available to you, and on the hunt to find more!