Although the Hispanic cuisine is usually hot and spicy, the cheeses of Mexico and the Caribbean are far from it. The most popular cheeses of the region are the fresh white varieties. They may be quite mild, but they add rich, creamy flavor to the huge number of local recipes available.
Cheesy Mexican and Caribbean dishes like queso Frito, enchiladas, and chile Rellenos are famous all around the world. It’s almost impossible to imagine that before Spanish colonization, the inhabitants of Mexico lived largely on a diet of fruit and vegetables. The art of cheese making wasn’t even known until the Spaniards brought cows and goats to the area!
Cheese is still being produced in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, from the milk of cattle who originally came from Europe all those years ago. In other famous cheese making areas like Queretaro, Oaxaca, and Chiapas, cheese monger stalls are full with cheeses packed into baskets, wrapped in corn husks or rolled like twine.
The best cheeses from these regions are completely different in every way to Amercian or European cheeses, and they are very worth experiencing:
Chihuahua is a pale yellow cow’s milk cheese which can also be named Queso Menonita because of the Mennonite communities of Northern Mexico where it was first produced. The flavor is mild, slightly sour and salty, but actually turns sharp and tangy and very similar to Cheddar, with age. People often use it to make fundido, which is Mexican fondue.
This smooth, soft cow’s milk cheese has a creamy, milk flavor and a slightly elastic texture. It is a family favorite for snacking on and melting into savory dishes such as quesadillas. A variety of this is called Queso Jalapeno and it has bits of jalapenos mixed into the paste for more spice and zest.
Cotija is sharp, aged cheese that is known as the “Parmesan of Mexico”. It gets its name from the town of Cotija Michoacan where it came from originally. It is made with goat or cow’s milk and has a firm texture and strong flavor with distinctive salty notes. It makes for a good garnish for salads, chili, or pasta.
Queso Media Luna
Also known as Queso De Papa, this Colby-type cheese with its firm, moist texture and orange color has a smooth mild to a tangy flavor. It is a popular cheese in Puerto Rico and is from the Caribbean. Perfect for snacking on or baking with.
These fresh white cheeses of Mexico and the Caribbean can become warm and soft, without melting when they are heated. They were traditionally crafted by local artisans and delivered to market wrapped in banana leaves.
Queso Oaxaca (Asadero)
From the Oaxaca region, this famous cow’s milk cheese is a stretched curd variety which is similar in texture to Provolone. It is either white or pale yellow and is kneaded and wound into balls before being plunged into brine for several minutes. This semi-soft cheese has a mild to a buttery and sweet flavor.
This cheese is firmly pressed and rolled in mild chili powder or paprika to give it a distinctive red coating and slightly piquant flavor. It is made with skimmed cow or goat’s milk, with a hard, dry texture that softens under heat but does not melt. It makes a delicious snack with a tequila or spicy Mexican beer cocktail.
Queso Fresco (Adobera)
Queso Fresco is the most commonly used Hispanic variety. It is a soft and spongy white cheese which is made from a combination of cow and goat’s milk. The flavor is mild and salty with fresh acidity. Because of its fine-grained texture, the favored use for it is crumbling it over enchiladas and taquitos for added flavor.
Panela (Queso de Canasta)
This is the most popular fresh cheese in Mexico. It is white, mild cheese which retains the unique imprint from the basket it is made in. The texture is soft and crumbly, with many different varieties being produced, Panela can be found wrapped in toasted avocado leaves or coated with garlic and chili paste.
It is traditionally fresh cow’s milk cheese which is flavors cross between Italian Mozzarella and salty cream cheese. The process of creating this cheese is done by Artisans who coagulate the curd with lemon juice, giving it the creamy, but crisp citrus flavor.
Queso Para Freir
This cheese is popular in the Caribbean and throughout South America. It is a mild, white cheese and a variation of Queso Blanco, but a lot saltier and firmer. Queso Para Freir is great for fried dishes such as the popular Queso Frito because it resists melting.