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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Mexican Cheeses

Understanding Mexican Cheeses
by Victoria Challancin

A Bit of History and Use

Dairy products were introduced into Mexican cuisine by the Spanish conquerors who brought various domesticated animals with them to the New World. The Spanish may have introduced Europe to the culinary marvels of Mexico when they returned with chocolate, vanilla, chiles, corn, tomatoes, and more, but they also brought with them to the New World that which they considered necessary to their own survival, especially domesticated animals such as cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, and chickens. And from that early introduction, a thriving dairy industry took root.

It may be hard to imagine Mexican cuisine without its wonderful cheeses, but it is important to look at how they actually are used in Mexico, given that American versions of many traditional Mexican dishes completely overuse cream and cheese, something that rarely happens in Mexico itself. In Mexico, cheese often exists as a neutralizing element to balance the heat of chiles and to offset the acidity provided by tomatoes and tomatillos. A slight drizzle of acidified cream often accompanies cheese and performs the same function. Although there are various well-known Mexican dishes that feature cheese as the star, such as picadillo-stuffed Edam cheese from the Yucatán or the queso fundido that is found throughout Mexico, cheese exists mainly as a background note that mellows spicy dishes.

Perhaps it is due to its use as a subtle accompaniment to more piquant dishes that so many mild, fresh cheeses developed. In any local market or on any village street, fresh cheeses are sold by individuals who hawk their wares from their food stalls or carry their baskets of goods on their arm. Many of these cheeses are made from unpasteurized milk, which is unfortunate, because their flavor is infinitely superior to most commercial brands. The artesanal cheese-makers, or queseros, from villages throughout Mexico also usually use lime juice to coagulate the curds of the milk, rather than the rennet employed by large-scale commercial companies, resulting in cheeses that have an incomparable tang that commercial cheeses simply can’t match. Just remember that these cheeses, whether locally made or commercially produced, are quite perishable and have a short shelf-life, even with modern refrigeration.

The terminology surrounding Mexican cheese can also be confusing. Many cheese are named after their Spanish counterparts, but in reality are quite different. Others have similar names, slightly different, but which are used interchangeably. And sometimes one cheese has several names. To add to the confusion, cheeses are sold in baskets, wrapped in leaves (corn husks, toasted avocado leaves, hoja santa, to name but a few), smeared with chile-garlic paste, dusted with what might be sweet paprika or a searing chile powder, made from cow’s milk, sheep’s milk, goat’s milk, pasteurized or not—the complications are endless, but the end product is always delightful.

Main Types of Cheese
While most international cheeses are categorized as soft, semi-soft, firm, or extra-firm, Mexican cheeses are generally classified according to how they behave: melting or non-melting. The sheer number of non-melting cheeses in Mexico often comes as a surprise to those diners who are accustomed to eating gooey, creamy masses of cheese in their food. The fact that non-melting cheese is actually desirable, is often a bit of a surprise until we remember that early Mexican food didn’t rely on ovens at all, so the idea of sprinkling cheese on a finished product rather than baking it, was perhaps easier to adopt. “Aged” cheese represents a third category, but this has more to do with flavor than anything else. This is another area of confusion because in the United States and Europe, aged cheeses are exactly that: aged, or ripened for a length of time. In Mexico, the term “aged” really refers to cheeses that have a firmer texture due to a lower moisture content and a sharper, more pungent flavor due to being salted, pressed, and dried, not really matured or aged at all.

The following list includes only the most common or available Mexican cheeses. There are many, many more wonderful artesanal cheeses available throughout the markets, puestos de queseros, and tiendas of Mexico. Even the small city of San Miguel de Allende, where I live has two wonderful commercial cheesemakers: Remo Stabile of Remo’s and the family of Mariana Peraza of Luna de Queso.

Fresh Cheese
Fresh cheeses may be the most confusing of all simply because they are so popular, so easily made by individuals, and thus result in having many different names. Queso Fresco (Fresh Cheese), Queso Blanco (White Cheese), and Queso Ranchero (Ranch Cheese) are sometimes different products, but almost interchangeable in use. In fact, my Mexican students tell me they don’t differentiate among them. Other fresh cheeses, such as Queso para Freir (a variety of Queso Blanco), Queso Panela, Queso Requesón, and Queso Crema round out the basic offerings of fresh, unripened, young cheeses, often called “curd-cheeses,” that generally soften, but don’t melt when cooked. Textures range from moist and firm to moist and crumbly.
Queso Fresco(Fresh Cheese)
Color: White, off-white
Behavior: Holds shape when heated; doesn’t melt
Flavor: Mild, slightly salty, mildly acidic with a fresh milk taste
Texture: Moist and crumbly
How it is sold: Molded into small rounds
Use: As a filling for enchiladas, crumbled over various antojitos (corn-based snacks), with eggs, crumbed over nopal cactus salad, soup, or refried beans
Substitute: Fresh Farmer’s Cheese

Queso Blanco (White Cheese)
Queso Blanco is made from skimmed cow’s milk
Color: White
Behavior: Holds shape when heated; doesn’t melt or become runny
Flavor: Mild
Texture: Moist, grainy, somewhat spongy
How it is sold: Molded into small rounds
Use: Same as for Queso Fresco
Substitute: Fresh Farmer’s Cheese

Queso Ranchero (Ranch Cheese)
This fresh cheese is made from curds that have been ground before being remolded into small rounds.
Color: White, off-white, sometimes almost grayish
Behavior: Holds shape when heated, doesn’t melt
Flavor: Mild, slightly salty
Texture: Grainy, moist
How it is sold: Molded into small rounds
Use: Same as for Queso Fresco
Substitute: Fresh Farmer’s Cheese

Queso para Freir (Cheese for Frying)
This is often considered to be a sub-category of Queso Fresco.
Color: White or pale yellow
Behavior: Holds shape when heated; doesn’t melt
Flavor: Mild , firm, and somewhat creamy
Texture: Moist and firmer and more elastic than the above fresh cheeses
How it is sold: Commercially this is sold in larger wheels
Use: Sliced and fried or in cooked dishes as well baked ones. Can be deep-fried.
Substitute: Halloumi, Queso Fresco, Panela

Queso Requesón
This cheese is made from the whey leftover in the cheese-making process, like the Italian ricotta, which is basically what it is. It is sometimes sold wrapped in corn husks.
Color: White or grayish-white
Behavior: Spreadable
Flavor: Mild with a fresh milk taste
Texture: Grainy, soft, loose
How it is sold: In Mexico it is often sold in markets wrapped in corn husks. Commercially, it is sold scooped out of a container and sold by the spoonful.
Use: Crumbled, used as a spread, or as a filling in cooked foods and desserts
Substitute: Ricotta (a non-salty kind)

Queso Panela (Sometimes called Queso de Canasta)
This cheese is low-fat, bland, and wonderful as a canvas for other flavors. In terms of behavior, but not flavor, It reminds me of one of my favorite cheeses, the Cypriot Halloumi, which I ate almost daily when I lived in the Middle East, but which is unavailable to me here in Mexico. It is sometimes called Queso de Canasta (Basket Cheese) because it is often formed in baskets which leave their imprint in the outer flesh of the cheese. It is also compared to Greek basket cheese, to which it is similar.
Color: White
Behavior: Holds shape when heated; doesn’t melt
Flavor: Mild, with s slight sweetness
Texture: Moist, firm, similar to a fresh or high-moisture Mozzarella
How it is sold: Commercially, it is sold in rounds, sometimes with the basket imprint, usually not; in markets it is usually sold with the basket marks imprinted on the surface of the cheese
Use: Sliced or shredded, grilled (like Halloumi), cubed and put into salads or salsas, used as a snacking cheese
Substitute: Cypriot Halloumi or Fresh Mozzarella

Queso Crema (Cream Cheese)
Color: White
Behavior: Spreadable
Flavor: Tangy
Texture: Creamy
Shape: Sold in containers, scooped with a spoon
Use: Use in spreads, dips, or desserts
Substitute: Cream Cheese

Melting Cheese
Unlike their northern counterparts such as Cheddar and Monterey Jack, Mexican melting cheeses don’t separate and become oily when heated. This makes for a more pleasing presentation for nachos or any dish featuring melted cheese.

Queso Asadero (Cheese for Grilling)
Color: Light yellow
Behavior: Melts easily, can be grated or sliced
Flavor: Tangy and very slightly pungent, generally more robust than the other melting cheeses
Texture: Firm, creamy
How it is sold: Molded into a log and sold sliced into thick pieces
Use: Perfect for queso fundido, quesadillas, or nachos
Substitute: Provolone, American Munster, Fontina, Monterey Jack

Queso Oaxaca (Also called Quesillo)
This string cheese is made by the same process as Mozzarella, especially low-moisture Mozzarella. Once the curds are formed, they are heated in water, stirred until strings or threads form, and then stretched and kneaded and formed into yarn-like balls or even braids. It reminds me of the string cheeses that are so common in the Middle East.
Color: White to pale yellow
Behavior: Melts, shreds easily by hand
Flavor: Mild, but slightly tangy and salty
Texture: Firm
How it is sold: Sold in balls, braids, or even pre-shredded with the fibers clearly visible
Use: Quesadillas or for any recipe requiring a good melting cheese
Substitute: Syrian or other string cheese, low-moisture Mozzarella

Queso Chihuahua (Queso Menonita)
Named “Chihuahua” for the state of Mexico in which it originated, or called “Queso Menonita” for the Menonites of German descent who settled in the state of Chihuahua and began making this cheese as a cottage industry.
Color: Pale yellow
Behavior: Melts well; can be sliced or grated
Flavor: Ranging from mild and smooth, with a bit of tang to fairly pungent and sharp
Texture: Smooth and buttery
How it is sold: Sold in blocks
Use: Great in cheese sauces, casseroles, for fried breaded cheese (queso frito), or anywhere a cheddar-type cheese would be used
Substitute: Gouda, Mild Cheddar, or a somewhat ripe Jack

Although named after the city of La Mancha, Spain, Mexican Manchego bears little resemblance to its Spanish name-sake. In Spain, Manchego is made from ewe’s milk, specifically the ewes of one breed of sheep; whereas in Mexico it is made from cow’s milk. The Spanish version has a more developed flavor due to a longer aging process. An all-purpose Mexican cheese, not unlike Cheddar in the United States, Manchego is an extremely popular cheese that finds its way into all sorts of dishes.
Color: Pale buttery yellow to golden
Behavior: Melts well; can be sliced or grated
Flavor: Mellow, nutty, mild but with a hint of tang
Texture: Semi-Firm to Firm, Smooth
How it is sold: Sold in blocks
Use: As a snacking cheese with wine, fruit, or dried fruit pastes; as a general melting cheese or for stuffing/filling
Substitute: Aged Monterey Jack, Fontina, American Munster, Gouda

Hard Cheeses
Although the moisture content varies a good deal in these cheeses, the cheeses in general have less moisture than other Mexican cheeses due to having been pressed and dried. The term “aged” is a bit of a misnomer. They are ripened somewhat, though not really aged in the sense that some French, Italian, or American cheeses are. The maturation process does give a sharp, pungent quality to the cheeses, though the texture may vary from semi-firm to very firm. Some are quite crumbly.

Queso CotijaNamed for the town of Cotija in the state of Michoacán, this cheese is often called the “Parmesan of Mexico.“ Sometimes available made from goat’s milk. It is basically a dried and matured version of queso blanco.
Color: White
Behavior: Softens, but doesn’t melt; grates or crumbles well
Flavor: Sharp, pungent, very salty, piquant
Texture: Dry, firm, crumbly—similar to a dry Feta, young Parmesan, or a dry Monterey Jack
How it is sold: Sold sliced from blocks
Use: In Caesar salads or as a garnish for soups or beans
Substitute: Dry Feta, young Parmesan, or a dry Monterey Jack

Queso Añejo (Aged Cheese)
Once again the name is misleading as it is not really aged in the sense that American or European cheeses are aged. It is salted, pressed, and dried, but not really allowed to mature. Sometimes this cheese is called “Queso Cotija Añejo.”
Color: White
Behavior: Softens, but doesn’t melt; grates or crumbles well
Flavor: Sharp with a more pungent flavor than Queso Cotija due to a longer aging period
Texture: Dry, hard, crumbly
How it is sold: Sold sliced from blocks
Use: Primarily used as a garnish or crumbled into salads
Substitute: Romano, Dry Feta, Asiago, Dry Jack, or an aged Parmesan

Queso Enchilado (Cheese with Chiles)
Basically, this is a form of Queso añejo that has been dusted with either paprika or red chile powder.

A Few Useful Terms
Añejo = Aged or matured
Viejo = Old, but implies aged or matured
Duro = Hard
Ahumado = Smoked
Enchilado = With chiles
Fresco = Fresh

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Flavors of the Sun International Cooking School
San Miguel de Allende, México

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