Overview Of California Hispanic-Style Cheeses

The California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB) has prepared this guide to the many popular Hispanic-style cheeses produced in California. The state produces more than 25 varieties and styles of Hispanic-style cheeses bearing the Real California Cheese seal, which certifies natural cheeses made in California exclusively from California milk. In the past, these cheeses were sometimes difficult to find, often requiring a trip to a Mexican specialty food store. But according to the CMAB, Hispanic-style cheeses are growing in popularity, with many varieties now available in supermarkets across the country. California is the country’s leading producer of Hispanic-style cheeses.

The Fresh Cheeses:

Hispanic-style cheeses fall into two general categories – fresh and aged. Fresh, or unripened, cheeses are very young cheeses that have not been allowed to age. Typically, the fresh Hispanic-style cheeses are soft and moist, white or off-white in color and feature the delicious flavor of fresh milk. Like milk, these fresh cheeses must be kept in the refrigerator until used. They have a shorter shelf life than aged cheeses and carry a freshness date on the package. (Unlike aged cheeses, such as Jack or Cheddar, it’s best to discard fresh Hispanic-style cheeses if you have left them sitting out for a while – just as with fresh milk – rather than rewrapping them for later use.)

A special characteristic of many of the fresh types is that they hold their shape during cooking. When heated, typically they soften but do not melt (or flow). Because many Hispanic-style cheeses do not melt, they are often used as fillings or toppings in recipes. Most also serve as a seasoning because they have a salty flavor that ranges from mild to pronounced. This must be considered when adding salt and seasonings to recipes. Following are descriptions of several popular fresh Hispanic-style cheeses, or queso (Keh-so), widely available in California:

Queso Fresco (Keh-so Fres-co) - The most popular Hispanic-style cheese, Queso Fresco is soft and moist with a mild saltiness and slight acidity similar to Farmers Cheese. It is made in whole and low-fat milk varieties and commonly sold in 12 and 16-ounce rounds. It crumbles easily and does not melt. This cheese is often used as a topping or filling in cooked dishes. Queso Fresco may be called Adobera when sold in large pieces. There are a number of variations of Queso Fresco produced in California and marketed under specific brand names.

Queso Blanco Fresco (Keh-so Blan-co Fres-co) - Also called Queso Para Freir (Keh-so Pa-ra Fre-eer), or cheese for frying, it is a firm, moist cheese made with whole or low-fat milk and used in cooked dishes. As its name implies, it is often fried because it holds its shape under heat. It is also crumbled onto fruit, beans, salads and other dishes. It is commonly sold in 12-ounce tubs and 16-ounce squares or loaves.

Panela (Pah-neh-la) - Mild and moist with a sweet, fresh milk flavor, Panela has a firm texture similar to fresh (or high-moisture) Mozzarella and does not melt, so it is often used in cooked foods. It is also used in sandwiches, salads and with fruit. It bears a distinctive basketweave texture from the round basket in which the cheese is drained while it is being made. Made with whole or low-fat milk, Panela is commonly available in 12- and 16-ounce rounds.

Queso Blanco (Keh-so Blan-co) - A white, mild, creamy cheese similar to a mild Cheddar or Jack, and used in much the same way. It also melts like those cheeses. Queso Blanco is made with whole or low-fat milk and is typically available in 12 and 16-ounce rounds.

Oaxaca (Wa-ha-ka) - A mild, firm white cheese with a sweet milk flavor and slight saltiness, Oaxaca has an appearance that is similar to Mozzarella. In appearance, it looks like a braided or rolled ball and is said to reflect the braided silver crafted in the town of Oaxaca, Mexico, from which this cheese originates. Similar to string cheese, Oaxaca is used as you would a low-moisture Mozzarella. This cheese melts well and is often shredded into main dishes prior to cooking. Oaxaca is made with whole or low-fat milk and is typically available in 12-ounce to 4-pound balls.

Requesón (Re-keh-sohn) - Similar to Ricotta, Requesón is made from whey and has a soft, grainy texture and fresh milk taste. This Hispanic-style cheese is also used much the same way – in salads, spreads, fillings in cooked foods and desserts. Requesón is available in whole and low-fat varieties and is typically sold in 12 and 16-ounce packages or tubs.

The Aged Cheeses:

California cheesemakers produce a number of aged, semi-firm and firm Hispanic-style cheeses. A few of these will soften but not melt (or flow) when heated or used in cooked dishes. Others are excellent melting cheeses noted for the rich, creamy taste and texture they add to cooked foods. The aged cheeses can be stored in the refrigerator much longer than the fresh varieties. You should handle and store them much like Jack or Cheddar, or like Dry Jack in the case of the very dry types. 

There is a style of Hispanic cheese commonly called “añejo” (or “aged”) that is different from its “aged” European and American counterparts. While the cheeses in this category are aged to some degree, their characteristic dry texture and pungent, sharp flavor comes from being salted, pressed and dried rather than being “aged” for a long time. Following are some popular aged cheeses that are widely available in California:

Asadero (Ah-sah-deh-ro) - A mild, firm cheese molded into a log and sold sliced, it is similar to Provolone in its slightly tangy taste and firm texture. Made with whole or low-fat milk, it melts well and is used in such dishes as quesadillas and nachos as well as on hamburgers and sandwiches. Note that Asadero comes in processed, as well as natural cheese versions. Asadero is typically available in 8-, 12- and 16-ounce rounds.

Cotija (Ko-tee-hah) - Named after the town of Cotija in Mexico where it originated, this firm, very salty cheese is similar to a dry Feta in many respects. Moisture content will vary by manufacturer, ranging from semi-firm to very firm, although all versions are quite crumbly. It can be used in a similar way to Feta – in cooked foods, especially crumbled and sprinkled like a condiment over soups, salads and beans. Cotija is also available in grated form. It is made with whole or low-fat milk and is typically available in 12- and 16-ounce rounds, wedges or squares.

Cotija Añejo (Ko-tee-hah An-yeh-ho) - A version of Cotija that has been aged longer (Añejo means aged). Some manufacturers call it Queso Añejo, or simply, Añejo. As the name implies, it is fairly hard and dry and is a mainstay of Mexican cooking, often crumbled over dishes. It has a salty flavor and can be grated or crumbled and used like Parmesan or Dry Jack on salads and cooked foods. This cheese is typically made with low-fat milk.

Enchilado (En-chee-la-do) - Also called Enchilado Añejo, this dry, crumbly white cheese is similar to Cotija Añejo but distinguished by its colorful reddish appearance, the result of a coating of mild red chili or paprika which adds a slightly spicy flavor. Crumble or slice onto Mexican foods, soups and salads. In cooked dishes, it softens but does not melt. Enchilado is made with low-fat milk and is commonly available in 12-ounce rounds.

Menonita (Meh-no-nita) - A mild, smooth white cheese that originated in the Mennonite community in Chihuahua, Mexico. Made with whole or low-fat milk, Menonita is a good table cheese similar in flavor to Gouda and can be used just like Gouda in recipes.

Manchego (Mahn-cheh-go) - Derived from the famous cheese of La Mancha, Spain, where it is traditionally made from sheep’s milk, the California version is made from low-fat cow’s milk and has its own distinct personality. This firm golden cheese has a mellow flavor similar to a slightly aged Jack, but more nutty. It is used as a snacking and sandwich cheese, and as an accompaniment to fruit and wine. It also melts well in cooking. It is commonly available in 12-ounce rounds.

Note: The names given here are the most common names for these cheeses. However, it is not uncommon for a Hispanic-style cheese to be called by more than one name. Also, some cheesemakers may sell a cheese under a proprietary name that is different from that commonly used. In most cases the names given here will be on the package.

For more information, visit www.RealCaliforniaMilk.com

Last updated: June 2009