Tangy and salty, Queso Cotija is one of Mexico’s most beloved cheeses. However, understanding what it tastes like and when it should be used can be the difference between serving an authentic dish or not. Learn all about queso cotija: how to use it and what the best substitutes are when you can’t find it.
When it comes to Mexican food, the garnishes are just as important as the actual ingredients. For that reason, I’m dedicating an entire post to perhaps the most flavorful cheesy garnish possible: cotija cheese.
Used to top some of your favorite Mexican foods, this cheese adds a pop of color and an unexpectedly pleasant sharpness. Its crumbly texture makes it easy to sprinkle in generous amounts over chilaquiles, enchiladas, and other traditional dishes. Don’t go crazy with it, though. It’s not actually used over everything.
Once you learn how to use it and what to add it to, you’ll be serving authentic Mexican feasts and look like a true local.
What is Cotija Cheese?
Cotija cheese is an aged, semi-firm Mexican cheese. This means it’s got a strong flavor and can only be crumbled or shredded but not spread or grated. The intensity of its saltiness and tang will depend on how long it was aged for. Its crumbliness also depends on the amount of moisture in the cheese.
It’s one of the few Mexican cheeses that isn’t melty, making it an ideal topping for foods and savory snacks that need an exciting kick of sharpness. Although it’s never going to be the star of a dish, cotija is always going to be an important component in its overall flavor.
What is the difference between queso cotija vs queso fresco?
Unlike cotija cheese, queso fresco is very mild. It’s also got a lot more moisture, so it’s softer and creamier in texture. Queso fresco is also quite milky in flavor and doesn’t become more astringent as it ages. Cotija cheese, on the other hand, is the complete opposite.
What Does It Taste Like?
Cotija cheese tastes like a much drier, less sour combination of feta and goat’s cheese. It’s tangy and salty. If you have a hard time picturing it, its tang is very similar to that of buttermilk or white vinegar. Despite being a sharp cheese, it isn’t necessarily overpowering depending on the amount you use.
How to Use Mexican Cotija Cheese
Since it can’t be melted, cotija cheese only needs to be crumbled and sprinkled over your favorite Mexican foods. It doesn’t even need to be heated or brought down to room temperature. In fact, it tastes a lot better when it’s cold.
Cotija cheese is usually added to bean, masa, and sauce-based dishes and sides. It’s not typically sprinkled over tacos. These are some of my favorite recipes to use it in:
- Pambazos (Mexican Chorizo Sandwiches)
- Frijoles Refritos (Mexican Refried Beans)
- Huevos Divorciados
- Homemade Huaraches Recipe
Don’t forget to add lots of shredded lettuce, Mexican crema, and your favorite salsa for extra flavor too. These are a set of toppings that can go on anything you add cotija to.
Cotija Cheese Substitutes
These are the top 3 cotija cheese substitutes. Adobera is the best one.
- Adobera. This is a lesser-known but very traditional Mexican cheese. It’s the closest in texture and flavor, even having that sharper-over-time quality that’s very characteristic of cotija. Adobera is usually sold in blocks, so you’ll need to crumble it yourself.
- Feta. This Greek cheese is similarly crumbly and salty. However, it’s also slightly more sour so this is something to keep in mind when packing it on. Specifically, goat’s milk feta is creamier, but otherwise, the flavor is pretty interchangeable.
- Queso fresco. This Mexican cheese has a very mild creamy flavor, straying from cotija’s iconic tanginess. It’s sold whole or shredded. Although it’s very different in taste, it almost looks the same and is often used as a sub for cotija.
How to Store It
Whole or crumbled, cotija cheese can be refrigerated for up to 6 weeks in an airtight container or bag. As it ages, the flavor will intensify. Always taste it before you sprinkle it over food to see if you still like the flavor— especially if you’re not a fan of strong cheeses. If you’re refrigerating it whole, discard any excess moisture it may release every week. Throw it out once the cheese is unpleasantly bitter.
You can also freeze it. Wrap the whole round or triangle of cheese tightly in plastic wrap. Don’t skip this because it’s what will prevent freezer burn. After that, transfer it to a freezer-friendly container or bag and freeze it for up to 6 months. To thaw it, transfer it to the fridge a day before you’re ready to eat it. Crumble it and add it to your food as usual.
Frequently Asked Questions
The answers to these questions should better help you understand why it’s only used as a topping and where to buy it.
Does cotija cheese melt?
No, cotija cheese does not melt at all. This is why it’s only used at room temperature or cold to top flautas, chilaquiles, pozole, and other Mexican dishes.
Where can I find cotija cheese?
You can find it in the cheese section next to other Mexican cheeses like Oaxaca or Chihuahua in most supermarkets. If your local grocery store doesn’t carry it, you can always find it whole or crumbled in Mexican supermarkets.
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