5 Essential Mexican Cheeses

Lesley Téllez, street-food enthusiast and author of Eat Mexico, breaks down the different varieties of cheese that make her favorite tlacoyos , quesadillas and chilaquiles just so irresistible.

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©Food Network 2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©Food Network 2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©Food Network 2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©Food Network 2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©Food Network 2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©Food Network 2016

A Welcome Variety

"Most people think of Mexican cheese as the melted cheese on enchiladas," says Lesley Téllez. "In fact, there is a big tradition of crumbled cheeses. And even the melted ones are used in balance with everything else — not in one big melted pool." The most-common cheeses in Mexico are made from cow's milk, Téllez explained on a recent visit to Food Network Kitchen. Here are the types you'll find most often in American markets and some easy ways to use them.

 

Photography by Heather Ramsdell

Crema

"Crema is super-important in Mexican cooking," says Téllez. "It's used almost as often as salsa. It tempers a lot of the hot flavors in Mexican dishes." Made of fermented cream, it is "more acidic than crème fraiche but not as much as sour cream," as Téllez describes it. It's served with chilaquiles, tacos rollados (taquitos), enchiladas and even moles. Basically, says Téllez, it's used "anywhere you want a cooling effect to what you're cooking." The texture can vary, she warns: "Some cremas are thin and soupy. You want it thicker so it's spoonable. Get a local brand if you can. It's also super-easy to make your own."

Queso Fresco

"This has a mild, fresh flavor. It's not very salty or wet," says Téllez. "You either want to crumble it or slice it for a snack or in salads. It's not a melty cheese." You'll mostly see queso fresco on top of enchiladas and chilaquiles, or warmed, as in chiles rellenos. "Use queso fresco when you don't want to overpower a dish with lots of melty cheese and the salty hit of something like feta is too much," Téllez recommends.

Oaxaca Cheese

"This is a string cheese," says Téllez. "You don't have to shred it — you can separate it with your fingers. It's traditionally made with raw milk curds that are stretched and braided into a ball. In Mexico, the cheese is so fresh you can unwind the ball." Oaxaca cheese, orquessilla, as it's called in Mexico, is used mostly in quesadillas and as a snack. "Traditional quessilla has a nice lactic tang and acidity. Here it will be a little milder," says Tellez. "You can use it in place of mozzarella. It's creamy and melty.

Cotija

"This is an aged cheese, so it's drier and more crumbly. It should be aged at least three months, so it can taste a little grassy and herbal. Use it when you want more funk," advises Téllez. "You can add Cotija anywhere to build contrast with something mild." She sprinkles the cheese on top of salads, crumbles it in salsas and uses it to garnish corn soup. "It's also good in pastas instead of Parmesan, if you want an aged taste," she says.

Requeson

"Requeson is a salty, mild spreadable cheese, though it's not as dense as cream cheese," says Téllez. "You can use it in all kinds of stuff." She stuffs requeson into her favorite tlacoyos, spreads it on toast with honey and stirs it into scrambled eggs. If you can't find it, says Téllez, "use ricotta as a substitute."

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