Cotija Cheese: All About Queso Cotija
Salty, milky, and crumbly, Cotija Cheese is a staple in Mexican cooking. Perfect for finishing tacos or an ear of elote, this delightfully firm cow’s milk cheese is most closely associated with feta when young and parmesan when aged. If you have yet to try using queso cotija in your kitchen, I hope this post inspires you to give it a try.
What Is Cotija Cheese?
Pronounced “co-TEE-ha,” cotija is a white Mexican cow milk cheese that can be either young or aged. It is named for the town Cotija de la Paz in the Mexican state of Michoacán where it was first developed.
When it is young, it has a flavor profile and consistency similar to a mild feta cheese; when aged, it becomes harder and takes on a flavor that is closer to parmesan. The consistency of cotija is firm, dry, and granular, with a salt content that is relatively high (which helps to preserve it for longer).
When produced in the traditional Mexican manner, queso cotija is actually a seasonal raw-milk cheese that is only made during the rainy season that runs from July to October. It is during this period that the cows have access to the best grass, which results in richer, creamier milk.
The process of making cotija begins in a similar way to most other cheeses: an acid is added to milk, causing it to curdle. What is unique about the process is that the curds are then milled before being shaped and pressed back together, which results in cotija’s signature crumbly consistency.
If made in the old-fashioned artisanal manner of Mexico, the raw-milk cheese is aged for a minimum of 100 days and up to a full year. Here in the U.S., manufacturers have devised several methods of speeding up this process (including adding an enzyme called lipase), and create the cheese year-round to keep up with demand.
As with most conventionally manufactured items, the American version of queso cotija has a slightly different flavor profile than that made in the traditional, artisanal manner. The primary flavor profile you can expect is very salty and milky, with a slight tart undertone.
It is important to note that cotija cheese will soften under exposure to heat, but like Italian ricotta salata or Indian paneer, it does not melt. So, while the aged (añejo) version is often referred to as “the Parmesan of Mexico,” it should not be substituted in recipes that call for the cheese to be emulsified into sauces.
How To Use Queso Cotija
This mild salted cheese has a slight bit of tang, which makes it quite versatile. It is generally used as a finishing cheese. You’ll find it crumbled or grated atop any number of dishes, from tacos and enchiladas to elote and esquites.
Remember, it doesn’t melt when heated, so a big pile of fluffy white cotija makes for a gorgeous garnish on any number of dishes, Mexican or otherwise. It also has a curiously adhesive property, making it an excellent choice for clinging to dishes like elote.
The tangy, tart flavor profile of queso cotija makes it a perfect pairing for acidic tomato-based, citrus-forward, or spicy chile-based meals. Because of the high salt content, it is not often used for adding to charcuterie plates.
Fresh vs. Aged Cotija
Fresh cotija has a texture and flavor similar to that of Greek feta cheese. It can be used interchangeably for feta in most recipes.
Aged (añejo) cotija, on the other hand, is drier and crumblier with a flavor and consistency that is closer to Parmesano-Reggiano. You may find aged cotija sold pre-grated in a powdery dust that looks like shakeable parmesan. It is often sold as cotija molida.
Cotija Cheese Substitutes
If you are unable to find cotija, there are a few substitutes that you can turn to:
- Queso Fresco – This is another Mexican style cow milk cheese whose name literally means “fresh cheese.” The consistency of queso fresco is almost identical to cotija, making it a perfect substitute. Note that queso fresco has a milder, less salty, and less tart flavor profile than cotija.
- Feta – This is the closest non-Mexican cheese substitute for young cotija.
- Goat Cheese Crumbles – While note quite identical in consistency (goat cheese is softer and is prone to melting), the sharp, salty flavor profile will work in a pinch.
- Parmesan – Aged cotija is known as the Parmesan of Mexico, so it should come as no shock that parmesan is often used as a substitute.
- Romano – Similar to parmesan, this is an acceptable substitute for aged cotija.
Frequently Asked Questions
Queso fresco, which literally means “fresh cheese,” is a younger cow milk cheese than cotija. As the name implies, it is ready for eating within a few days of production, whereas traditional cotija usually takes a minimum of 100 days to cure.
Aging cheese contributes to stronger flavor profiles, so cotija is generally funkier and tangier than queso fresco. Their consistencies are quite similar, though, and the two are generally the most prevalent in American grocery stores, so they are often used interchangeably.
Nope! It will soften upon contact with heat, but cotija never actually melts.
First, it is important to note that cheese has living organisms within, so it needs to be stored appropriately. Don’t try to wrap leftover cheese in plastic wrap — it hates that! Ideally, you should wrap your cheeses in cheese paper. If you can’t find any, parchment or wax paper will do the trick.
Once wrapped, you can place it in a plastic bag. Fresh, young cotija can last for up to a month if properly stored. Aged cotija can last for up to 3 months.
Salty, milky, and slightly funky. Young cotija is softer with a slightly more mild flavor akin to feta, while aged cotija is harder, drier, and tastes more like parmesan.
Per the CDC recommendations, pregnant women should avoid soft cheeses. Unfortunately this includes young queso cotija.
Yes! Be sure to tightly wrap the cheese in cheese paper, parchment, or wax paper, then again in plastic before freezing. This will help to preserve the quality of the cheese. Once wrapped, it can be frozen for up to 6 months.
Nowadays, queso cotija is available at most American supermarkets like Kroger, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, and Target. If you are unable to find it at your local grocery, try hitting a Mexican supermercado or international market. Or purchase Cotija Cheese online via Amazon.
Popular Mexican Recipes Using Cotija Queso
Did you find this post on Cotija Cheese useful? Or do you have any more questions about it? If so, let me know in the comments below!
Photos by Jenna Sparks