Top 5 Must-Know Mexican Cheeses and when to use them

Delicious Mexican cheeses

Mexican cheese types

This article explains everything you need to know about Mexican queso (cheese). Whether it’s made from cow or goat milk, what it tastes like, how to serve it, and substitutions, you should find all your questions answered here.

I’ve worked with Mexican foods for years, but as I researched this article I realized I still had a lot to learn about these fabulous quesos- so read on to discover what I discovered!

1. Oaxaca

Queso Oaxaca

Queso Oaxaca (pronounced ‘wah-haa-cah’) is a cow’s milk white cheese curdled with rennet. Its appearance is unique among cheeses: the curds are strained and aged one day before being mixed with hot water to melt the cheese so it can be pulled into very long strings, and it is packaged for purchase wound together into a ball that looks like a white ball of yarn. In Oaxaca, the locals call their regional cheese ‘quesillo‘.

What does Oaxaca (quesillo) cheese taste like? It is a semi-hard cheese similar in taste to Monterey Jack cheese with a string cheese texture. It makes an excellent melting cheese and goes great cooked into a quesadilla or chile relleno. What is a chile relleno? Find out here.

Oaxaca cheese is becoming more common in grocery stores check online or ask a store worker if they carry it. If you can’t find it at your favorite grocery store, here’s my tip: Google ‘Carniceria near me‘ or ‘Mexican Mercado near me‘ and stop in for Oaxacan cheese.

What is the best substitute for Oaxaca cheese?

Oaxaca cheese can sometimes be a challenge to find outside of Mexican mercados, carcinerias, or taquerias in the U.S. So what to substitute if your recipe calls for Oaxaca cheese? Try Asadero first if you can find it. Its flavor and texture is the most like Oaxaca. if you can’t find Asadero, use Monterey Jack, or Mozzarella cheese instead, in that order.

2. Queso Fresco

Queso Fresco

It’s not uncommon to find a small round of Queso Fresco at just about any major grocery store, making it one of the most common Mexican cheeses you can purchase here in the U.S. Sometimes queso fresco is also called queso blanco (white cheese) which is the same kind of cheese. I LOVE using queso fresco on top of my refried beans, in my tacos, and rolled into my beef enchiladas.

What does queso blanco taste like? Queso Blanco has a very mild taste. Often the saltiness is what you will notice first when sampling queso fresco. Its mild flavor is what makes it so versatile in Mexican cooking, you can crumble it over just about anything for a little extra hit of tang and salt. However, you should know queso fresco does not melt into ooey gooey cheese. It certainly will melt if heated, but you won’t see any long ‘cheese pulls’ coming off of your fork by melting this cheese over your entreé.

Queso Fresco texture and appearance: Queso fresco (Spanish for ‘fresh cheese’) is a white cheese that has a moist yet very crumbly texture made by mixing heated cow’s milk with a curdling enzyme such as lime juice, vinegar or rennet. Once the milk curdles, the liquid part (whey) is strained out, and the cheese curds are washed with fresh water (unless you prefer the taste of lime or vinegar in your cheese). Then the cheese curds are sprinkled with salt and pressed together into an airtight container to form a solid mass to keep it from drying out.

Queso fresco is an extremely easy cheese to make at home and there are plenty of instructional videos online to help you through it if you feel adventurous enough to try it. Making delicious homemade cheese is just as rewarding as making fresh homemade bread. Both are fantastic skills to have!

Best substitutions for queso fresco? The best substitute for queso fresco is ricotta cheese with an extra pinch of salt. Mozzarella can also be used. Do NOT use Feta cheese, which has mistakenly been recommended by a prominent food website. It has a completely different flavor profile and will throw off the flavor of your entire dish.

One of my all-time favorite recipes is my New Mexican “Christmas” Enchiladas which feature Queso Fresco, Red, and Green Hatch Chile. Check it out here.

3. Monterey Jack

Shredded Queso Monterey Jack

I put Monterey Jack in this list because the cheese was invented in the 1700s in California when it still belonged to Spain/Mexico. It is used so often in Mexican cooking that it has earned its place in the top 5.

This”El queso de Pais” cheese was first made by Franciscan monks who named their settlement Monterey after some important person in Spain. Their soft white cow’s milk ‘peasant cheese’ (as they called it) was enjoyed for many years before a man with the last name of Jack purchased the monks’ dairy. He renamed the cheese ‘Jack’s cheese made in Monterey’ and sold it all over California. The cheese variety grew quickly in popularity, and people eventually just called it ‘Monterey Jack’.

What does Monterey Jack cheese taste like? Monterey Jack cheese is made with cow’s milk and has a mild, slightly sweet, and nutty flavor. Its semi-soft texture makes it easy to cut or grate and incorporate into all sorts of recipes. It is made from cow’s milk and is aged for 1-2 months before it goes to market.

What is Monterey Jack Cheese used for? Monterey Jack is an extremely versatile cheese and is commonly used in both Mexican and American cooking. Great as a topper for casseroles, homemade macaroni and cheese, quesadillas, burritos, and tastes great in a grilled cheese sandwich.

Substitutions for Monterey Jack cheese? Oaxaca, mild cheddar, Muenster, Gouda, or Havarti could all serve as substitutes for this versatile cheese.

4. Cotija

Queso Cotija

Queso cotija is a truly unique-tasting cheese. Named for the city of Cotija de la Paz in Michoacán where it was created by humble cheese makers in the hills, this type of cow’s milk cheese is quickly gaining notoriety in the U.S.

What does Queso Cotija taste like? Cotija is a very crumbly hard white cheese with a strong, pungent flavor and aroma. It’s hard to describe the unique taste of cotija- it is very salty and sharp with a hint of sour milk. The longer it has been aged the stronger its flavor and the drier the cheese will be. This cheese is meant to be used strictly as a topping, and a little goes a long way.

More and more people are being introduced to cotija cheese thanks to the viral sensation of Eloté (Mexican street corn). It is used to liberally coat the outside of an ear of Eloté, or sprinkled over a bowl of corn with the same flavors.

Cotija can also be sprinkled over tacos, enchiladas, dips, chili; really any Mexican dish that you’d like to add a serious pop of flavor to. It does not melt. At all. This cheese is all about the flavor.

Substitutes for Cotija cheese? Its unique taste cannot be substituted, but its texture can- try using grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano in its place.

5. Chihuahua cheese

shredded Queso Chihuahua

Queso Chihuahua originates from the province of Chihuahua Mexico. It’s a semi-soft white cheese that is sold as either balls, braids, or small cheese wheel rounds in Mexico. Mostly you’ll find it in the U.S. pressed into a cheese wheel shape.

What does Chihuahua cheese taste like? Chihuahua cheese tastes a lot like mild white cheddar. It has a slightly stronger, richer flavor than Queso Fresco or Oaxaca. Queso Chihuahua goes through a ‘cheddaring’ process, where extra effort is made to press out all the whey to create a harder, tangier cheese. This is first done by simply stacking large-cut pieces of cheese on top of one another and letting gravity do the work. The second step is to put the cheese under a press for several hours. Then the cheese is air dried for a few days, then sealed and aged for a few months.

How to use Chihuahua cheese? Anything you would use cheddar on, you can substitute with Chihuahua cheese. Chihuahua cheese is also great for queso fundido (fondu).

Honorable Mentions

There are countless more types of cheeses, most of them not as well known as the varieties above. You may run across these at farmer’s markets, specialty stores, or your local Mercado. Check out Mexicocheese.com for details on all these cheeses and more!


Asadero is made in a similar way as Oaxaca cheese- where cheese curds that have been drained of liquid and solidified are melted together again in hot water and stretched into one long mass of melted cheese.

However, once it’s been stretched, Asadero goes further than Oaxaca in that the cheese is then placed in a wheel mold and soaked in brine before it is ready to be sliced and served. I went to TWO Mexican stores, a Mercado and a Carniceria near me and they didn’t have it. Hopefully, you’ll have better luck than me if you need some for a recipe.

Substitutions for Asadero? Oaxaca cheese (if you can find it) or Monterey Jack cheese.


Queso Requesón is a very creamy soft white cheese similar to Italian Ricotta and is made mostly in Brazil but is used throughout Latin America. It is actually made with whey (the liquid leftovers from cheese production). A small amount of milk is added to the whey, along with a splash of vinegar and small curds of cheese will form. Then what’s left of the whey is drained off and you are left with Requesón! (Or Ricotta :0)

What does Requesón cheese taste like? Requesón is a very mild-tasting cheese that is eaten fresh. No aging, brining, or molding is needed for this cheese.

It is the Latin American equivalent of Ricotta cheese and tastes very similar. Requesón is great for spreading, so it lends itself well to rolled enchiladas, spread inside of gorditas, soft tacos, or fried taquitos. It is also great used in pastas salads and even desserts with fruit and nuts.

Requesón is also low in fat and high in protein (whey is quite healthy after all) and makes a great health-conscious snack!

What to substitute for Requesón? Ricotta cheese would be best, followed by queso fresco.

Queso Quesadilla

Queso Quesadilla is a mild-tasting melting cheese originating in what is now Southwest Texas (but at the time was Mexico. It was so perfect for melting between cooked tortillas that the term ‘Quesadilla’ was adopted for the recipe.

What to substitute for Queso Quesadilla? Oaxaca or Monterrey jack cheese.


Panela is a soft mild white cheese that is creamier than queso fresco. It is made with skim cow’s milk. Ideally, it’s best eaten fresh, not cooked, and can be sliced and crumbled. Enjoy Panela cheese with fresh fruit, cubed in a salad, or sliced with crackers. It does not melt at high heat.

What to substitute for Panela cheese? Fresh Mozzarella.

Did you know I have a full-color cookbook with lots more easy and delicious New Mexican recipes? You can learn more about it here!

What is the best/most popular Mexican cheese?

Arguably it’s the incredibly delicious Mexican cheeses that have made Mexican cuisine beloved throughout the world. The generous application of cheese in Mexican entreés balances out the spicy chile sauces and lifts the hearty ingredients of Mexican foods. So which Mexican cheese is the best/most popular?

The most commonly used and most popular Mexican cheeses would have to be both queso Oaxaca and Cotija cheese; they are very different in taste but most Mexican dishes could be made with one or the other. Oaxaca is mild and melty; Cotija is strong, dry, and crumbly.

Mexicans are proud of all their cheeses, but these two are the most beloved, and they should be!

What cheese is best for enchiladas?

To answer this question, I polled the two most popular New Mexican Food Facebook groups. I was very surprised at the answer!

After tallying up all the votes, cheddar (particularly the medium and sharp varieties) was voted as the best cheese for enchiladas. The runner-up was almost a tie between Longhorn cheese and Colby cheese. About 1/4 of the respondents said they use different cheeses for red chile versus green chile enchiladas.

Cheddar for red chile, and white cheese for green chile, such as Colby, Longhorn, or Monterrey Jack. This makes sense because the two chile sauces do taste quite different, and naturally would pair better with different varieties of cheeses.

I had approximately 80 people participate. To my surprise, Mexican cheeses were way, WAY down on the list. Two people voted for queso fresco, and two voted for Oaxaca. One person even said that using queso fresco was a health hazard! :0(

What is the best Mexican cheese for Tacos?

Before I try to answer this question I should tell you that traditional Mexican street tacos are just a corn tortilla filled with delicious meat. There is no lettuce, tomato, OR cheese in a traditional Mexican street taco.

American tacos ARE traditionally stuffed with all of the above, plus cream. So which cheese would our American taste buds appreciate on a taco the most? The best Mexican cheese for tacos depends on what’s IN your taco. If you have meat cooked with red chile sauce or powder, cheddar, chihuahua or a shredded Mexican cheese blend works great. If you have meat cooked with a salsa verde type sauce, queso fresco, Asadero, or Monterey Jack are fantastic.

There is no right or wrong Mexican cheese for your taco – try them all and decide on what you like!

What Mexican cheese Melts the Best

Oaxaca cheese has a string-cheese, mozzarella-type texture that melts quickly into a lovely light topping or will ‘glue’ all your stuffings together in a quesadilla or enchilada. Monterrey Jack would be a close second. Asadero cheese is harder to find, but its name literally translates to ‘roastable’ or ‘for grilling’. Shred this lovely cheese into burrito fillings or enchiladas for a deliciously authentic Mexican taste.


Hopefully this info will help you choose the right Mexican cheese for your recipes or allow you to get creative with your Mexican cheese pairings. Mexican cheese is at the heart of why Mexican food is beloved by so many the world over, and now you know more about the ‘why’ behind it.

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