Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Guide to Hispanic Cheeses

We're starting to see a larger variety of Mexican/Hispanic cheeses available locally. Here's a guide, compliments of the California Milk Board:

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, moist and white or off-white in color and have 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 better to discard them if you have left them sitting out for an hour or two, rather than rewrapping them for later use.)

A special characteristic of many of the fresh types of Hispanic-style cheeses is that they hold their shape during cooking. When heated, they soften but do not melt. For this reason 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):

Queso Fresco (Keh-so Fres-co) – The most popular Hispanic-style cheese. It is soft and quite moist with a mild, slightly salty flavor similar to Farmers cheese. It does not melt and is often used as a topping or filling in cooked dishes. Queso Fresco may be called Adobera when sold in very large pieces.

Queso Blanco Fresco (Keh-so Blan-co Fres-co) – Also called Queso Para Freir (Keh-so Pa-ra Fre-eer), or cheese for frying. A firm, moist cheese used in cooked dishes. As its name implies, it is often fried because it holds its shape under heat. It is also good crumbled onto fruit, beans and salads. And, like the following cheese, Panela, it is a delicious snacking cheese.

Panela (Pah-neh-la) – Mild and moist with a sweet, fresh milk flavor. It has a firm texture similar to a fresh Mozzarella and does not melt, so it is often used in cooked foods. It is also good in sandwiches and salads, as well as with fruit. Its distinctive uneven surface texture results from the round basket in which the cheese is drained while it is being made.

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.

Oaxaca (Wa-ha-ka) – A mild, firm white cheese with a sweet milk taste and an appearance similar to Mozzarella. 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. It is used as is or in cooked foods, as you would Mozzarella.

Asadero (Ah-sah-deh-ro) – A mild, firm cheese molded into a log and sold sliced. It has a slightly tangy taste like Provolone. It melts well and is used in such dishes as quesadillas and nachos. It also is a wonderful cheese on hamburgers and sandwiches. Note that Asadero comes in processed, as well as natural, cheese versions.

Requeson – Similar to Ricotta in that it has a soft, grainy texture and a fresh milk taste. It is used much the same way – in salads, dips, cooked foods and desserts.

The Aged Cheeses:
California cheesemakers produce a number of aged, semi-firm and firm Hispanic-style cheeses. All are at least slightly aged, and some are aged quite a while to make them hard and crumbly. A few of these, like the fresh cheeses, will soften but not melt when heated or used in cooked dishes. But 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 like Jack or Cheddar or like Dry Jack in the case of the very dry types. Following are some popular types of aged cheese:

Menonita (Me-non-ita) – A mild, smooth white cheese that is similar in taste and uses to Gruyère or Gouda. It is a good snacking cheese and can also 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 cow’s milk. This firm golden cheese has a mellow flavor similar to a slightly aged Jack but is nuttier. It is delicious as a snacking or sandwich cheese or to serve to guests with fruit and wine. It melts well in cooking.

Cotija (Ko-tee-hah) – Named after the town of Cotija in Mexico, this firm, very salty cheese is similar to Feta in many respects. Moisture content will vary by manufacturer, ranging from semi-firm to very firm, although all versions are crumbly. It can be used in a similar way to Feta – in cooked foods, especially crumbled and sprinkled over soups, salads and beans.

Cotija Añejo (Ko-tee-hah An-ye-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 and used like Parmesan or Dry Jack on salads and cooked foods.

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.

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, however, the names given here will be included on the package.