It wasn't until the 19th century that milk and cheese production really began to pick up steam. This can be attributed to three factors, namely, the introduction of pasteurization and refrigeration technologies, and the crossing of local cattle with Holstein cows in order to increase milk yield.
From lining taco shells to sitting atop a plate of guacamole, cheese has been a staple ingredient of Mexican cuisine for centuries. The country sports an impressive 20 plus varieties of cheeses, with some saying that the list goes up to 40. However, some of these are niche products available only in certain regions, and have limited applications, apart from being hard to get a hold of. In this article, we will explore Mexico’s history with the delectable blocks and rounds, and take a closer look at some varieties that are used throughout the country’s fare.
Mexico didn't start making cheese until the 16th century and the Spanish conquest. This is quite young in cheese making terms, but comes as no surprise considering that milk bearing animals such as cows and goats aren't native to the country. That said, the Spanish introduction of cattle went well, so well in fact, that a good bit of the bovine population was moved up north, out of Mexico City. Milk, however, wasn't all that popular in the country, in large part due to the lack of refrigeration technology. Needless to say, the same applied to cheese, as most cheese produced at the time was made with unpasteurized milk and aged for only a few days. That meant the pH change required to curb harmful microbial growth was never realized, rendering the rounds susceptible to spoilage. These soft cheeses, which include the likes of the ever popular Queso Fresco (translates to ‘fresh cheese’, also known as Queso Blanco), continue to make up the bulk of cheese the country consumes today.
It wasn't until the 19th century that milk and cheese production really began to pick up steam. This can be attributed to three factors, namely, the introduction of pasteurization and refrigeration technologies, and the crossing of local cattle with Holstein cows in order to increase milk yield. There was immediately a big push for milk, similar to that in other western countries, with dairy companies marketing the liquid as an elixir that contained tremendous benefits. Milk powder was also increasingly consumed, given its inexpensiveness and long shelf life.
The Mexican currency crisis of the 90’s saw milk powder import taking a huge hit. This attracted large amounts of foreign and domestic investment in the dairy sector, with more than 50% of the country’s dairy production advancing to large scale operations. 30-45% of milk and cheese production is still controlled by farmers and artisans, most of which is sold in the country’s many farmer’s markets.
This also means most cheeses staple to the country are just three generations old, with production and tastes still evolving. This is reflected in the modern day palate as well, with the majority of cheese consumed in the country being processed cheese imported from the US and the Netherlands. That said, the artisanal cheese industry in Mexico is thriving, with younger artisans being increasingly shaping the craft.
The most popular Mexican cheeses are unaged soft cheeses, like Queso Fresco and Chihuahua cheese (also known as Queso Menonita, may be aged in order to achieve a sour flavor profile). Locals also eat a cottage cheese called Panela, which is prepared in a similar fashion to paneer. Requesón is another cottage cheese popular as the Mexican version of ricotta. It is richer and creamier in contrast to the panela, making it a great filling for gorditas, or as a dip for crackers. The cheese is eaten as a snack with a smidgen of salt, or used as a filling for tacos and sandwiches. Queso Oaxaca is among Mexico's most renowned and popular cheeses, owing to its stretchy, almost mozzarella like texture, and buttery mouthfeel. The cheese is indispensable to quesadillas, enchiladas, queso fundido (a dish consisting of chorizo and cheese, with the addition of a lager style beer for flavor) and chiles relleno (stuffed peppers), it may also be used to top soups. Hailing from the town of Chihuahua, the Queso Asadero has a similar texture to the Oaxaca, slightly stringy and stretchy. The mild flavored cheese also shares similar use cases to the Oaxaca, and is enjoyed with both nachos, and tacos.
Mexico has no shortage of aged cheese either. The most prevalent of the lot being the Cotija, a hard cheese similar in texture to parmesan. The cheese has a sharp salty flavor, which lends well as a topping for elote (Mexican grilled corn, coated in mayo and spices), baked beans and guacamole, among others. Mexico also makes its own version of the Manchego, a popular Spanish cheese. The Mexican iteration uses cow’s milk instead of sheep milk, giving it a semi-soft texture, as opposed to its firmness of the Spanish original. The cheese is commonly eaten as a snack in the form of small cubes or enjoyed with fruit and/or wine.