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Choosing Mexican Cheeses

Cheeses are an important part of the Mexican menu

You may be seeing more Mexican cheese varieties at your local grocery; or perhaps you've ventured into a mercado and looked around. Even on-line retailers are gaining ground in this wonderful food group. For many years, unfortunately, these were not available to many of us as they were not allowed for import to the U.S. or other countries, due to USDA regulations. It was also considered risky to consume many of these cheeses while in Mexico, as there were few disease screening processes for the animals themselves.

 

Thankfully, companies are now producing cheeses to acceptable standards, meaning pasteurization. As many cooks will tell you, the importance of using the right product is the very same as for any other ethnic group. Mozzarella and Parmesan go on pizza, after all, and the same goes for Mexican recipes.

Before the Spanish conquerors arrived in Mexico, pigs were the main source of meat. Therefore, beans and corn were served as protein, rather than cheese. Following the Conquest in 1521, cows were brought in and it is reported that the monks began teaching the locals how to make cheese and other dairy products. As time passed, Mexico embraced its own cheeses, which evolved and were integrated into the basic cooking styles. Even today, cheeses are still crafted from goat and sheep milk as well as from cows.

In general, you'll find three types of cheeses: fresh, melting, and hard (which will range from soft to very firm).

Fresh Cheeses
These are crumbly and white and do not melt under heat, but do soften. They're used for salads, in beans, and any tortilla dish, including tacos and enchiladas, for instance. They're also used for frying and are popular in many Caribbean dishes. Substitutions: ricotta, feta.

Look for names such as Queso Blanco, Panela, Requeson, and Queso Fresco. Note that queso fresco is often used as a general term for this group.

Melting Cheeses
These are superb melters as they will not separate over heat, like Cheddar. That also means there is less grease pooling on a plate. They are sometimes called "roasting" cheeses. These are used for stuffing peppers, quesadillas, nachos, fundido (fondue) and enchiladas. Substitutions can include Monterey Jack, fontina, provolone, and mozzarella.

Familiar names for these cheeses include Asadero, Queso Quesadilla, Chihuahua (Menonita), Para Freir, and Oaxaca (great for string cheese).

Hard (or Dry) Cheeses
These will range in firmness. They're crumbly and dry, typically, and bear a stronger flavor than melting and fresh cheeses. Used mainly for grating. Substitute with Parmesan or Romano.

Varieties include Cotija (Mexico's Parmesan), Queso Anejo, Queso Manchego, and Queso Enchilado (saltier than most).


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