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In my attempts to add a dash of variety to my diet, I came across Cotija cheese (or Queso Cotija in Mexican). It’s a salty and crumbly cheese, made of raw cow milk aged from three to twelve months, whose versatility became invaluable to me in just a few months.
Cotija is dryer and milder version of Feta cheese. It resembles Feta cheese, but its most often substitute is Parmesan. Maybe that’s why it’s called Parmesan of Mexico or Spanish Parmesan. On the other side, a lot of people mix it with Queso Fresco, but I must say that Queso Fresco is pretty mild, compared to Cotija.
If you’re living in small areas then it might be a bit difficult to find stuff like Cotija cheese. Otherwise, it’s not such a big deal – you can buy it in almost any grocery store or you could get it in any Latino, Hispanic, or international grocery store. Walmart, Publix, and Trader Joe’s actually do have it, but it may not be with regular cheeses so it might be hard to find it at first look. Here is a quick tip that could help you find it – it usually comes packed in circular boxes.
I’ve started using it in a fresh, shredded variant, but since I’ve discovered crumbly block I never looked back. It goes well with a whole variety of dishes – from tortilla to soups and salads, and I’ve almost completely substituted Parmesan for Cotija cheese. It really gives a richer and saltier flavor to the dishes and blends well with other ingredients.
There are two available variations – “fresh”, semi-hard and crumbly Cotija cheese, and an aged, hard Cotija cheese which is suitable for grating. The last one is actually called Queso Anejo, or simply Anejo. Cotija cheese changes consistency over time, so the main difference between these two “kinds” of Cotija cheese is the age.
Substitutes for Cotija
The cotija cheese flavor is really hard to match, that’s why it is really hard to find a good substitute for it. I’ll list just a few of them but you must be aware that there’s nothing that really can substitute it, especially if you’ve already tried the dishes containing Cotija cheese.
What Can I Use Instead of Cotija Cheese?
Some of the most common substitutes are Feta, Parmesan, Ricotta Salata ( Ricotta might not be good choice ), Grana Padano Cheese, White Cheddar, Manchego, Romano cheese, Mascarpone cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano ( with a pinch of sea salt ), Asiago.
1. FetaFeta cheese is the most common substitute for Cotija cheese, and it’s the simplest analog.
Just an advanced cook could notice the difference if you use Feta instead of Cotija cheese as an ingredient in another dish. In any case, the difference between these two kinds of cheese is more subtle than you think. The Feta cheese is a bit softer and saltier than Cotija cheese. So, the texture is similar-ish but the taste is very different. Cotija cheese is far more flavor-rich and buttery. It’s a bit more funky and savory with a hint of acidity – something like a cross between feta and Parmesan.
Here we come to another popular substitute for Cotija cheese – the Parmesan. If you ask me, Parmesan is not a decent substitute for Cotija – Cotija taste is far more similar to Feta than it is to Parmesan. There are crumbles, too, of course. Parmesan would be good for dishes like elotes. My secret is to add a pinch of garlic powder and few drops of lemon juice when substituting Cotija with Parmesan. Parmesan on its own just cannot compensate for all the flavors and acidity Cotija has.
3. Ricotta Salata
Ricotta Salata is an Italian cheese obtained from sheep’s whey. After adding salt it is placed under heavy molds and left to age for at least 90 days. The cheese is milky white with a firm texture and a moderate salty taste. Like its name says, it is often used in salads and is ideal for cutting, grating, or simply crumbling as a finish into various dishes.
Maybe because of its texture or the crumbliness, it is often used as a substitute for Cotija cheese.
4. Freezing the block of cheese
You could freeze a block of cheese like Emmental. Ice crystals damage the original structure of the curd. The result, upon thawing, will be the dry and crumbling cheese similar to Cotija.
These are just some of the recommendations for Cotija cheese substitute. But, as I wrote earlier, it’s basically impossible to resemble the texture and taste of Cotija cheese, so you’ll need to try it yourself.
My Favorite and the Simplest Recipe with Cotija
Cotija cheese does not melt, so it’s rather used for finishing in numerous ways. Sprinkling and crumbling are the most used methods you’ll find in the recipes. So, sprinkle it over refried beans, elote, eggs; sprinkle a bit into soup, crumble a bit into meatballs, on top of a burger or sprinkle it on a salad – it’s up to you.
One of the most common ways Mexican consume Cotija cheese is the Elote. It’s actually very popular street food in Mexico, and in a free translation, it would sound like grilled Mexican corn. Here is a very basic recipe for Elote corn.
It’s an interesting and tasty way to prepare corn. The corn is first marinated, and after grilling, coated with a fine aromatic coating. It’s best to serve it immediately while the coating is still hot. If nothing else, it’s worth a try.
First make a marinade by mixing the oil, chili, and salt into a uniform mass. Coat the cleaned corn with this mixture and set aside until use.
Heat the grill. Now is the best time to make a coating. In a mixing bowl, place the mayonnaise, cream, coriander, garlic, chili, pepper, lime juice, and parmesan. Mix everything well into a uniform mass. Try it, and then add a little salt if needed. Cover and set aside while the corn is grilled.
Grill the corn.
Coat the corn with the prepared coating, sprinkle with Cotija cheese per your taste and serve immediately.
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