If you are fond of Mexican or Tex-Mex dishes, then you most definitely will have come across Cotija cheese or queso Cotija. Much easier to find nowadays in larger grocery stores or specialty markets, the stronger flavor and saltiness of Cotija cheese is perfect for cooking with or finishing off a wide variety of dishes.If it is harder for you to source Cotija cheese, then don’t panic, there are some substitutes that can easily be used in like for like quantities in place of Cotija cheese. Two of these substitutes are common, in fact, some of us will probably always have them to hand in the refrigerator, while the other two may be a little trickier to find but still make great substitutes.
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About Cotija Cheese
Traditionally a raw cow’s milk cheese, Cotija cheese (queso Cotija) is named after the town Cotija in the state of Michoacán, thought to be where it was first made. When young, Cotija cheese has a similar texture to feta – crumbly and moist, but as it ages, it firms and sharpens, becoming more like parmesan, although the flavor of Cotija cheese is stronger and saltier - in fact, Cotija cheese, contains around twice as much salt as cheddar cheeses.
When traditionally made, Cotija cheese, or the ‘Parmesan of Mexico’ is aged for up to 12 months. Farmers who make it traditionally will use full fat milk from cows that feed on rich grasses and grains. The milk is then salted and boiled with enzymes until the curds start to form. These curds are then strained and pressed into the molds. A young Cotija cheese can be ready to eat in the next day or so, otherwise it is left to age for three months upwards; often in an underground cavern.
When Cotija cheese is produced commercially, additional enzymes are added to speed up its aging. Some say that this does not impact on the taste of the cheese, but some experts disagree and say that speed aging cheese will not give it the same complexity of flavor found in a traditionally aged cheese.Cotija cheese is always used for sprinkling and crumbling as it will not melt over heat; although it does soften. Often used to top nachos, tacos, enchiladas and more, it is also popular on elote (Mexican street corn), in refried beans and tostados. Younger Cotija cheese can be used in the same way as feta cheese, such as on salads, or sprinkled on pasta dishes. This younger or softer form is often more readily available from larger grocery stores.
1. Parmesan Cheese
Parmesan is a dense hard cheese with a grainy and crystalline texture. Its umami-like flavor is nutty, pungent and savory with some hints of fruit. Our parmesan is any Italian-style hard cheese made from cow’s milk while imported Italian Parmesan or Parmigiano Reggiano was first made by Italian monks during the Middle Ages.
Italian parmesan is a Protected Designation of Origin or PDO cheese, which means a parmesan cheese cannot be called parmesan in the European Union if it is not made in specific regions of Italy through specific techniques. A PDO parmesan does not contain any artificial additives or flavors, the only ingredient that can be added to it during production is salt.
Traditional parmesans are made from unpasteurized cow’s milk and they can be allowed to age for as long as three years. The more mature a parmesan is, the nuttier and more complex the flavor becomes.
Parmesan is probably the best substitute for aged Cotija cheese in any recipe as it has similar flavors, texture and saltiness. Parmesan can also be used in green salads to bring extra flavor in the way that a younger Cotija cheese would be used.As quite a few of us keep parmesan in the refrigerator for topping pizza or soups, and if not, it is always easy to find in stores, it makes parmesan the top substitute for matured Cotija cheese. An imported or PDO parmesan can also be found at good grocery stores with a specialty cheese section, or from specialty stores or markets.
2. Feta Cheese
The salty and tangy flavor of feta cheese along with its creamy and firm, yet crumbly texture means it is a good substitute for Cotija cheese in salads, or other dishes where a younger cheese is required. Feta cheese also has a similar flavor profile to Cojita cheese.
Unlike Cotija cheese, traditional Greek feta is made from a blend of sheep and goat milk although some feta is now made with cow’s milk. As a cheese which has its name protected under European law, Greek feta cheese can only be made in certain places, including mainland and central Greece. The packaging of this feta is always identified with a Protected Designation of Origin or PDO mark. However, PDO regulations do not apply to countries outside of the European Union, unless any of these countries have agreed to honor PDO. A PDO feta cheese must contain at least 70% sheep milk and 30% goat milk.
Where and how a PDO feta cheese is made alters its taste and texture. A Thessaly feta cheese is often more intense, while a Macedonian feta cheese will be creamier, softer and be less salty. Feta cheese is usually aged for between two and 12 months in tins, baskets or barrels and a feta cheese aged in barrels tend to be the most mature and have a sharper and more complex flavor than other feta cheeses. Most feta cheese aged for at least two months is sold in brine.
As PDO only applies in the European Union, this means that feta cheese and feta-style cheeses can be produced in the US, as well as in other countries where these types of cheeses have been made for centuries. Our feta is usually made with all cow’s milk and is a drier cheese with milder flavor compared to a PDO Greek feta cheese.One of the best places to find the best selection of feta cheeses, including domestic and PDO feta cheeses is in gourmet cheese shops. If you do want a Greek feta cheese, then always check for the red and yellow PDO mark on the container. If the feta cheese is not being sold in its original container, then do ask to see the original packaging and check for the mark. Feta cheese will always keep better when sold in brine, so you are better buying brined and then crumbling/cutting it fresh.
3. Anejo Cheese (Queso Anejo)
Although traditionally made from skimmed goat milk, anejo cheese is now frequently made with cow’s milk. A Mexican cheese, Anejo has a red outer as it is rolled in paprika to add some spice to its strong, sharp and salty flavor. Traditionally the paprika outer was used to help preserve the cheese. The flavor of anejo cheese is not usually as strong as Cotija cheese, although a goat milk anejo will have more of a tang to it than one made from cow’s milk.
Queso anejo or ‘aged cheese’ is actually queso fresco or ‘fresh cheese’ cheese that has been aged. As queso fresco ages, it dries, becomes denser, crumblier and saltier - much more like a parmesan cheese. It does stay white though and depending on the age of the queso anejo you buy, the directions may tell you to either shred or grate it as younger cheeses are easy to hand crumble, while older and denser ones will need grating.Popular in grilled and baked foods such as enchiladas, tacos and burritos, anejo is a suitable substitute for Cotija cheese in any cooked dishes. It will keep most of its texture, only melting a little and adding its salty flavor to the dish with just a hint of creaminess. Available from specialist food markets, queso anejo may also be available from larger grocery stores, but as with Cotija cheese, depending on where you live, queso anejo may not be readily available.
4. Romano Cheese
Like parmesan, Romano is an Italian hard cheese. Dating back around 2000 years, Romano cheese is named after Rome and it has a similar nutty and umami taste to parmesan. It also has a grainy texture and grates easily, making it an ideal replacement for Cotija cheese as a topper.
There are actually three types of Romano cheese, named by which milk is used to make it. A Vaccino Romano made from cow’s milk has a mild flavor, a Caprino Romano with goat’s milk has a very sharp taste and a Pecorino Romano made from sheep’s milk is tangy and sharp. The milks used in traditional Romano cheeses can be pasteurized or unpasteurized.Of the Romano cheeses, Pecorino Romano is actually the nearest in taste to Cotija cheese, with its sharp and salty tang and inability to melt. However, as any type of Romano cheese can be more difficult to source than parmesan cheese; you may need to visit a specialist store.
Just to Summarize
Not having Cotija cheese to hand should not stop you from serving up some Tex-Mex. Sprinkling parmesan cheese over your enchiladas and nachos is a decent substitute, or if you wanted a softer alternative, then feta cheese can be crumbled up for adding to a range of dishes.All of the above substitutes can be used in the same quantities as you would use Cotija cheese, which means it is even easier to swap out Cotija cheese for one that you already have in your refrigerator!