It can be difficult to find cotija cheese in the grocery store, so if you’re unable to find it, what’s the next best alternative? What is the best substitute for cotija cheese?
What is cotija cheese?
Cotija cheese is a Mexican cheese made out of cow’s milk. It has a salty flavor and a crumbly texture with a pale yellow hue. It is unique because it doesn’t melt when heated, though it does soften.
There are two variations of cotija cheese, “young” or fresh cotija cheese or aged cotija cheese. Young cotija cheese has a creamier, milder flavor while aged cotija cheese is harder, saltier and stronger.
The origins of cotija cheese go back to the town of Cotija in Michoacán. It has been an integral part of Mexican cuisine for hundreds of years and continues to appear in popular Mexican dishes.
Cotija cheese appears in a variety of dishes in Mexico including elote (Mexican street corn), enchiladas, tostadas, chiles rellenos, sopes, gorditas, quesadillas and huevos rancheros.
Where to find
You may be able to find cotija cheese at your local grocery stores. But, if you are unlucky, I recommend trying your local international grocery store or cheese shop. Check out the section where the cheeses are located. You may find a whole block or pre-crumbled.
The 7 Best Cotija Cheese Substitutes
So, what is the best cotija cheese substitute? Well it depends if you are trying to replace young or aged cotija cheese as well as what recipe you are using the replacement in.
Parmesan cheese is a great alternative for aged cotija cheese. It is a hard cheese with a nutty flavor and is stronger than most varieties of cheese.
It comes in a variety of forms, but to mimic cotija best, I would recommend the powdered version as opposed to the grated. Parmesan cheese works great on top of soups, in pasta dishes and on enchiladas.
Feta cheese is a great substitute for “young” cotija cheese. It’s a crumbly cheese and has a similar flavor profile compared to cotija.
Traditionally, feta cheese is made from sheep’s milk, but most conventional varieties are made from cow’s milk. These varieties will mimic the flavor of cotija more closely than the sheep’s milk varieties.
Ricotta salata is a firmer version of regular ricotta cheese, which means it’s nice and crumbly without the extra moisture. This makes it a great alternative to cotija cheese.
It has a stronger flavor than regular ricotta and while it’s an Italian cheese, it works great in Mexican dishes. That being said, it’s softer and more spreadable than cotija.
Pecorino romano cheese is a hard Italian cheese typically made with sheep’s milk. It has a hard texture and a strong flavor, somewhat similar to parmesan cheese.
It’s one of the best alternatives to aged cotija cheese because it is dry and crumbles similarly to parmesan. That being said, it’s stronger than both cheeses and has a distinct flavor since it’s made from sheep’s milk.
Grana padano is another excellent choice when it comes to cotija cheese substitutes. It’s a hard Italian cheese, similar to parmesan and is made from cow’s milk.
While this is a more uncommon cheese (compared to options like feta or parmesan), you may have more luck finding this variety as opposed to cotija cheese.
Goat cheese crumbles
Goat cheese crumbles are another good substitute for cotija cheese. They have a similar texture as cotija cheese, but retain more moisture and are softer.
That being said, goat cheese is made from goat’s milk that has a distinct flavor similar to sheep’s milk. If you enjoy that flavor profile, this can be a great substitute.
Paneer is an Indian cheese with a similar crumbly texture as cotija cheese. It is often mistaken for tofu, due to its color and shape (it’s typically cut into small cubes), but is far more dry and crumbly.
It’s typically made with cow’s milk or buffalo milk and while it’s typically served in cubes, you can crumble it with your fingers to make it more similar to cotija.
Now let’s do a nutrient breakdown of cotija cheese. In this section we’ll go over the calories, carbohydrates, protein, fat and micronutrients contained in cotija cheese.
Nutrition information collected from cronometer.com using the entry “Queso Cotija” from the NCCDB.
One ounce of cotija cheese contains 114 calories. This amount equals about two tablespoons or a small handful of cheese.
One ounce of cotija cheese contains 1 gram of carbohydrates. Despite milk being a good source of carbohydrates, most coming from lactose, the process of cheese removes most of it.
One ounce of cotija cheese contains about 7 grams of protein. This is equivalent to about one ounce of meat. Overall, cotija cheese is a good source of protein.
One ounce of cotija cheese contains about 9 grams of fat and 5 grams of saturated fat. If you have high blood cholesterol levels or a history of heart disease, it may be a good idea to limit your cotija cheese consumption due to its high saturated fat content.
One ounce of cotija cheese is a good source of vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B12, vitamin A, calcium, phosphorus, selenium, sodium and zinc. Overall, it’s a good source of vitamins and minerals.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is queso fresco the same as cotija?
No. Queso fresco and cotija are both crumbly cheeses commonly used in Mexican cuisine, but they are not the same. Queso fresco is much milder and milkier compared to cotija cheese.
That being said, if you prefer a milder form of cheese, you can use queso fresco as a replacement for cotija cheese. But, it’s likely going to be just as hard to find at the grocery store.
Is cotija cheese just parmesan?
No. Cotija cheese and parmesan cheese may be similar, but they are not the same. Cotija cheese is stronger and saltier compared to parmesan cheese and is slightly softer.
Along with this, cotija is a Mexican cheese and commonly used in traditional Mexican dishes while parmesan is Italian and used in many Italian dishes.
What is the flavor of cotija cheese?
Cotija cheese is a salty, strong and semi-hard cheese. Its flavor is somewhat similar to parmesan, with some differences (refer to the last question).
It’s crumbly and pairs well with Mexican dishes like huevos rancheros, enchiladas, elote and tostadas.
Why doesn’t cotija melt?
Cotija cheese will soften when heated, but it doesn’t melt. It’s a very dry cheese, meaning there isn’t much moisture to help soften and melt the cheese.
Because of this, cotija cheese is typically used as a finishing cheese. Once your dish is fully cooked, sprinkle a bit of cotija cheese on top.
What is a good melting Mexican cheese?
Queso asadero is a great Mexican cheese for melting. It’s soft and creamy with a white hue and a mild taste. It’s great for making pizzas and quesadillas because it melts quite well.
You may see Mexican blend cheeses at the grocery store. These cheeses will melt well, but they aren’t authentic. They are Americanized and commonly used in Tex Mex recipes.
What cheese is best for street tacos?
Cotija cheese is going to be the best Mexican cheese for street tacos. Once you have added your meat, onions, cilantro and lime to your tortillas, add a little sprinkle of cotija cheese.
This cheese is meant to be a “finisher” cheese, so it’s perfect for topping your street tacos. It won’t melt once its on top of your tacos.
What cheese do Mexican restaurants use in quesadillas?
Typically Mexican restaurants will use queso asadero in quesadillas because it’s a great melting cheese. They may also use Oaxaca or Chihuahua cheese since they also melt well.
That being said, it really depends on the restaurant. Some may use cheeses like monterey jack or mozzarella. Be sure to ask your waiter if you are curious.