Cotija cheese is a crumbly, salty, and tangy Mexican cheese used in all different types of recipes. Find out what it is, how to use it, and some different ideas for plant-based substitutions!
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📖 What is cotija cheese?
Sometimes referred to as Mexican parmesan, cotija is a versatile white cheese named after the municipality of Cotija de la Paz in Michoacán.
Known as queso cotija in Mexico, this cow's milk cheese is typically sold in blocks of varying sizes, but you can also find it pre-grated.
Queso cotija is used in many different dishes to add flavor, balance out spice, or even steal the show in recipes like elotes.
- Aged cotija: A type of queso añejo, this variety has a firmer texture due to the aging process. Once grated, it's quite similar to Parmesan or Romano cheese.
- Young cotija: With a moist, crumbly texture, young queso cotija is somewhat like feta. It's usually labeled as "fresh cotija," which just means it hasn't been aged like the other variety.
How it's made
We're no cheesemaking experts (mostly because we don't even eat it!), but here is a brief overview of how queso cotija is made to give you a better understanding:
- Milk is heated and cultured.
- Salt and rennet are added and dissolved.
- Mixture is left in a warm place until the curd is set.
- Curds are cut and pressed into a firm cheese.
- Cheese is added to a brine for 1-2 days, then removed.
- Eaten as-is or left to mature for a varying amount of time.
Some aged cotija cheeses are left for a few months, while others are left for up to one year.
🍴 Flavor profile
While often used interchangeably, each variety provides a slightly different texture and flavor profile.
- Young cotija: This type is salty, slightly tangy, and rather mild in flavor. As we mentioned, it's most comparable to feta or ricotta cheese.
- Aged cotija: Due to the longer aging time, aged queso cotija carries a sharp, tangier, more "aged" flavor. It is comparable to Parmesan or Romano cheese.
🍎 Health facts
Unfortunately, dairy-based queso cotija contains high amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat, making it less than ideal to eat on a day-to-day basis.
With this in mind, we created an almond cotija cheese. This plant-based version can be enjoyed on more of a regular basis due to its myriad of health benefits like:
- Unsaturated fats: This type of fat reduces risk of heart disease and may lower cholesterol levels.
- Fiber: Almonds contain fiber, which helps maintain blood sugar levels and a healthy digestive system.
- Protein: This nutrient is essential for helping our bodies receive oxygen, which is then carried to all of the tissues in our body.
🔪 How to use it
Queso cotija doesn't melt, which is why you won't really find it in recipes calling for ooey-gooey cheese (like quesadillas). It's largely thought of as a garnish to finishes dishes off.
How to break it up
Just as you would with feta, break a chunk off your cotija cheese and crumble it with your hands straight onto your favorite foods. You can also grate it!
📋 Recipes with cotija cheese
As you can imagine, cotija cheese goes on basically anything you'd think to put parmesan or feta on! If you make your own, try it on plant-based meals like:
Just like other types of cheese, it's best to keep queso cotija in a chilled environment. If you make an almond cotija cheese, follow the same principles.
For a homemade vegan cotija, it's best to store it in an airtight container in the fridge. It should stay fresh for at least 10 days. We like to keep ours in glass containers to preserve the flavors.
Although it will alter the texture slightly, you can also keep your homemade cheese in a freezer-safe bag or container for up to 3-4 months.
Since there aren't many vegan cotija cheese options for purchase (especially outside of Mexico), some substitutions to consider using are:
- Vegan feta. To replicate young queso cotija, try vegan feta in its place. We personally love the feta from Vivo Life, but you can test out other brands to see what you prefer.
- Vegan parmesan. For a more aged, sharp flavor, vegan parmesan works well to replace cotija. You can purchase cashew-based parmesans online. Alternatively, you can easily make your own!
Cotija cheese is very much like parmesan in that it isn't really meant to be a melting cheese like mozzarella or Monterey Jack. Use it as a garnish rather than a filling.
Traditionally, cotija cheese is made with cow's milk so it is not vegan-friendly. If you try our almond-based cotija cheese, it is definitely vegan!
In general, cotija cheese does not contain garlic. However, in some states (Querétaro), the cheese is covered with a paste of chiles, garlic, and vinegar to preserve it. Our vegan version does not contain garlic.
Nowadays, many commercially-produced cotija cheeses are made with pasteurized milk. However, traditional recipes don't include pasteurized milk. And you don't have to worry at all if you make a plant-based version.