Queso Fresco

Production, Uses, and Recipes

Queso fresco

Lucia Sanchez / Flickr / CC 2.0

Queso fresco (fresh cheese) likely originated in Spain, but it's commonly associated with Mexican cuisine. It's a mild, soft, and crumbly cheese similar to feta. Other apt comparisons include pot cheese and farmer cheese, as well as Indian paneer and Eastern European quark. In Mexico, it's usually made with raw cow's milk and occasionally with goat's milk too; versions produced in the United States start with pasteurized cow's milk. It's lower in fat and sodium than most aged cheeses and extremely versatile.

Fast Facts

Origin: Mexico

Texture: Soft and crumbly

Flavor: Mild

What Is Queso Fresco?

Fresh, milky, and snowy white, queso fresco complements both heavy south-of-the-border entrees such as enchiladas and lighter dishes such as salads. It's creamy enough to cool the heat of chiles and adds a subtle sour note to rich dishes. Because it doesn't melt, it's a common choice as a stuffing for chile rellenos, quesadillas, tamales, and other cheesy Mexican favorites. It's inexpensive and easy to find throughout the United States.

Queso Fresco vs. Queso Blanco

Despite their similar names, flavors, and appearances, queso fresco and queso blanco are slightly different cheeses. To make queso fresco, producers use rennet and cultures to form the curds. Queso blanco requires just milk and an acidifying agent such as lemon juice or vinegar, making it an easy cheese to DIY at home. Queso blanco may also be appropriate for a lacto-vegetarian diet, whereas in the production of queso fresco, rennet, which is frequently sourced from animals, is used. However, the two terms are often used interchangeably, and the cheeses are similar enough that you wouldn't likely notice a difference unless you prefer to stay away from rennet.

How Queso Fresco Is Made

Queso fresco is often made with cow's milk but can be made with a mixture of goat's and cow's milk. To form the curds, producers add rennet and cultures to heated milk. The curds get drained and pressed for a few days at the most before the cheese gets packaged for consumption. Sometimes, queso fresco recipes intended for home cooks skip the culture and rennet; however, that technically makes it a queso blanco recipe.

Substitutes

Queso fresco and queso blanco can be used pretty much interchangeably. If you cannot find Mexican cheeses, feta makes the closest approximation. Aged goat cheese and strained ricotta can also be used in place of queso fresco, most appropriately as a topping or a stuffing, respectively. Queso añejo is the aged version of queso fresco. It adds a similar though more intense flavor, and the texture is drier than the fresh cheese; an apt comparison may be fresh feta versus aged Parmesan.

Uses

Queso fresco is frequently crumbled on top of dishes right before serving and can be used as a garnish on soups, salads, beans, casseroles, and egg dishes. It crumbles easily and doesn't melt, leaving little nubs of cheese in every bite. Despite being low in sodium, it adds an essence of salt, similar to Parmesan. You can slice it into slabs and pan-fry it or sprinkle it on roasted vegetables, add it to beans, crumble it into tacos, and bake it into cornbread. Queso fresco on top of a dish such as enchiladas darkens to an appealing golden brown as it cooks.

Storage

You can keep store-bought queso fresco vacuum-sealed in plastic in your refrigerator for a week or two beyond the sell-by date. Upon opening, tightly wrap any leftovers in plastic. Keep the cheese in an airtight container near the back of your refrigerator on the colder bottom shelf, and use it within a week or two. If you see any mold or discoloration, discard all of the cheese.

Queso Fresco Recipes

Use queso fresco any time you want a hit of slightly sour, slightly salty, slightly milky fresh flavor in a dish. You can substitute queso blanco in any Mexican-food recipe, but don't limit yourself to its home cuisine. Try it in place of the traditional feta in a watermelon salad, or use it instead of ricotta in a baked pasta dish.