Queso fresco ("fresh cheese") and queso blanco ("white cheese") are often considered interchangeable because of their similarities. Both kinds of cheese originated in Mexico and are mild, semi-soft, crumbly, and unaged. Neither are melting cheeses. Apt comparisons include pot cheese and farmer cheese, as well as Indian paneer and Eastern European quark.
However, despite their parallels, queso fresco and queso blanco are different cheeses—the former is made with rennet and culture, while the latter is made with just milk and an acid. While cotija and Oaxaca cheeses, both also from Mexico, are similar to queso fresco and queso blanco, they are both different cheeses as well. Oaxaca cheese is rich and melty, much like mozzarella, while cotija is aged and tastes more like Parmesan.
Fresh, milky and bright, queso fresco complements both heavy south-of-the-border dishes such as enchiladas and light meals like green salads. It's creamy but not rich and features a hallmark salty-sour flavor.
How It's Made: Queso fresco is often made with cow's milk but can be made with a mixture of goat's and cow's milk. After the milk is heated, culture and rennet are added before the cheese is left to set and turn into curds. Sometimes, queso fresco recipes won't call for culture or rennet; however, that technically makes it a queso blanco recipe.
Because of its freshness, traditionally made queso fresco won't hold for very long, so it should be eaten within a few days. Store-bought queso fresco is cryo-vacked in plastic, which lets it last longer.
How It's Used: Queso fresco can be used in place of feta or goat cheese in a number of dishes, including as a garnish on soups, topping salads, or whisked into egg dishes. It crumbles perfectly, allowing for little nubs of cheese in every bite. While this cheese doesn't melt, it will brown if heated.
Similar to ricotta salata, queso blanco is soft and creamy. Take note that the fresh cheese is different than the popular queso blanco dip, which is usually made with processed cheese and green chilies.
How It's Made: Queso blanco uses just milk and an acidifying agent such as lemon or vinegar. The milk is heated, the acid is added, and then it's stirred until curds form. Next, the cheese is drained through cheesecloth for 3 to 5 hours, often in a bag that's been hung up. Serve the cheese immediately or refrigerate it, as it's highly perishable.
How It's Used: Freshly made queso blanco can be eaten on its own or used as a topping for Mexican dishes such as enchiladas. Store-bought queso blanco has been pressed and holds its shape better than the homemade variety. Try slicing and grilling—it doesn't melt—and serving it with crackers and fruit preserves.
Safety of Fresh Cheese
Pregnant women should not eat soft cheeses that weren't made with pasteurized milk because of the risk of Listeria or other foodborne germs. Pasteurization calls for milk to be heated to a high enough temperature for a long enough time to kill Listeria and other bacteria that might be in the milk.
Store-bought cheese will note if it's made with pasteurized cheese, which all cheese in the U.S. is required to be. However, be wary if you make your own cheese or are gifted fresh cheese of unknown origin.