Created in Mexico, cotija is a cow's milk cheese used to top all sorts of foods, from soups to tacos to salads. The mild and tangy flavor is versatile, securing cotija cheese as a staple in many Mexican states, especially in Michoacán, where it originated. Traditionally, cotija cheese is aged 100 days to 12 months, which helps dry out the cheese (it doesn't melt when heated), making it perfect for crumbling or grating over foods.
- Origin: Cotija de la Paz in the Michoacán, Mexico
- Made From: Aged cow's milk
- Flavor: Tangy and salty
What Is Cotija Cheese?
Cotija cheese originated in the town of Cotija de la Paz, located in the Mexican state of Michoacán. There's no other cheese quiet like cotija, though it has been compared to feta, ricotta salata, and Parmesan. There are two main types of cotija: a younger, fresher cheese and an aged version.
The younger cotija ages for around 100 days and is most similar to feta in texture, color and flavor, though it doesn't have quite as sharp a tang as feta does. Once aged, cotija cheese takes on the salty, sharper characteristics akin to Parmesan and Romano cheeses. It's easy to crumble when fresher, and grate better when aged. Cotija doesn't melt like other cheeses, which makes it a great option when topping a hot dish. It is priced similarly to feta and ricotta salata.
Cotija Cheese Vs. Queso Fresco
Often, these two Mexican cheeses can be used interchangeably in recipes, though queso fresco doesn't offer the same deep tang found with cotija cheese. Both are made with cow's milk and have a pleasing crumble, making them great as a condiment or tasty garnish.
The main distinction between these two kinds of cheese is age. Cotija cheese matures for three months to a year, where queso fresco, which translates to "fresh cheese," is ready to eat almost right away. Of all the Mexican cheeses, these are the ones most commonly found in grocery stores around the world.
Cotija Cheese Uses
Two of the most popular dishes using cotija cheese are elote and esquites, which feature grilled corn with lime-tinged crema and finely grated cotija. Some recipes allow for either cotija cheese or queso fresco, another Mexican cheese that's milder and softer than cotija. Cotija has more body and a stronger bite to it which stands up better to the chile powder and sweetness of the corn.
This is just one of the many uses for cotija. This cow's milk cheese can go on just about any meal, though it pairs best with spicy tomato or chile-based meals and citrus-laden dishes. It has an adhesive quality when grated fine that works well when you want the cheese to cling to foods. It makes a pretty and tasty garnish on top of black bean soup, chicken mole, Mexican street tacos, and nachos, among other items.
How To Cook With Cotija Cheese
Unlike most cheeses, cotija doesn't melt when heated. This makes it a great ingredient to use when you want the color and shape of the cheese to stay the same, such as for topping a hot dish. Cotija cheese often gets used as a garnish, though it's worth exploring on its own, even when not creating a Mexican dish.
Cotija is an excellent cheese in salads, and can be mixed into meatballs, veggie burgers, and other dishes where feta might be the main dairy. Cotija cheese can also be eaten plain or added to a charcuterie board.
What Does It Taste Like?
Cotija cheese has a similar flavor to feta cheese—bold, tangy, and salty. Younger cotija can be crumbled or chopped up to add a distinct flavor to a dish, while aged cotija is better for grating. It's not a creamy cheese. It has a heartier, fluffier texture with a bit of chew.
Cotija Cheese Recipes
Cotija cheese is more of an addition to a dish than the main component of a recipe. Use it to add a fresh and creamy layer to enchiladas, a salad, scrambled eggs, guacamole, and soups. Even if a recipe doesn't call for the cheese, add a handful on top as desired.
Where To Buy Cotija Cheese
Many large grocery stores carry cotija cheese, especially if they have a good assortment of international ingredients. Latin markets almost always carry it, and they offer more variations of cotija cheese including different brands and maturations. Cotija cheese is found in block form or pre-grated. The latter is fine like fluffy snow, the perfect texture for coating elote or covering the top of enchiladas.
Keep cotija cheese in an airtight container in the refrigerator until ready to use. Often, cotija comes in pre-grated packets that usually have a resealable top. If not, put the cheese in bag or container that completely seals.
Depending on how long the cheese has been aged, it should keep for close to a month. Aged cotija may last even longer. If the cheese has mold or an off-smell, discard it.