Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. This article was brought to you by our friends at Real California Milk.
Today: Get to know the Fresh Prince of Mexico.
You see queso fresco in so many Mexican dishes — a glorious sprinkling of snow atop a mountain of meat and rice or thick slices mingled with grilled vegetables. But how much do you really know about it?
Spanish for "fresh cheese," queso fresco is the most commonly used cheese in Mexican cooking. This white cheese is to Mexico as feta is to Greece; if that's not reason enough to get to know it, we don't know what is.
The cheese is traditionally made with raw cow milk or a combination of goat and cow milk. Since it's a mild cheese, it's very versatile: Its milkiness offsets the heat from chiles and spices typically found in Mexican food, and its bright, slightly sour taste complements fresh salads and balances the richness of heartier dishes. You're going to want to put it on everything — or use it as a replacement for feta, goat cheese, and ricotta.
Before you head to the grocery store, here's a quick Mexican cheese primer. How does queso fresco stack up against other Mexican cheeses like cotija or oaxaca cheese? Cotija is an aged cheese that is harder and saltier than queso fresco. It is still sprinkled with abundance on salads, enchiladas, and more, but it doesn't have the same tangy flavor as queso fresco. Oaxaca, on the other hand, most closely resembles mozzarella cheese; it's super stringy and meltable, making it the best filling for grilled cheese or a quesadilla. Queso Blanco is another type of white cheese but unlike queso fresco, it doesn't crumble. Quite the opposite in fact — queso blanco holds its shape beautifully. Like halloumi, it's generally served in its whole form grilled or fried.
But back to what you really came to learn about — queso fresco.
How to store it
Queso fresco is traditionally consumed fresh, but if you have leftovers, tightly wrap them in plastic wrap and store them in the refrigerator, where they will keep for about two weeks. Because queso fresco is a fresh cheese, it's more likely to develop mold or a sour, off-putting flavor than a hard, aged cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Use it as a topping
Once you've acquired queso fresco, how do you use it? It's most commonly used as a topping (but the good kind of garnish, not the kind that's just an afterthought).
- Toss it into a salad: Grill and cube watermelon, rip up mint into small pieces (no need to be too precise), and throw in some queso fresco instead of the usual feta option. It's a bright addition to any summer spread, especially alongside grilled meats
- Use it as a garnish for soup: Queso fresco doesn't care about temperature. It works beautifully atop a cold summer soup, like gazpacho, or warmer varieties, like tortilla soup and black bean soup. It won't exactly melt, but the heat from a hot soup will make it just a little bit warmer.
- In the summer, roll it onto corn: Once you've lathered your corn with butter, roll it on a plate of queso fresco to cover every kernel. Finish with salt, ground chile, and a squeeze of lime juice for a homemade take on elote, or Mexican street corn.
- Crumble it atop a classic Mexican dish. Mellow out the heat in dishes like chilaquiles verdes, huevos rancheros, tacos, or enchiladas with a sprinkle of queso fresco. The more, the merrier.
Use it as a filling
Queso fresco gets soft when heated, but it's difficult to melt. You can melt it over low heat for a while in order to make a cheesy dip or sauce, but it may remain chunky. In its soft state, it is commonly used as part of a filling for chiles relleños (stuffed chiles), quesadillas, and burritos.