From crema to Cotija, Mexican cheeses gain popularity on menus across the board
Though on the surface it may appear not to offer the breadth or scope of their European or North American counterparts, Mexican cheeses are gaining popularity with chefs and consumers. With such a long history of production—since the Spanish arrived on Central America’s shores, bringing with them cows, sheep, goats and cheese-making knowledge to a population whose diet until then was dairy-free—it is surprising it has taken this long.
Today, more than 40 varieties are produced regionally, and are unique in that they are mostly made from raw milk and barely aged. Turning up more and more on non-Latin menus, queso offers chefs and diners new taste experiences, encouraging experimentation at restaurants and at home.
“These cheeses not only add excitement and flavor to restaurant menus, but do so at an affordable price,” says Lou Rice, an executive chef at the Springfield, Mo., division at Reinhart Foodservice. “I think they are often more interesting than their French, Italian or American equivalents, and give recipes a different flavor.
Mexican cheeses are versatile, yet have pronounced flavors that can take dishes in fresh directions. Chihuahua is probably the most popular Mexican cheese in America today. This soft, white cheese is like Monterey Jack, in that it works in any dish that requires something melty, such as Rice’s South of the Border Cheese Soup, a play on American beer cheese soup.
Oaxaca, considered the mozzarella of Mexican cheeses, is chewy and stringy with a rich flavor and works great in his Mexican Grilled Cheese. Cotija has a dry texture and salty flavor and is recommended in any application that would use parmesan.
Looking for something a little lighter than sour cream? Crema, with a high fat content, drizzles like crème fraiche and can replace mayonnaise in salads or work as an all-purpose cheese sauce. And queso fresco, with its light, dry texture similar to a dry ricotta, works wonderfully in desserts, like Rice’s grilled pineapple parfait, or even filling a cannoli shell. With such versatility, it’s no wonder these cheeses are moving beyond their usual placements in traditional Mexican restaurants. Rice estimates he has placed Mexican cheeses on more than four dozen non-Hispanic restaurants.
Demetrio Marquez, a Reinhart Foodservice division corporate chef based in New Orleans, also sees this trend as only continuing to grow, especially in hip, urban taquerias, gastropubs and independently owned restaurants. In large chains and franchises, however, it is still a small percentage that takes advantage of these cheeses. “At $1 or more a pound, it comes down to quantity more than quality,” says Marquez.
Chefs who use Mexican cheeses are very passionate about these occasionally unsung curds. “Tourists see these cheeses when traveling, so there is definitely a trend in bringing them to the forefront,” Marquez says. “Cheese is the cornerstone of any culture.”