Inspired by conversations on the Food52 hotline, we share 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 a fresco of queso in so many Mexican dishes – a glorious sprinkle of snow atop a mountain of meat and rice or thick slices tossed in grilled vegetables. But how much do you really know?
Spanish for “fresh cheese”, queso fresco is the most common cheese used in Mexican cuisine. This fromage blanc is to Mexico what feta is to Greece; if that isn’t reason enough to know about it, we don’t know what is.
The cheese is traditionally made with raw cow’s milk or a combination of goat and cow’s milk. Since it’s a mild cheese, it’s very versatile: its milky flavor offsets the heat of the chilies and spices typically found in Mexican cuisine, and its bright, slightly acidic 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 introduction to Mexican cheese. How does queso fresco compare to other Mexican cheeses like cotija or oaxaca cheese? Cotija is a harder, saltier aged cheese than queso fresco. It’s still sprinkled liberally on salads, enchiladas, etc., but it doesn’t have the same zesty flavor as queso fresco. Oaxaca, on the other hand, is most similar to mozzarella cheese; it’s super stringy and gooey, making it the best topping for grilled cheese or a quesadilla. Queso blanco is another type of white cheese but unlike queso fresco, it does not crumble. On the contrary, the queso blanco retains its shape beautifully. Like halloumi, it is usually served whole grilled or fried.
But back to what you really learned – queso fresco.
How to keep it
Queso fresco is traditionally eaten fresh, but if you have leftovers, wrap them tightly 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 is more likely to develop mold or an off-putting, sour flavor than a hard, aged cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Use it as a garnish
Once you have acquired queso fresco, how do you use it? It’s most often used as a topping (but the right kind of topping, not the kind that’s just an afterthought).
- Pour it into a salad: Grill and cut the watermelon into cubes, tear the mint into small pieces (no need to be too precise) and add a little queso fresco instead of the usual feta option. It’s a brilliant addition to any summer spread, especially with grilled meats
- Use it as a garnish for soup: Queso fresco doesn’t care about temperature. It works wonderfully on a cold summer soup, like gazpacho, or hotter varieties, like tortilla soup and black bean soup. It won’t exactly melt, but the heat from a hot soup will make it a little hotter.
- In the summer, roll it over corn: Once you’ve lathered your corn with butter, roll it on a plate of queso fresco to coat each kernel. Finish with salt, ground chili and a drizzle of lime juice for a homemade version of elote or Mexican street corn.
- Crumble it over a classic Mexican dish. Sweeten the heat of dishes like chilaquiles verdes, huevos rancheros, tacos or enchiladas with a sprinkle of queso fresco. More the merrier, the merrier.
Use it as a garnish
Fresco Queso becomes soft when heated, but it is difficult to melt. You can melt it over low heat for a while to make a dip or cheese sauce, but it may still chunky. In its soft state, it is commonly used as part of a topping for relleños (stuffed peppers), quesadillas, and burritos.