June 3

Cotija Cheese – Everything You Need to Know

Written by: Caitlin Clark

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If you are a fan of Mexican food, you have almost certainly used or eaten the “seasoning cheese” known as cotija. Although it rarely appears in Western dishes, this crumbly cheese has been adding the finishing touch to Mexican favorites for nearly 400 years! 

Below we've outlined a comprehensive guide to everything cotija cheese. If you have any questions/comments, don't hesitate to leave a note at the bottom of the page.

Enjoy!

What is Cotija Cheese?


Mexican food topped with cotija cheese

The original Michoacan style cotija is dry and has a hard rind and a pronounced earthy, salty aroma. This crumbly, salty Mexican cow’s milk cheese has an unusual texture that softens but doesn’t melt when heated.

 Named after the town of its origin (Cotija de la Paz), it comes in both fresh and aged (Anejo) versions.

Many Americans have experienced cotija as the stuffing in jalapeno poppers, but in Mexican cooking, it is considered a “finishing” ingredient or flavor enhancer because it adds salt, fat, and umami elements to a dish.

Like its more famous cousin Parmesan, cotija is protected with a Denominacion de Origen (DO) status. In much the same way that Americans crumble blue cheese over a salad, Mexican cooks sprinkle cotija over beans, tacos, nachos, migas, and more.

Some types of cotija are served grilled alone or over bread, while others are sliced and pan-fried. In short, if you’re a fan of Mexican cuisine, you are probably more familiar with cotija than you think!

How is Cotija Cheese Made?


Nachos with cotija cheese

Made from cow’s milk, cotija follows the typical steps of acidification (through lactic acid bacteria) and rennet coagulation to form a curd.

The curd is cut, drained, and pressed into a mold. Next, the molded wheel soaks in brine for several days, causing it to take on the salty flavor that makes cotija famous. The final step is to age the brined cheese.

Fresh cotija can age for as little as two or three weeks (although 100 days is more typical), while aged cotija must ripen for at least a year.

Be aware that some cotija is still made with raw milk; check labels carefully if this is a point of concern for you when purchasing fresh cotija.

Different Kinds of Cotija Cheese?


Cotija 4

Your journey into Mexican cuisine will lead you to both fresh and aged (Anejo) cotija.

The fresh version is soft and mild; it reminds many people of ricotta.

Aged cotija may strike you as similar to parmesan. It is much harder and has a more robust flavor.

How to Crumble Cotija Cheese


The easiest way to crumble cotija is to place the desired amount inside a ziplock bag and press on the cheese within the bag until it breaks and crumbles.

Pour the sprinkles from the bag directly into the dish to avoid dirtying your hands. If you have excess crumbles, simply label the bag with the date and store the extra crumbles in the same bag in the fridge. They will keep for several weeks.

How to Crumble Cotija Cheese


An easy way to crumble cotija is to place the desired amount inside a ziplock bag and press on the cheese within the bag until it breaks and crumbles. Pour the sprinkles from the bag directly into the dish to avoid dirtying your hands. If you have excess crumbles, simply label the bag with the date and store the extra crumbles in the same bag in the fridge. They will keep for several weeks

Cotija Cheese Substitutes?


Feta cheese alternative to cotija

If you can’t find fresh cotija, try feta!  Both of these cheeses crumble well and are strong-flavored and salty. Queso fresco or queso ranchero are two other Mexican cheeses that can achieve a similar texture as cotija. 

For aged cotija, parmesan or Parmigiano-romano is a better substitute. Grate it or aggressively crumble it to achieve a similar waxy, salty, umami-heavy garnish.

What does Cotija Cheese taste like?


Salty, savory, and earthy are the hallmark flavors of cotija. Its noticeable aroma comes from the many umami notes it carries.

Cotija Cheese Pairings


As a very salty cheese, cotija is generally paired with savory ingredients. It is excellent on eggs, potatoes, and vegetables. Its bright and fresh nature pairs wonderfully with traditional Mexican flavors; where you find limes, cilantro, and corn, cotija will make other flavors pop.

Best Cotija Cheese Brands


Hard Cheese on racks

Cheese wheels in factory

Three well-respected grocery store brands of cotija include Cacique, El Mexicano, and La Chona. All of these brands sell cotija in block or pre-crumbled form. Some American cheesemakers now produce cotija-style cheese; a list of some of the better-known ones appears at wisconsincheese.com.

Keep in mind that cotija sold for consumers in the United States tends to be milder in taste and aroma. If you want a stronger, more authentic cotija, seek out a brick-and-mortar or online shop that caters to Mexican clientele

Where to Buy Cotija Cheese?


These days, cotija is easy to find in the cheese aisle at most American supermarkets. Some cities may offer food markets targeted to Mexican shoppers, which are likely to carry a variety of cotija selections! 

 Online options to find cotija include amazon.com, mexgrocer.com, igourmet.com, and markys.com.

How Long Does Cotija Cheese Last?


Keep your cotija wrapped in fresh parchment or wax paper each time you use it, and then seal it inside a plastic bag or container. Stored this way, fresh cotija will last around a month in the fridge, but aged cotija may survive as long as three months.

How to Make Cotija Cheese?


Omnom cheese offers straightforward and easy-to-follow instructions to make cotija cheese. Beginners should not attempt this recipe since it involves several advanced techniques, including pressing, brining, and aging.

How to Pronounce Cotija Cheese?


Cotija is pronounced in three distinct syllables, with all the emphasis on the middle one. The C is a hard consonant (like a “k”), and the J is a soft consonant (so it sounds like an “h”). Try pronouncing it like this: “ko-TEE-hah.”

Conclusion


There you have it. Cotija cheese broken down into its beautiful, constituent parts. If you have any quesitons/comments, don't hesitate to leave a note below.

Cheers!

Caitlin


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About the author

Caitlin is a Ph.D student and chocolate researcher at Colorado State University. Her research in the Food Science program focuses on chocolate fermentation (that’s right, it’s a fermented food!) and small-batch post-harvest processing techniques. When she is not acting in her capacity as resident chocolate guru, she researches other fermented foods and beverages like beer, sausage, and natto. Caitlin was drawn to fermented foods while living in rural Spain for six years, where she was exposed to traditional, time-honored practices of food preservation. At home, she practices Bollywood dance for fun and is followed everywhere by two small pet rabbits.

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