The Mexican Cheese tradition and current outlook
The history of cheese making in Mexico is rather short compared to that of countries like France, Switzerland, or Italy. In the time period before the conquest of the Mexican territory on behalf of the Spanish crown, dairy cows, sheep, goats, and other farm animals that are milked for cheese production weren’t found within the country. With the arrival of the Spanish traditions and cattle began the production of cheese and the introduction of dairy to the Mesoamerican diet. The first cheeses that were produced in the New Spain were those of Spanish origin like the famous Manchego.
During the colony epoch, cheese fabrication evolved and adapted to fit the mix of taste of the indigenous peoples and the Europeans. This led to the origin of the most widely known Mexican cheeses that include queso fresco, quesillo or queso Oaxaca, queso asadero, queso panela, queso chihuahua, queso cotija among other more artisanal and regional cheeses like queso bola de Ocosingo, queso poro de Balcan, and queso crema de Chiapas. Most cheeses in Mexico are produced using cow’s milk and it is estimated that there are currently about between 20-40 artisanal cheese varieties, some of which are in danger of extinction (Villegas de Gante and Cervantes-Escoto, 2011).
Nowadays about 80% of the cheese consumed within the country falls under the category of queso fresco or fresh cheese (Jiménez-Guzmán et al., 2009). This category encompasses the cheeses that take around 24 hours to set and which retain from sixty to eighty percent of moisture. The use of pasteurized milk ensures the lack of presence of pathogens that would otherwise remain in the final product since these cheeses don’t undergo any ageing or ripening processes. However, many artisanal fresh cheeses are manufactured using raw milk; research around the antagonistic effect that lactic acid bacteria may have on pathogens present during cheese production with raw milk is needed (González-Córdova et al., 2016). Queso fresco is crumbled easily and is usually used as garnish over traditional dishes like enchiladas, chilaquiles and sopes, or over side dishes like mashed beans and nopal salad.
A crowd favorite cheese is queso panela. It has similar characteristics to Greek feta cheese. It’s soft and white and takes the shape of the basked in which it is pressed. Unlike other fresh cheeses, it doesn’t crumble, nor it melts. It has become one of the most consumed cheeses in recent years due to its low-fat content (Lobato-Calleros et al., 2006) and mild, versatile taste.
Queso Oaxaca or quesillo is probably one of the most popular cheeses in the central region of the country. It likely originated in the state of Oaxaca (De Oca-Flores et al., 2009), hence the name it usually receives. It is currently produced both in artisanal and industrial scale in several regions from either raw or pasteurized milk. It is also considered a fresh cheese and may contain up to 50% of moisture (Cervantes-Escoto et al., 2008). Its artisanal manufacturing process is reminiscent of mozzarella cheese making due to the stretching and braiding of the curds. It is sold in a knotted ball presentation and is used in dishes like quesadillas and tlayudas where it perfectly melts and oozes when you bite into it.
One of the few semi-hard cheeses that exist in Mexican cuisine is queso chihuahua or Mennonite cheese. It is native to the state of chihuahua, located in the northwestern region of the country. It is matured for 3-6 weeks and is commonly sold in block form. This melting cheese’s origin is linked to the Mennonite communities that migrated from Canada to Mexico in the 1920s and settled in the state of Chihuahua (Cervantes-Escoto et al., 2008).
Since the presence of cheese in Mexican cuisine is relatively recent, the uses and applications of both regional and foreign cheeses are still maturing and constantly transforming. For instance, one of the most famous street foods from my hometown, León, Guanajuato, became popularized only 50 years ago. It is called ‘Caldo de Oso’ which literally translates to bear broth. But you shall not worry, it doesn’t receive its name for its ingredients but rather for its origin. One of the stories that circulate around the birth of this dish states that there was a man nicknamed Oso (bear) who asked local fruit vendors to prepare him an assortment of chopped cucumber, jicama, onion, mango, or pineapple dressed with lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, salt, powder chili… and shredded cotija cheese. Other people started asking for this concoction out of curiosity until the dish became a city staple associated with the nickname of the creative mind behind it. Nowadays people can also add peanuts and chips to create their own version of caldo de oso.
In the year 2020 a controversy sparked within the country when the Federal Consumer Protection Office (Profeco) and the Ministry of Economy (SE) of the Government of Mexico, ordered the prohibition of the commercialization of 19 brands of cheese for allegedly not complying with the provisions of the Official Mexican Standards (NOMs). The main raisons they were taken of the market were for the use of incorrect labeling, this includes marking cheeses as 100% milk when they are not and the misuse of cheese names.
Lack of characterization of artisanal cheeses is one of the main issues that impairs the standardization of cheese manufacturing practices and consequently their labeling and status in the market. Expanding the scientific knowledge and information about these regional dairy products would open the possibility for these cheeses to become products of protected designation of origin and properly label dairy products that do not comply with the required characteristics to be labeled as cheese. This would enable to continue broadening the use of regional cheeses and popularizing them in other parts if the world.
Cervantes-Escoto, F., A. Villegas de Gante, J. A. Cesín-Vargas, and A. Espinoza-Ortega. 2008. Los Quesos Mexicanos Genuinos. Patrimonio cultural que debe rescatarse. 1st ed. Mundi Prensa México, México City, Mexico.
De Oca-Flores, E. M., O. A. Castelán-Ortega, J. G. Estrada-Flores, and A. Espinoza-Ortega. 2009. Oaxaca cheese: Manufacture process and physicochemical characteristics. Int. J. Dairy Technol. 62:535–540.
Facultad de Medicina Veterinaria y Zootecnia-Banco de Videos. (s. f.). Recuperado 25 de octubre de 2022, de https://web.archive.org/web/20100610080549/http://www.fmvz.unam.mx/fmvz/reportajes/quesos/quesos.htm
González-Córdova, A. F., Yescas, C., Ortiz-Estrada, Á. M., De la Rosa-Alcaraz, M., Hernández-Mendoza, A., & Vallejo-Cordoba, B. (2016). Invited review: Artisanal Mexican cheeses. Journal of dairy science, 99(5), 3250–3262. https://doi.org/10.3168/jds.2015-10103
Jiménez-Guzmán, J., A. Flores-Nájera, A. E. Cruz-Guerrero, and M. García-Garibay. 2009. Use of an exopolysaccharide-producing strain of Streptococcus thermophilus in the manufacture of Mexican Panela cheese. Food Sci. Technol. (Campinas.) 42:1508–1512.
La Jornada del Campo. (2010, 13 febrero). https://www.jornada.com.mx/2010/02/13/quesos.html
Lobato-Calleros, C., L. Ramos-Solis, A. Santos-Moreno, and M. Rodriguez-Huezo. 2006. Microstructure and texture of panela type cheese-like products: Use of low methoxyl pectin and canola oil as milk-fat substitutes. Rev. Mex. Ing. Quim. 1:71–79
Villegas de Gante, A., and F. Cervantes-Escoto. 2011. La genuinidad y tipicidad en la revalorización de los quesos artesanales mexicanos. Estud. Soc. 19:146–164.
Featured Image: https://www.pexels.com/photo/stack-of-tortilla-with-homemade-cheese-8064385/
About the Author
Luisa Liceaga is an undergraduate at the Tecnologico de Monterrey where she is working towards her BSc in Food Engineering. She also serves as a Project Collaborator for her IFTSA Chapter at ITESM Monterrey.