Cotija is a hard cheese made from raw cow milk and originates from the town of Cotija in Mexico. It is a remarkable cheese that changes its texture and flavor profile over time. A freshly made batch will have a white appearance with a strong salty flavor, a lot like feta. After the aging process, it becomes hard and crumbly, like parmesan. It is no surprise that Cotija is the “Parmesan of Mexico.”
The salty, crumbly cheese has many uses including all your Mexican favorites like tostadas, tortillas, tacos, and chili. Other possible uses include casserole, croque monsieur, soup, pasta, and salad.
If you’re looking for Cotija cheese substitutes, then you’re in the right place. This article provides five commonly available types of replacement cheese that will work deliciously well in your next recipe.
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5 simple Cotija cheese alternatives
A commonly used back-up cheese that folks love to use is ricotta. You can use this to top corn (elote), in tostadas and tacos. The main reason for using ricotta is visual appearance. You certainly won’t get that same sharp, aged flavor that comes from Cotija cheese.
Because the flavor profile of ricotta is much blander, you wouldn’t use this option for dishes like casseroles, soups, and sauces.
Choosing the right feta will make all the difference as they range in flavor significantly. To mimic the taste of Cotija cheese, I recommend the very popular Valbreso French Feta Cheese.
Parmesan should be your go-to option as a replacement for Cotija cheese. The texture, saltiness, and other flavors are quite similar; your guests would be unlikely to know the difference.
Parmesan is a hard, grainy cheese with a sharp, pungent flavor profile and a nutty undertone. It is well known for its use in Italian cooking: pasta, risotto, and pizza. Parmesan is suitable for use in any recipe that calls for Cotija cheese.
I have tried virtually every parmesan on the market and, without a doubt, igourmet Parmigiano offers the goods.
Romano, or Pecorino Romano, is named after Rome and dates back to 1st century B.C. It offers a similar flavor profile to parmesan. Both are umami-rich and salty although Romano has a more powerful salt/tang punch. It’s this flavor that makes it ideal for a casserole, soup and sauce recipes that call for Cotija. Pecorino also makes a useful substitute for manchego.
Padano has a similar hard texture to Cotija cheese. I’d choose Parmesan or Romano first as an alternative to Cotija. The reason is that Padano has a sweeter, more subtle flavor that doesn’t quite offer the same cut-through. If you’re cooking for kids or adults that don’t like “exotic” flavors, then Padano may be a good option for this reason.
Do you need a useful Taleggio cheese alternative? Read more here.
Watch the quick video for ideas
How to make Cotija cheese at home
This is a basic recipe for making Cotija. You may also be interested in our in-depth guide to making cheddar cheese which is an illustrated resource.
To make the cheese
- 8 cups unhomogenized whole milk
- 10 drops calcium chloride
- 4 grains mesophilic starter culture
- 1ml liquid rennet*
- 2 Tbsp cheese salt
*Dilute liquid rennet in 30ml non-chlorinated water.
To make the brine
- 2 cups water (boiled)
- 2 Tbsp salt
- ¼ tsp citric acid
- 10-12 drops calcium chloride
- Turn oven onto the lowest temperature setting.
- Add milk and calcium chloride to a large saucepan and heat on low-medium heat, continually stirring, until the milk reaches 100°F (38°C).
- Remove from heat and add the starter culture. Allow to stand for 2-3 minutes then stir for 30 seconds.
- Place a lid on the saucepan and add to oven for 20 minutes.
- Remove saucepan from oven and mix in cheese salt.
- Mix the diluted rennet into the milk for 30 seconds then cover the saucepan and return to the oven, on the lowest temperature setting for 1 hour. The result should be a curd.
- Cut the curd into small 1″ cubes. If they are soft and you’re not getting clean cuts then allow the curd to continue resting for 15 minutes. Once you have cut all the cubes, allow the curd to rest for a further 15 minutes.
To press the curd
- Scoop curds gently into a colander lined with cheesecloth. It’s best to use a slotted spoon to do this job. Wait 10 minutes.
- Scoop curds into a cheese press lined with cheesecloth. Cover the curds with the cloth and press for 30-45 minutes.
- Swap the cheese to its other side and press for another 12 hours.
- Combine the water, salt, citric acid, and calcium chloride to make the brine solution.
- Add the cheese to the brine for 30 hours then remove and place in a container that includes a rack for draining. Allow the cheese to mature for 14 days in the fridge*.
*You’ll need to flip the cheese every other day. If you see any signs of mold, then rub with salt.
Cotija cheese vs. queso fresco
These are two types of cheese that are often confused; however, they’re quite different. Queso fresco is a fresh cheese that’s soft and mild flavored. Cotija cheese is aged so it’s a hard cheese and much saltier.
If you’d like to learn more, check out our guide on queso fresco substitutes.
Need Cotija cheese? Your best option is this igourmet Cotija cheese available from Amazon that will lift any dish!
If you’re looking for a substitute for Cotija cheese, then you’ll do well to use parmesan. They’re both hard cheeses that are quite salty and pack a pungent flavor profile. Not all parmesans are the same, though; I recommend this brand of Parmigiano that’s well known for a flavor profile that closely matches Cotija and is excellent quality.
What’s your favorite alternative if there’s no Cotija in the kitchen? Leave a comment below.
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