Panela is a fresh Mexican cheese that has a mild taste and a soft creamy texture. Made from cow’s milk, the cheese is an adaptation of Greek basket cheese. It has a variety of uses in the kitchen and is excellent crumbled over tacos, nopale salads, quesadillas, or huevos rancheros.
In some parts of the world, finding panela can be a challenge. If you can’t find it in your store then keep reading. We’ve compiled a list of our favorite panela substitutes so that you can finish any recipe without the original ingredient.
What are the best panela substitutes?
To replace panela in a recipe your best options are paneer or halloumi for frying; to crumble as a topping then try ricotta, cottage cheese, or Cotija. While each option has its unique flavor and texture, they are all comparable cheeses and won’t be out of place in any dish that calls for panela.
Use for frying and slow-cooking
Paneer is an Indian cheese that has a mild, milky flavor similar to panela. It is a firm, fresh cheese that is usually unsalted and may seem bland if eaten straight from the pack. However, this is an excellent cheese for frying on a high heat or slow cooking in curries and chili beans. It can withstand the heat without losing shape.
In the United States, paneer is a common product that can usually be found in mainstream supermarkets. If you’re interested in a delicious use for this cheese, be sure to check out our handy article which compares saag and palak paneer.
Use for frying and slow-cooking
Halloumi is another useful replacement for panela cheese if you need it to withstand heat without melting. When eaten raw, this product is bitter and salty thanks to the brine that it is packed in. Once cooked, the strong taste disappears, and the cheese takes on the flavors of the other ingredients in the dish. It offers a pleasant creamy mouthfeel, but is also rubberier than panela and has a texture that squeaks when you bite into it. This may be a positive feature, depending on your personal preferences.
Use for crumbling
Ricotta is a mild-tasting, fresh cheese with a creamy, somewhat grainy texture. It has a milky, slightly sweet taste and looks similar to panela. It is excellent for crumbling over soups and tacos or added to the contents of a burrito. For sweet desserts, puddings, and pies, ricotta is an excellent choice. Try to find a variety that is firm in texture if possible as this will better mimic the texture of panela.
4. Cottage cheese
Use for crumbling
Cottage cheese is a first-rate panela alternative if you’re looking for a healthier choice. It is helpful for people looking to lose weight and is high in Vitamin B, protein, selenium, and calcium.
Cottage cheese is a fresh cheese that has a soft, moist texture made up of curds that are mixed with cream or whey. Its mild, slightly sour flavor makes it ideal for sprinkling over your favorite Mexican food.
5. Queso Oaxaca
Best for stuffing or grating
Queso Oaxaca is a Mexican cow’s milk cheese. It is a white, semi-soft variety that belongs to the pasta filata family. The cheese is stretched and kneaded into a long rope, then sold in balls. Oaxaca has a mild, buttery flavor and is a little salty. Its texture isn’t as crumbly as panela, but it can still be grated onto meals like beans, soups, or tostadas.
Oaxaca melts so don’t use it as a replacement in recipes that require the cheese to hold its shape. Instead, stuff it into enchiladas, peppers, or quesadillas for a deliciously creamy, cheesy dish.
6. Queso fresco
Best for crumbling or cubing
Queso fresco, or “fresh cheese”, is a mild, fresh-tasting cheese that balances out heavy, meaty recipes deliciously. It also makes a tasty addition to lighter dishes like grilled vegetables or salads. This is a lighter cheese than most of the others on this list and won’t add the same buttery mouthfeel to meals. Although cooking will soften queso fresco, it won’t melt.
7. Farmer’s cheese
Best for crumbling
Farmer’s cheese is a type of cottage cheese that is pressed, resulting in a firmer texture with less moisture. It can be used in a similar way to panela in cooking and is ideal for sprinkling over food. Farmer’s cheese can be produced from sheep, goat, or cow’s milk so it’s flavor can vary from very mild to acidic. It is sometimes rolled in herbs or other seasonings so check the label to make sure it’s suitable for your dish.
8. Non-Aged Cotija
Use for crumbling or grating
Cotija cheese is a Mexican cheese made from cow’s milk. When mature, it is a hard, dry cheese that has a salty flavor, similar to Parmesan. Although this is an excellent cheese for use in Mexican cuisine, the immature version will more closely mimic the taste and texture of panela. It is moist and crumbly with less saltiness – great for adding rich, creaminess to food.
Best for grating or slicing
Fresh mozzarella has a subtle, milky flavor with a soft texture that is low in fat. The low-moisture product will make a great panela substitute; it is a popular variety of cheese that is easy to find in supermarkets. Grating fresh mozzarella can be a challenge so break up the cheese with your hands and sprinkle it over the dish. You can also slice it and add to salads, pizzas, or simply eat as a snack.
Summary of panela substitutes
|Paneer||Frying, slow cooking||A versatile Indian cheese|
|Halloumi||Frying, slow cooking||More rubbery texture|
|Ricotta||Crumbling||Also great for desserts|
|Cottage Cheese||Crumbling||Healthy option|
|Queso Oaxaca||Stuffing, grating||Won’t hold its shape when heated|
|Queso Fresco||Crumbling, cubing||Light and fresh tasting|
|Farmer’s Cheese||Crumbling||Firm with low moisture|
|Cotija||Crumbling, grating||Non-aged is closest to panela|
|Mozzarella||Grating, slicing||Get the fresh variety|
Fast facts about panela
- The cheese originated in Mexico, but it is unclear what year it was first made.
- The cheese is also excellent for frying as it holds its shape and softens but does not melt. Other useful options are baking or slicing and adding to sandwiches, tortas, or cemitas.
- It is hung in a basket to set so people often call it “cheese of the basket” or queso de la canasta.
- The cheese has a basket pattern on its outside which comes from the basket it is set in.
- While panela is a useful ingredient in many recipes, it is also excellent for eating on its own as a snack.
How do I reheat tamales?
Panela is a mild, soft cheese that is good for frying, crumbling, and slicing. Paneer or halloumi will work well as a substitute ingredient for fried or slow-cooked meals. There are plenty of soft cheeses to replace panela such as ricotta, cottage cheese, or queso fresco. Queso Oaxaca is a great choice in heated dishes if you want the cheese to melt, rather than hold its shape.
What recipe are you looking to make that calls for panela cheese? Please let us know in the comments below.