How to Use Oaxaca Cheese

How to Use Oaxaca Cheese

Here are some great ways to use Oaxaca cheese, including some of our favorite recipes.

What is Oaxaca Cheese?

Oaxaca (pronounced wuh·HAA·kah)  is one of the most popular cheeses in Mexico and originates from the state of Oaxaca in the southeastern part of the country. In this region, it is more commonly known as Quesillo. Oaxaca cheese is a semi-firm, white cheese with a mild buttery flavor made from whole cow’s milk. 

This semi-firm cheese has a similar texture to mozzarella cheese and has a mellow, salty flavor.  This is a favorite cheese to use in many Mexican dishes because it is stringy when melted. You will immediately know it is Queso Oaxaca when you cut into an enchilada or chile relleno. Long, delicate strands of melted cheese will follow your fork to your mouth, an unmistakable characteristic of this iconic cheese.

How is Oaxaca Cheese made? 

Making Oaxaca cheese requires patience. Oaxaca cheese is made with the same cheese process, pasta filata, that is used to make caciocavallo, stracciata, provolone and mozzarella among others. 

Cow’s milk is warmed, acidified to encourage curdling and allowed to rest. The resulting curds are cut into small pieces and allowed to rest again. When the curds reach the desired consistency, the whey is completely drained off and the curds rest further.

Finally, the curds are softened in hot water and then slowly stretched and pulled until the desired soft, elastic consistency is obtained. The cheese is then pulled into long ribbons which are commonly wound into a round knot. This helps preserve its elasticity and creates its unmistakable presentation.

Similar to mozzarella, Oaxaca cheese is traditionally soaked in brine at the end of the process to form a thin, protective barrier to help maintain the required level of moisture. This also contributed to the cheese’s slightly salty flavor.

How to use Oaxaca cheese

Is Oaxaca Cheese pasteurized? 

Traditionally, Oaxaca cheese has been made from raw cow’s milk, which is acidified by the microflora naturally present in the milk. The raw milk might be left for hours or even days until the natural bacteria cause the milk to form curds.

Oaxaca cheese is now widely manufactured and the industrial product is always made with pasteurized milk, acidified with commercial lactic acid bacteria. Many mass-produced Oaxacan cheeses are still produced in a process that is only semi-mechanized. However, the manufacturing conditions are regulated and sanitary and therefore the cheese is considered very safe to consume.

If you travel into the countryside, especially in the state of Oaxaca, you will still be able to find artisanal Oaxaca cheese made from unpasteurized milk in the traditional way. Care must be given when indulging in this and any artisanal cheeses especially if you are pregnant or immunocompromised as the risk of contracting a food-borne illness is significantly increased.

Any Oaxaca cheese that you find in a major supermarket or grocery store chain in the United States is going to be made with pasteurized milk and should be considered safe to consume.

Does Oaxaca Cheese melt? 

Oaxaca cheese melts very easily, making it an excellent cheese for baking. It is made with the same Italian string cheese process that is used to make mozzarella.

Is Oaxaca Cheese like Mozzarella? 

Both Oaxaca and mozzarella cheese are produced using the same pasta filata (stretched curd) method resulting in a semi-firm, springy, elastic cheese. Oaxaca cheese is made from 100% cow’s milk whereas mozzarella can be made from cow’s milk or buffalo milk. 

Both Oaxaca cheese and mozzarella are mild and slightly salty in flavor. At room temperature, mozzarella tends to be spongy in texture while Oaxaca cheese is decidedly stringy and pulls apart easily. 

Both Oaxaca and mozzarella cheese are great for melting and can hold their shape until it is baked, roasted or grilled when they will become soft and stringy and develop a richer flavor. The two cheeses can be used interchangeably in Mexican recipes for quesadillas and enchiladas or in other international dishes such as pizza or hamburgers.

Where to buy Oaxaca Cheese

Oaxaca cheese is a very popular food staple in many Mexican homes. It is widely produced nationally and internationally and you can find Queso Oaxaca at almost every grocery store where other Mexican cheeses like queso fresco and panela cheese might be sold. 

Oaxaca cheese is sold in balls or knots of various sizes. It can sometimes be found, pre-shredded and packaged to eat as a quick snack like string cheese. If you can’t find Oaxaca cheese at your local supermarket, there are some excellent resources to purchase it online.

How to use Oaxaca Cheese

Oaxaca cheese is a versatile melting cheese and has many uses in modern Mexican cuisine. It has a creamy, mild buttery flavor. It is fresh, a bit salty and it melts easily, making it an ideal filling for quesadillas, enchiladas, and even squash blossoms. 

It can also be pulled apart like string cheese and enjoyed as a snack. It can be easily shredded with a cheese grater and used atop sopes, tostadas, tacos, and bean dishes. Queso Oaxaca, pulled into strings, is a deliciously unctuous addition to simple soups like Caldo de Pollo con Arroz.

Oaxaca cheese is not an aged or cured cheese and is meant to be eaten fresh. To store it, simply keep refrigerated in a covered container. It will keep for one to two weeks.

Recipes with Oaxaca Cheese 

1. Queso Fundido

Queso fundido with Oaxaca cheese

The hot gooey appetizer that literally translates to “molten cheese” is the ideal vehicle for Oaxaca cheese. Served with warm tortillas, chips or even sliced vegetables, this is an easy dish to whip up for friends or to treat yourself with.

There are many great cheeses that can go into a great Queso Fundido but we think the best start with a base of Oaxaca cheese. From there, you can add in any of the other wonderful Mexico melting cheeses to make the flavor profile more complex. Manchego and Chihuahua work well or you can even try a spicy Pepper Jack cheese. Add in some crumbled Mexican chorizo, sauteed mushroom or roasted chili peppers to kick this up another notch. We have found an easy recipe for Queso Fundido with Oaxaca cheese here.

2. Quesadillas

Quesadilla with Oaxaca cheese recipe

What would a quesadilla be without queso? Pretty sad indeed. If you are looking for a smooth, mild cheese with a great buttery taste for your quesadillas, Oaxaca cheese is a perfect choice. It melts perfectly without running too much or breaking but will create beautiful strings of melted cheese making your quesadillas irresistible. The mild flavor and aroma of Oaxaca cheese make a great base on which you can build many layers of flavor. We love quesadillas filled with Oaxaca cheese and chapulines but there are literally endless combinations to try. We have linked to a fresh and tasty quesadilla recipe with corn and zucchini here.

3. Molletes

Oaxaca cheese on molletes

An easy breakfast, lunch or late-night snack, molletes are a popular Mexican dish and a great vehicle for the melty goodness of Oaxaca cheese. The satisfying mix of crunchy toasted bolillos, creamy refried black beans, warm melted cheese and the sharp tang of fresh pico de gallo are almost impossible to resist. These are the traditional ingredients but you can also add Mexican chorizo, bacon, poblano strips or whatever you like. Here is an easy recipe for Molletes with Oaxaca cheese to get you started.

4. Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms

Portabello mushrooms stuffed with Oaxaca cheese

Stuffed portobello mushrooms are a great way to jazz up leftovers and present them as a unique and elegant meal. Drizzle the inside of the mushroom cap with butter or even a savory pesto sauce, layer on whatever combination of meats and veggies you have around and finish it off with a generous layer of melted cheese. If you have leftover ground beef in the fridge, this recipe for portobello mushrooms stuffed with picadillo and Oaxaca cheese is sure to be a hit!

5. Chiles Rellenos

Chile Rellanos with Oaxaca cheese

Stuffed chilies, poblanos or otherwise are traditionally made with Oaxaca cheese. Its mild, creamy, melty goodness is the perfect filling for this popular Mexican meal. If you love Mexican food and haven’t made chiles rellenos before, it’s not as complicated as it might seem. This recipe for Chiles Rellenos calls for Monterey Jack but we think Oaxaca cheese is the way to go. Maybe try both and see which you prefer!

Substitutes For Oaxaca Cheese

Oaxaca Cheese is very popular both in Mexico and the United States. It can be found in many major grocery stores. However, if a recipe calls for Queso Oaxaca and you are unable to find it there are several reasonable substitutes you can try.  

If you would like to stay within the range of Mexican cheeses, Queso Asadero is another cheese that can be used to replace Oaxaca. It is slightly drier and less stringy and might be equally difficult to find internationally. It is often presented in the shape of a log and is great sliced and melted on a hamburger.

Mozzarella is a readily-available cheese that can be used as a substitute for Oaxaca cheese. Mozzarella cheese labeled “low moisture” most closely resembles Oaxaca cheese and can be used in any recipe calling for Oaxaca cheese.

If you are looking specifically for a string-style cheese, American string cheese is a great match and easy to find. Similar but not as easy to come by are the Armenian-style braided cheeses commonly made in Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria.

If you do not require a string-style cheese, consider a semi-soft cheese that grates easily and melts well, such as a mild, soft Cheddar or an un-aged Monterey Jack cheese. The flavors and textures will be similar and can be used in place of Oaxaca cheese on top of nachos and in quesadillas or empanadas.

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