How to Use Panela Cheese

How to Use Panela Cheese

Panela is a fresh, mild cheese that is great on salads and sandwiches. However,  it is most famously known as a cheese that can stand up to high heat. Panela cheese can be grilled, baked or fried without losing its shape. It will become soft and browned but will not lose its form. 

Let’s find out more about Panela Cheese and the ways to use it in your cooking.

What is Panela Cheese?

Panela (pronounced pa·NEH·lah) cheese is one of the most popular cheeses in Mexico and is widely produced and distributed throughout the country and internationally. Millions of pounds of Panela are consumed every year. 

The actual origin of Panela cheese in Mexico is unknown but it is thought to have been an adaptation of Greek “basket cheese”  and is still commonly referred to as “queso canasta” or “queso de la canasta”.

Panela falls under the category of “fresh cheeses” and has a soft, spongy consistency. It is a white cheese with a fresh milky taste and a slightly salty aroma. The texture can range from a firm “cottage cheese” with the curd structure evident to a more dense, smooth consistency more commonly seen in industrially processed cheese.

Panela is typically made with low-fat or non-fat milk which gives it a firmer texture and cleaner, milky flavor. It is high in calcium and low in fat. It is one of the lowest-calorie cheeses and an excellent source of protein.

How to make Panela Cheese 

Making Panela cheese is quite simple and easy to do at home in an afternoon. 

Skimmed or low-fat cow’s milk is heated and acidified to encourage curdling. After approximately 30 minutes, the resulting curd is cut into small cubes and carefully transferred into a colander, lined with cheesecloth. 

The whey is then gently extracted by hand through the porous cheesecloth sack. Transfer the strained curds to a glass bowl, add salt and incorporate well. 

Transfer the curds into a basket or another round mold lined with cheesecloth. Place a weighted plate or another flat cover in the mouth of the mold on top of the cheese and allow it to set up in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight.

Transfer the cheese to a sealed plastic container and store it in the refrigerator. Panela cheese is meant to be consumed fresh but can be kept refrigerated for up to two weeks.

How to use Panela cheese

Is Panela Cheese pasteurized? 

Hundreds of years ago, Panela cheese was made from raw cow’s milk, acidified by the bacteria naturally present in the milk and the cheese-making area. The raw milk might be left for hours or even days until the microorganisms cause the milk to form curds.

Panela cheese is now mass produced and the industrial product is always made with pasteurized part-skim cow’s milk, salt and enzymes. The manufacturing conditions are well-regulated and sanitary and therefore the cheese is considered very safe to consume.

If you travel to rural villages in Mexico, you will still be able to find artisanal Panela cheese made from unpasteurized cow or even goat’s milk. In small, family-run restaurants, farm-made Panela cheese may even be offered in the dishes they serve. 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 Panela cheese that you find in a major supermarket or grocery store chain in Mexico or the United States is going to be made with pasteurized milk and may be considered safe to consume.

Does Panela Cheese melt? 

Panela cheese, like all Mexican fresh cheeses, will not melt when exposed to heat. You can pan fry it, grill it or bake it and the cheese will retain its form. It will brown and bubble a bit and become soft but it will not run or become stringy. 

If you are looking for a mild cheese to stuff into your chiles rellenos, this will still be delicious but will not give the melty, gooey consistency of cheeses like Oaxaca or Asadero.

Where to buy Panela Cheese

Panela cheese is a very popular food item in many Mexican homes. It is widely produced nationally and internationally and you can find Queso Panela at almost every grocery store in the Latin American section or where other Mexican cheeses like Oaxacan cheese and queso fresco might be sold. 

Panela cheese is sold in soft round wheels of various sizes. It can sometimes be found sliced for sandwiches or cubed to put on a salad or to eat as a snack. If you can’t find Panela cheese at your local grocery store, try making a trip to a Hispanic market. There are also some excellent providers who offer it online.

How to use Panela Cheese

Panela cheese has a mild, fresh milky flavor with a hint of salt. It is semi-soft and springy and can easily be sliced, cubed or shredded.

This cheese is often diced or crumbled for salads, enchiladas and tacos but is also sometimes cut into slices and fried until lightly browned as a snack. When heated it softens moderately but holds its shape. The cheese will brown without exuding liquid or oil. 

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

Recipes with Panela Cheese 

1. Baked Panela 

Baked panela cheese

This hot gooey appetizer takes marinated panela and kicks it up a notch with spicy salsa. Baked in an oven-safe bowl or casserole this dish is simple yet impressive. Served with warm tortillas, chips or on a toasted baguette, this is an easy dish to whip up for friends or to treat yourself with. We found this great recipe for Baked Panela Cheese with Salsa that is sure to impress your guests.

2. Grilled Panela  

Grilled panela cheese with salsa verde

As mentioned, one of the great attributes of Panela cheese is that it holds up to heat. Slices of Panela can be oiled and tossed on a hot grill until they are brown and starting to bubble. You can then serve the cheese on a salad, on toasted bread or even on a pasta dish. This recipe for Grilled Panela pairs the cheese with a tangy salsa of tomatillos and poblano peppers that we think is just mouth-watering!

3. Panela Caprese Salad

Caprese salad made with panela cheese

Because Panela is quite similar to fresh mozzarella it’s the perfect Mexican cheese to use for a new twist on the much-loved Caprese salad. The traditional Caprese calls for the very best tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, basil and good quality olive oil. We have found that Panela cheese is a great stand-in for the buffalo milk mozzarella and contributes a unique flavor and texture to this fresh summer salad. You can create it in the traditional way with fresh basil leaves sandwiched between slices of Panela cheese and tomatoes or try this bright, cheerful Cherry Tomato and Panela Salad which substitutes chopped cilantro for the basil.

4. Panela Fajitas

Fajitas made with Panela Cheese

Panela cheese can take the heat and is the perfect cheese to use for baking, grilling and pan-frying. If you enjoy Mexican or Tex-Mex cuisine and need a vegetarian-friendly option, this recipe for Fajitas with Panela Cheese is sure to please. This recipe calls for bright, fresh bell peppers, red onion and sliced nopales (cactus pads) and replaces the usual beef or chicken for Panela cheese. Panela is actually lower in calories and fat so it’s a healthier option for you and your vegetarian friends!

5. Poutine with Panela

Panela cheese used in poutine

While probably one of the more obscure ways to use Panela cheese, the beloved Canadian poutine is actually a great vehicle for Panela cheese. The dish traditionally calls for cheddar “cheese curds”. Interestingly, these curds taste and feel less like cheddar and more like Paneer or Haloumi cheese. They are soft and squishy and have a certain “squeak” when you bite into them. This is why Panela is a great option for your next poutine. Depending on your location, cheese curds may be quite difficult to find. Try this recipe for Authentic Canadian Poutine but add in some freshly torn chunks of Panela cheese instead. Just maybe don’t tell your Canadian friends!

What is a good alternative for Panela Cheese?

Panela 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 Panela and you are unable to find it there are several reasonable alternatives you can try. 

Fresh mozzarella is a readily-available cheese that can be used as a substitute for Panela cheese. Both cheeses are white and mild in flavor and have a similar texture. A homemade mozzarella may be too soft but for use cold in salads or on a cheese platter, any store-bought fresh mozzarella will be a fine alternative to Panela cheese.

Depending on the dish and the texture of cheese you need, Feta can be a good substitute for Panela. While feta is generally more salty and tangy, if you want a fresh cheese to crumble over a salad or on top of tacos, feta cheese is a pretty good alternative.

If you are looking specifically for a cheese that can be baked, fried or grilled and Indian Paneer or Turkish Haloumi are your best bet. Both have a texture similar to Panela and will brown and soften but not melt when heated. In fact, all three can be used interchangeably.

Another unusual option, one used by many vegans, is to substitute firm tofu for Panela when it is called for in a recipe. Like Panela cheese, firm tofu can be fried, baked or even grilled. The consistency is slightly softer and the taste may need to be augmented with a marinade or sauce but tofu can be a great alternative for panela cheese.

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