The Best Substitute for Panela Cheese – 12 Great Options

The Best Substitute for Panela Cheese

What is Panela Cheese?

Panela (pronounced pa-NEH-lah) is a semi-soft, fresh Mexican cheese made from skimmed cow’s milk, rennet and sea salt. Panela cheese is commonly known as “queso canasta” or “queso de la canasta”. It takes its name from the baskets in which the cheese is commonly made and the characteristic imprint left on the exterior of the cheese after it has been pressed.

Predominantly made from skimmed or low-fat milk, it is lower in fat than many other Mexican cheeses. Panela is one of Mexico’s most popular “fresh cheeses” and is widely produced and distributed throughout the country and internationally. 

What is Panela Cheese used for?

Panela cheese is quite versatile and can be cut into cubes and tossed in salads, shredded over sopes and tostadas or sliced for sandwiches. The most desirable characteristic of Panela is its ability to stand up to high heat. The structure of Panela cheese allows it to be baked, fried or even grilled. It can also be cubed and added to soups and stews without losing its shape and becoming stringy. Panela does not lose its shape or release any liquid or oil when heated. The cheese will warm, soften and brown beautifully without breaking or running making it a great meat substitute in many dishes.

best substitute for panela cheese

What Makes a Good Substitute for Panela Cheese?

When searching for the best Panela cheese substitute, it is very important to look at how Panela cheese is used in a specific recipe. Because Panela is so versatile, its uses in the kitchen are varied. Not every one of our recommended Panela cheese substitutes will work well in every recipe.

12 Great Substitutes for Panela Cheese in your Recipes

We have compiled 12 great substitutes for Panela cheese in your recipes. Depending on the dish you are making and your location, the following cheeses should be the ones you consider when looking for an alternative to Panela in whatever dish you are making.

Mexican Substitutes for Panela Cheese

If you are in Mexico, Panela cheese is readily available in markets and grocery stores. It is one of the top three most popular cheeses in Mexico and is widely distributed. However, if you are in the United States, Canada or abroad your options for Mexican cheese may vary. If you are looking for a substitute for Panela cheese and you are able to find another Mexican cheese these are the best options.

Queso Fresco

It falls into the category of Mexican fresh cheeses and is meant to be consumed shortly after it is made. Young Queso fresco is mildly salty, moist and spongy. It can be crumbled into large, chunks, cubed or sliced. As the cheese matures, it loses some of its moisture content and becomes stronger in flavor and more crumbly. Queso fresco is a good substitute for Panela cheese for use atop salads, sopes and bean dishes.

Queso Blanco

Queso blanco is another Mexican fresh cheese and can be consumed as soon as it is made. Young Queso blanco is mildly salty, moist and spongy. Cold, it makes a delicious substitute for Panela, crumbled on top of salads and tostadas. Like Panela cheese, Queso blanco holds its shape when exposed to heat. If you cannot find Panela cheese, young Queso blanco can be sliced and pan-fried or gently grilled.

Cotija Cheese

Cotija (pronounced koh-TEE-hah) is a firm, white flavorful cheese made from cow’s milk, sea salt and rennet. Unlike Panela, Cotija falls into the category of Mexican “aged cheese” and must mature from 100 days up to one year or more. In all forms, it is considered an aged cheese but you can use it in varying states of maturity. 

Young Cotija cheese can be used in place of Panela when a creamy, salty punch is needed to finish a dish. Like Panela, fresh Cotija cheese can be crumbled easily by hand. It will break apart into nice, savory chunks which you can then sprinkle onto fresh salads, soups or bean dishes. If handled carefully, young Cotija will hold its shape when heated and can be grilled or baked or pan-seared. One thing to keep in mind is that Cotija cheese has a much higher level of saltiness than Panela cheese.

Requesón

Requeson (pronounced reh-kay-SOHN) is a soft, white cheese most commonly made with cow’s milk. Technically speaking, Requesón is not a cheese but rather a by-product of the cheesemaking process. Requesón is made from whey, the watery liquid that remains after another cheese is made. In English, requesón translates to “cottage cheese” but it is really much more like Italian Ricotta cheese. In fact, the method to make Requesón is nearly identical to the process used to create Ricotta cheese. 

Requesón cheese has a soft, spreadable, grainy texture. It makes a great substitute for Panela cheese in any recipe that requires a cheese stuffing. Requesón can be used as a substitute for panela cheese in chiles rellenos, taquitos or enchiladas. Requesón is also good in gorditas and in egg dishes. Like many of Mexico’s fresh cheeses, Requeson may be difficult to find outside of Mexico but you can try your local Hispanic market.

Substitutes for Panela Internationally

Halloumi

Halloumi (pronounced hah-LOO-mee) is a semi-firm cheese that originated in Cyprus and is very popular in Greek cuisine. Halloumi is traditionally made from sheep or goat’s milk, rennet and salt. This is a fresh, white layered cheese, quite similar to mozzarella in texture. Halloumi cheese is brined at the end of its production which intensifies its tangy, salty flavor, gives the cheese springy texture and allows it to be preserved longer. 

Like Panela, this is an excellent cheese for grilling as it does not easily melt. Both Panela and Halloumi have a very high melting point which means they will retain their shape when cooked. Uncooked, Halloumi is somewhat rubbery and salty. Heating Halloumi cheese actually improves both the flavor and texture. Once the cheese is seared in a pan or on the grill, it becomes brown and crispy and on the outside and molten on the inside. While there are better alternatives for panela for use in cold sandwiches and salads, Halloumi is a great substitute for any recipe that calls for Panela to be grilled, pan-seared or fried.

Paneer 

Paneer (pronounced Paa-NEER) is a very popular cheese predominantly used in Indian cuisine.

Paneer is a fresh, dry curd cheese that is meant to be consumed immediately or shortly after production. It is a very simple cheese to make with just a few ingredients. Paneer cheese was traditionally made from water buffalo milk. As cows are considered sacred in India, rennet is forbidden and plant-based coagulation agents such as vinegar or lemon juice are used in the making of this cheese. 

Paneer cheese is very similar to Panela in appearance, flavor and texture. Paneer cheese is very often used in curries as it softens but does not lose its form when heated in a sauce. Both Panela and Paneer cheese can be sliced and grilled, baked or fried. Paneer is a great substitute for panela cheese especially if you need a cheese that will accommodate your vegetarian friends.

Fresh Mozzarella

Fresh Mozzarella is a semi-soft, white cheese made from water buffalo or cow’s milk and elaborated with a process called pasta filata. The milk is incubated with a whey starter containing thermophilic bacteria and then rennet is added to form the curds. The curds are re-heated in water or whey and then “pulled” until they form strings and the desired elasticity is reached. This is actually the same process by which Queso Oaxaca is made but fresh mozzarella is actually much more like Panela cheese than Oaxaca cheese.

Mozzarella is more elastic than Panela and does not crumble. It is better used cubed or sliced. You can use Fresh Mozzarella in place of Panela in salads and on sandwiches. Fresh Mozzarella can hold up to a certain amount of heat and can be used in soups or stews if added at the end of the cooking process. Fresh Mozzarella is a fantastic substitute for Panela cheese and fortunately, it is easy to find in most grocery stores or supermarkets in Mexico and abroad. 

Cheese Curds

Sometimes called “poutine cheese” or “squeaky cheese”, Cheese curds are little chunks of white or orange cheese that haven’t gone through the aging process. Cheese curds are usually made from cheddar, although it’s possible to make them from other cheeses, like Muenster, Colby or another cheese that has gone through the “cheddaring” process. 

Cheese curds are meant to be consumed fresh within a few days of being made. They are characterized by the unmistakable squeak they make when you bite into them. Cheese curds are most famously used for Canadian poutine and are easier to find in Canada and the northern part of the United States. Cheese curds make a great substitute for Panela cheese in any soup, stew or curry recipe. Like Panela, cheese curds can also be deep fried for a tasty snack.

Feta Cheese

Feta (pronounced FEH-ta) is a brined, curd cheese traditionally made from sheep or goat’s milk or a combination of the two. Feta cheese originated in Greece and its production can be traced back to the 8th century B.C. In the Greek language, Feta translates to “slice” but the cheese can be found packaged for sale in blocks, cubes and crumbles. This grainy, aged cheese is commonly used in salads, pastries, omelettes, sandwiches or as a garnish on grilled meat and vegetables. 

Unlike Panela cheese, Feta is brined and must be aged for several weeks. Its flavor is tangy and salty. Its texture is crumbly and grainy. This is a much more pungent cheese than Panela but that does not mean the two cannot be used interchangeably in certain recipes. Like Panela, Feta cheese will vary in flavor and texture depending on how it is made. Feta is a great substitute for Panela cheese cubed and scattered in cold, crisp salads as well as crumbled atop hot dishes. Feta cheese is easy to find in most supermarkets in the United States and internationally making it an easy substitute when you cannot find Panela cheese.

Cottage Cheese

Cottage Cheese is a well-known and readily available dairy product in the United States. Its history in the U.S. dates back to the 1800’s. The cheese was brought to America by immigrants and commonly made on farms and in homes (cottages) with the excess milk from butter making. Cottage cheese is made from cow’s milk and curdled with acid. Once set, the curds are cut to size (small or large) and the whey is drained off. The remaining curds are then rinsed and salted. Finally, a bit of cream is then added to the curds to create the moist, creamy cottage cheese we know and love.

Like Panela, Cottage cheese is mild and slightly salty with fresh milk aromas. Both cheeses lend themselves well to sweet as well as savory applications. Panela cheese is more uniform and firm in texture but Cottage cheese can make a fine substitute for Panela cheese in the right dishes. 

Cottage cheese, drained and pressed a bit, will begin to resemble homemade Panela and can be used as such. It can be crumbled by hand and scattered on top of any dish where a creamy, cheesy garnish is needed. Cottage cheese is a great alternative to Panela cheese as a filling and can be used as a stuffing in chiles, squash blossoms and enchiladas. Cottage cheese can be used in place of Panela in egg dishes, casseroles and on top of beans. Cottage cheese is very easy to find and makes a fine substitute for Panela.

Ricotta

Ricotta (pronounced rih-CAH-tah) is a soft, white cheese Italian cheese that be made with either sheep, goat, water buffalo or cow’s milk. Ricotta, which means “recooked” in Italian, is technically not a cheese but rather a by-product of the cheesemaking process. Ricotta is made from whey, the watery liquid that remains after another cheese is made. Ricotta is often compared to cottage cheese but the texture is smoother and a bit grainy. Ricotta cheese is soft and spreadable but can be pressed to make it a bit dry and crumbly. 

Outside of Mexico, Ricotta cheese is much easier to find in grocery stores and supermarkets in the United States and Canada. For this reason, it makes a good substitute for Panela cheese in any recipe that requires a cheese filling. Ricotta cheese can be used as a substitute for Panela cheese in enchiladas, stuffed chiles, taquitos and in egg dishes and casseroles. Ricotta is a wonderful alternative for Panela stuffed into squash blossoms and then fried.

What is a Vegan Substitute for Panela Cheese?

Tofu

Firm or extra firm Tofu is the best vegan substitute for Panela cheese. Tofu is mild and porous and absorbed flavors well. Tofu can be used as a vegan substitute for Panela cheese in many recipes. It can be crumbled, cubed and sliced easily. Like Panela cheese tofu can keep its shape under high heat and is a great vegan substitute in soups, curries and stews when added toward the end of the cooking process. It can also be baked, pan-seared or breaded and deep-fried. However, tofu has a high moisture content and you may need to press some of the liquid out before pan-frying or deep frying tofu. 

Considering the Best Substitutes for Panela Cheese

As you can see, the uses for Panela cheese are diverse. When choosing a substitute for Panela cheese, it is wise to consider how it needs to be used in the recipe.

The best Panela substitutes for use in soups, stews and curries are Halloumi, Paneer and cheese curds and tofu. These are also best for recipes that require a cheese that can be grilled, pan-fried or deep-fried cheese.

Fresh Mozzarella is a great choice for a sandwich or salad when Panela is not available.

If your recipe calls for Panela cheese to be crumbled over a salad or on top of sopes, enchiladas or similar, reach for either Queso fresco, Queso blanco or young Cotija cheese.

If you need a tangy, salty cheese to cube and use in a salad you have several options. Our favorite is Feta cheese but a young Cotija will also work well if you can find it.

Ricotta and Cottage Cheese are good alternatives and both easy to find when a recipe calls for Panela cheese in the filling.

As you can see, this is a versatile cheese that can be used in many different ways. The next time you are working from a recipe that requires Panela, you now have a complete resource for choosing the best substitute for Panela cheese that will be right for your dish.

Provecho!

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