Oaxaca Cheese: A Delicious 10 Minute Guide [2024]

Oaxaca Cheese - A Delicious 10 Minute Guide

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Oaxaca Cheese – Mexico’s hidden culinary gem

Have you ever wondered why Mexican quesadillas just seem to taste better than the ones you buy at home?

Or why a Mexican pizza tastes somehow different, even though the texture of the cheese is very similar?

If so, your taste buds have detected the subtle flavours that makes Oaxaca cheese one of Mexico’s hidden treasures.

Oaxaca cheese is cherished for its unique qualities and cultural significance. It is rightly called an artisanal cheese, with its delicate flavour and stretchy, stringy texture.

It offers a delightful culinary experience that surprises and captivates food enthusiasts worldwide.

Hungry for more? Continue reading to really set your mouth watering!

What is Oaxaca Cheese?

Oaxaca cheese is a traditional Mexican cheese originating from the state of Oaxaca. It is a semi-soft, stringy cheese with a delicate, milky flavour that is often compared to mozzarella.

In Oaxaca, it is known as “quesillo,” and other parts of Mexico, as “queso de hebra”, meaning “string-cheese”. Throughout this article, we’ll use Oaxaca cheese and Quesillo interchangeably.

The cheese’s English name is derived from its place of origin, which is renowned for its rich cultural heritage, vibrant traditions, and diverse gastronomy.

Quesillo holds a significant place in Mexican cuisine and is widely used in various dishes.

It is particularly suited to meals that involve melting and stretching cheese, such as quesadillas, chiles rellenos, tlayudas, and empanadas.


How is Oaxaca Cheese Made?

The art of making Oaxaca cheese involves a traditional and labour-intensive process that has been passed down through generations.

The cheese-making process begins with high-quality cow’s milk, although some variations may include a blend of cow and goat’s milk for added complexity.

First, the raw milk is heated, and a coagulant, usually rennet or plant-based enzymes, is added to initiate the curdling process.

As the milk coagulates, it forms curds, which are then cut into small pieces. The curds are then heated again to separate the whey, the liquid component of the milk, from the solids.

Next comes the critical step that gives Quesillo its unique stringy texture.

The curds are carefully stretched and kneaded, a technique known as “pasta filata,” which creates the characteristic strings of cheese.

This process helps align the proteins and develop the cheese’s elastic and cohesive structure.

As the curds are stretched, they are woven into long ropes, which are then shaped into balls or braided into delicate strands, adding to the cheese’s visual appeal.

To complete the process, the cheese is submerged in a brine solution to enhance its flavour and extend its shelf life.

Quesillo is typically sold fresh, and its mild taste and stretchy texture make it a versatile ingredient in both savoury and sweet dishes.


Where is Oaxaca Cheese Produced?

According to Statista, a little under 30,000 metric tonnes of Quesillo were produced in Mexico in 2020. Much of it comes from the state of Oaxaca, located in southern Mexico.

The region’s diverse geography, temperate climate, and fertile lands provide an ideal environment for dairy farming, making it an optimal location for cheese production.

In rural communities and small towns throughout the state, families often engage in traditional cheese-making techniques, preserving the artisanal craftsmanship that sets Quesillo apart.

The town of Reyes Etla, in particular, is renowned for its production of Oaxaca cheese. Local producers in Reyes Etla have honed their craft for generations, maintaining the traditional methods that define the cheese’s character.

Small-scale cheese-making operations, both in Oaxaca city and in rural areas, contribute to the cultural significance of Oaxaca cheese as a symbol of regional identity and culinary heritage.


What Goes Best with Oaxaca Cheese?

Oaxaca cheese pairs exceptionally well with a variety of ingredients and dishes, adding a creamy, melty goodness to any meal.

Some classic combinations and dishes that showcase the cheese’s versatility include the following amazing foods:

Quesadillas

Quesillo is the star of traditional Mexican quesadillas, which consist of folded corn tortillas filled with cheese and various savoury ingredients.

It melts beautifully, giving the quesadilla its gooey and satisfying texture.

Tlayudas

A popular Oaxacan street food, tlayudas are large, thin tortillas topped with refried beans, Quesillo, lettuce, avocado, and meats such as tasajo (thinly sliced beef) or cecina (marinated pork).

The cheese’s mild flavour complements the other ingredients, creating a harmonious balance of tastes.

Chiles Rellenos

In this classic Mexican dish, roasted poblano peppers are stuffed with Oaxaca cheese and other fillings such as picadillo (ground meat), and then coated in a fluffy egg batter before being fried to perfection.

Empanadas

Quesillo is often used as a filling for savoury empanadas, providing a delectable, stringy centre that blends wonderfully with other ingredients like chorizo, mushrooms, or spinach.

Enchiladas

The mild and stretchy Quesillo harmonises beautifully with the rich and spicy sauces in enchiladas, creating a delightful contrast of flavours.

Pizzas

Oaxaca cheese makes an excellent substitute for Mozzarella in pizzas, adding its unique flavour and texture to this beloved Italian dish.

Salads

Shredded or diced Oaxaca cheese brings a creamy touch to salads, especially when combined with fresh ingredients like tomatoes, avocado, and cilantro.


How Does Oaxaca Cheese Compare with Other Cheeses?

Oaxaca cheese shares some similarities with other cheeses, particularly Mozzarella, due to its stretchy texture and mild flavour.

However, there are some key differences that set Oaxaca cheese apart. We’ve described each of these below.

Flavour

Oaxaca cheese has a milder taste compared to Mozzarella, making it more adaptable to various dishes without overpowering other flavours.

Its subtle milkiness allows it to complement a wide range of ingredients, whether savoury or sweet.

Stretchiness

While both Quesillo and Mozzarella have a stringy texture, Oaxaca cheese tends to have longer strands and a more delicate melt, adding a unique visual and textural appeal to dishes.

Melting Properties

Oaxaca cheese melts wonderfully, spreading its creamy goodness over dishes when heated.

The cheese’s melting properties make it perfect for dishes like quesadillas and pizzas, where a gooey and stretchy texture is desired.

Regional Identity

Oaxaca cheese holds a special place in Mexican culture and cuisine, particularly in the region of Oaxaca.

It is deeply intertwined with the state’s traditions and culinary heritage, giving it a unique cultural significance.

Production Methods

Oaxaca cheese is traditionally made by hand using specific stretching and shaping techniques, whereas Mozzarella is typically produced on a larger scale using machinery.


What Makes Oaxaca Cheese Special?

Oaxaca cheese’s unique characteristics and cultural significance contribute to its special place in the world of cheese.

Heritage and Tradition

Oaxaca cheese is deeply rooted in the cultural heritage of the region.

The traditional cheese-making methods have been passed down through generations, preserving the art of handcrafting this culinary gem.

Its production involves a sense of community and family involvement, creating a strong bond between producers and consumers.

Artisanal Craftsmanship

The labor-intensive process of making Quesillo requires skill, patience, and attention to detail.

The artisanal craftsmanship involved in stretching and shaping the cheese is an art form in itself, and each batch of Oaxaca cheese reflects the dedication and passion of the cheesemaker.

Versatility in Dishes

Oaxaca cheese’s mild flavour and stretchy texture make it incredibly versatile in a wide range of dishes.

Whether melted on quesadillas, stuffed in chiles rellenos, or added to salads, the cheese enhances the taste and texture of every dish it graces.

Cultural Symbolism

Oaxaca cheese is not just a cheese. It is a symbol of regional identity and a representation of Oaxaca’s rich culinary heritage.

As an integral part of traditional Oaxacan cuisine, the cheese plays a central role in celebrations, festivals, and daily meals, strengthening the connection between food and culture.

International Recognition

Oaxaca cheese has gained global recognition and has found its way onto menus beyond Mexico’s borders.

Its unique taste and visual appeal have captivated chefs and food enthusiasts worldwide, adding an element of Mexican flair to diverse cuisines.

Sustainable Practices

The production of Oaxaca cheese often occurs in small-scale, family-owned dairy farms, where sustainable practices are common.

The sourcing of fresh, high-quality milk and the use of traditional techniques minimise environmental impact, making it a cheese with a smaller ecological footprint.

A Taste of Mexico

Oaxaca cheese embodies the essence of Mexican flavours.

Its creamy, stretchy texture and delicate taste reflect the country’s warm and inviting culinary traditions, making it a beloved cheese that encapsulates the soul of Mexico.

It also has a rich history, that traces back through centuries and draws upon a complex mix of Mexican and pre-Hispanic influences.


A Brief History of Oaxaca Cheese

Oaxaca cheese has a history as rich and diverse as the region it comes from.

Its roots can be traced back to pre-Hispanic times, and the cheese has evolved over the centuries to become a beloved culinary treasure in Mexico and beyond.

Pre-Hispanic Origins

The origins of Oaxaca cheese can be traced back to the pre-Hispanic era when the region now known as Oaxaca was inhabited by indigenous peoples such as the Zapotecs and Mixtecs.

These ancient civilizations were skilled agriculturalists and herders, cultivating crops and raising livestock, including cows and goats.

The indigenous communities discovered the art of cheese-making using milk from their animals as a way to preserve excess milk and increase its shelf life.

The earliest cheese produced by these indigenous groups was likely a simple, fresh cheese similar to modern-day queso fresco.

Over time, the cheese-making techniques evolved and became more sophisticated, laying the foundation for the future development of Oaxaca cheese.

Spanish Influence and the Introduction of Cow’s Milk

With the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, Mexico underwent significant cultural and culinary changes.

The Spanish introduced cows and their dairy products, including cow’s milk, which replaced or complemented the traditional use of goat’s milk in cheese-making.

The introduction of cow’s milk led to a transformation in the cheese-making process.

It resulted in the creation of a new cheese with a more delicate flavour and a unique stringy texture, which would later become known as Oaxaca cheese.

The influence of Spanish techniques, combined with indigenous traditions, shaped the cheese into its distinct form.

The Evolution of Oaxaca Cheese

Over the centuries, Oaxaca cheese continued to evolve as it became an integral part of the local cuisine and culture.

The cheese-making process became refined and specific to the region, with families and communities passing down their cheese-making techniques from one generation to the next.

One of the key factors that contributed to the unique characteristics of Oaxaca cheese is the “pasta filata” stretching technique, which is essential in creating its stringy, elastic texture.

This method involves heating the curds and kneading them repeatedly, giving the cheese its signature elongated strands that are reminiscent of the shape of ropes or braids.

The “pasta filata” technique sets Oaxaca cheese apart from other cheeses and highlights its artisanal craftsmanship.

Cultural Significance and Culinary Heritage

Oaxaca cheese holds significant cultural importance in the region, and it is deeply intertwined with the culinary heritage of Oaxaca.

The cheese has become an essential ingredient in many traditional dishes, reflecting the fusion of indigenous and Spanish influences in Mexican cuisine.

This is most obvious in one of the most iconic dishes that feature Oaxaca cheese, the quesadilla. The name “quesadilla” itself is derived from the Spanish word “queso,” meaning cheese.

The combination of Oaxaca cheese and corn tortillas is a culinary marriage that has endured through generations. It showcases the cheese’s melting capabilities and ability to complement a wide range of fillings, from squash blossoms to chorizo.

During celebrations and festivals, Oaxaca cheese takes centre stage in various dishes, particularly during the Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) festivities.

Families create elaborate altars called “ofrendas,” where they place offerings of food for their departed loved ones.

Oaxaca cheese is a common feature in these altars, symbolizing abundance, nourishment, and the continuity of traditions.

Commercialization and Global Recognition

In recent decades, Oaxaca cheese has gained popularity beyond the borders of Mexico. As Mexican cuisine has become increasingly celebrated worldwide, the demand for authentic ingredients like Oaxaca cheese has grown.

The commercial production of Oaxaca cheese has expanded, with both large-scale dairy companies and artisanal producers meeting the demand.

However, traditional, handmade Oaxaca cheese remains highly prized for its superior quality and authentic taste.

Today, Oaxaca cheese can be found in international markets, becoming a culinary ambassador for Mexican culture.

Its versatility and unique characteristics have endeared it to chefs and food enthusiasts around the world, and it is now a common ingredient in dishes beyond Mexican cuisine.

Preserving Tradition and Sustainable Practices

Despite its commercial success, many small-scale dairy farmers and producers in Oaxaca continue to preserve the traditional methods of cheese-making.

These artisanal cheese-makers are committed to sustainable practices and maintaining the cultural significance of Oaxaca cheese.

These traditional producers prioritize the use of high-quality milk sourced from local cows and goats that graze on the region’s lush pastures. They adhere to time-honoured techniques, including the “pasta filata” stretching method, which requires patience and expertise.

The result is a cheese that encapsulates the essence of Oaxaca’s cultural heritage and culinary artistry.


Other Mexican Cheeses

In addition to Oaxaca cheese, there is a diverse array of cheeses produced in the country.

While each Mexican cheese has its unique characteristics, comparing Oaxaca cheese with other popular varieties reveals the distinct qualities that set it apart.

Queso Fresco

Queso fresco, meaning “fresh cheese,” is a crumbly, unaged cheese widely used in Mexican dishes.

Unlike Oaxaca cheese, queso fresco has a soft texture and is made without the stretching and kneading process.

Queso fresco has a mild, slightly tangy taste, making it a great addition to salads, tacos, and sopes.

In contrast, Oaxaca cheese’s stretchy texture and delicate flavour make it ideal for melting in dishes like quesadillas and chiles rellenos.

Cotija Cheese

Cotija cheese is a hard, aged cheese with a crumbly texture and a bold, salty flavour.

It is commonly used as a garnish, grated on top of dishes like enchiladas and soups.

In contrast, Oaxaca cheese is semi-soft and has a milder taste, making it an excellent melting cheese for both savoury and sweet dishes.

While Cotija cheese adds a strong flavour to complement other ingredients, Oaxaca cheese imparts a creamy and gooey goodness when melted, enhancing the overall dish.

Panela Cheese

Panela cheese is a fresh, soft cheese similar to queso fresco but with a firmer texture. It has a mild taste and doesn’t melt easily, making it ideal for grilling or frying.

Oaxaca cheese, on the other hand, is renowned for its melting capabilities, making it perfect for dishes that require gooey, stringy cheese.

Panela cheese is commonly used in salads, while Oaxaca cheese takes centre-stage in dishes like tlayudas and empanadas.

Manchego Cheese

Manchego cheese, originally from Spain, is made from sheep’s milk and has a firm, crumbly texture. It has a nutty and slightly tangy taste.

In contrast, Oaxaca cheese has a mild flavour with a hint of sweetness.

The melting properties of Oaxaca cheese also distinguish it from Manchego, as Oaxaca cheese transforms into creamy strands when heated.

Manchego, on the other hand, maintains its structure when used in cooking and is often enjoyed on cheese platters or as a standalone snack.


Where to Buy Oaxaca Cheese?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best places to buy Oaxaca cheese are at its source. That means visiting a cheese market or a local producer.

Buying direct from the local producer or local market vendor is great fun. It provides a unique opportunity to delve into the world of Oaxaca cheese occupied by the local people who work in the industry.

We’ve set out below a few great places to source Oaxaca cheese.

Mercado de Abastos

El Mercado de Abastos, Oaxaca’s largest and most bustling market, is a sensory feast for food enthusiasts.

Amidst the vibrant stalls selling fresh fruits, vegetables, and traditional crafts, visitors can find a wide variety of cheeses, including Oaxacan cheese in different shapes and sizes.

Exploring this market allows visitors to witness local cheese-makers at work, stretching and shaping the cheese by hand, a testament to the region’s artisanal cheese-making heritage.

Tlacolula de Matamoros

Tlacolula Market, held every Sunday in the nearby town of Tlacolula de Matamoros, is an iconic destination for experiencing Oaxacan culture and gastronomy.

The market’s cheese section offers an array of regional cheeses, along with an impressive selection of other local products.

Here, visitors can purchase fresh Oaxaca cheese and interact with friendly vendors, learning about the diverse uses and traditions surrounding this beloved ingredient.

San Martín Tilcajete

The charming town of San Martín Tilcajete is not only famous for its Alebrijes but also for its traditional cheese-making workshops.

Local families and small-scale producers here follow time-honored techniques to craft Oaxaca cheese.

Visitors have the opportunity to watch the cheese-making process and purchase handmade quesillo, ensuring the continuation of this cherished tradition.

Etla Market

Etla Market, located in the town of San Agustín Etla, is a hidden gem for those seeking a more local and authentic experience.

The market offers a range of regional produce, including freshly made Oaxaca cheese.

Here, visitors can interact with locals, taste artisanal cheeses, and learn about their cultural significance in Oaxaca’s culinary heritage.


Final Thoughts

Oaxaca cheese boasts a history that stretches back to ancient times, evolving over centuries to become an essential component of Mexican cuisine and culture. Its journey from pre-Hispanic origins to present-day recognition highlights the resilience of tradition and the embrace of new influences.

As a symbol of Oaxaca’s culinary heritage and artisanal craftsmanship, Oaxaca cheese continues to delight palates and connect people to the rich flavours and cultural identity of Mexico. The cheese’s global appeal and unique attributes continue to elevate its status in the world of cheeses, providing a delicious taste of Mexico to food enthusiasts around the world.

Whether enjoyed as part of a traditional dish or creatively incorporated into innovative recipes, Oaxaca cheese is sure to leave a lasting impression and a delicious memory on any palate.

Exploring Oaxaca’s cheese markets and local producers offers a captivating journey into the heart of Oaxacan culture and gastronomy. You will have the chance to witness the traditional cheese-making process and purchase authentic Oaxaca cheese straight from the source.

The story of Oaxaca cheese is one of taste, tradition, and the enduring legacy of cheese-making in Oaxaca.

Inspired to visit? Find out which are the best hotels in Oaxaca, and start planning your trip today!

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