If you like Mexican food, you’ll love cotija, the crumbly salty cheese that makes the perfect topping for all your favourite Mexican dishes.
What is it?
Cotija cheese is a white cow’s milk cheese with a fresh, salty flavour and a crumbly texture, typically used as a topping for savoury Mexican dishes. It is available as either fresh or aged (añejo) cotija, with fresh cotija having a softer texture, similar to feta, while cotija añejo is harder, like Parmesan.
This irresistibly crumbly cheese was first made by 16th century rancheros in the Michoacán-Jalisco mountains of Mexico, and carried by mule to the nearby town of Cotija, from which the cheese takes its name. During the rainy season of July to September, the roads were often impassable, and the cheese could not be sold, but it was soon discovered that the three-month wait actually improved the flavour, and today even fresh cotija is aged for at least three months. In 2005 it was awarded the Marca Colectiva, which means it can only be made in the municipality of Cotija and a few other nearby towns.
Unlike most cheeses, cotija doesn’t melt, but its crumbly texture makes it great for using as a topping, much as you might use Parmesan. It can be grated or crumbled onto Mexican favourites like enchiladas or elote as well as any other dish that could use a savoury boost and some added texture.
Nutrition and calories
A 1oz (28g) serving of cotija cheese provides the following:
Total Fat: 8g
Saturated fat: 5g -
Cholesterol: 30mg -
Sodium: 18% of your Daily Value (DV)
Vitamin A: 4% of your DV
Calcium: 31% of your DV
Cotija provides protein, which your body needs to build and repair tissue, and some vitamin A, which is good for eyesight and gives your immune system a boost. It is particularly high in calcium, which helps to maintain healthy teeth and bones. However, cotija is also relatively high in saturated fat and salt (sodium), both of which are contributing factors to heart disease and other illnesses if eaten to excess. For this reason, it is best to enjoy cotija in small amounts only.
What does it taste like?
Cotija has a salty, milky flavour, with a characteristic pungency from the maturation process. Younger, fresher cheeses have a milder taste and softer texture, while cotija añejo becomes harder with age and develops a sharper flavour, a little like Parmesan.
How Do You Eat Cotija?
Cotija is rarely the main ingredient in a dish, instead being used to enhance the the flavours of other savoury ingredients. It is mainly used as a topping, and can be grated or crumbled over various different dishes.
In Mexico cotija is popular as a topping for tacos, enchiladas, and elote, a popular street dish made with corn on the cob covered in mayonnaise, cotija, and Tajín seasoning. It may also be used on soups or salads, with guacamole, spicy peppers, chicken, steak, seafood, or vegetables.
You don’t need to limit yourself to only using it with Mexican food, either. Try it as a burger topping, sprinkled on your favourite pasta, or paired with its old friend corn on top of a pizza.
Sadly, cotija is not suitable for vegetarians, as it contains animal rennet. If you’re looking for a fresh, salty cheese for a vegetarian recipe, try feta instead.
Recipes with cotija cheese
Try some cotija cheese for yourself with these irresistible Mexican-inspired recipes.
Elote, or Mexican-style street corn: this fully-loaded corn on the cob snack is a Mexican street food classic, topped with mayonnaise, spices, and salty cotija.
Carne asada tacos: these extra-special tacos are made with tender and juicy carne asada, pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream and cotija cheese.
Smooth and spicy pinto bean stew: this hearty Mexican-inspired stew from Bon Appetit tastes great with a generous topping of cotija.
Enchiladas verdes: these satisfying and spicy chicken enchiladas from All Recipes are made with serrano peppers, tomatillos, and cotija cheese for an authentic Mexican flavour.
You should be able to find cotija at your local Mexican market, and also in many regular stores. But if you can’t get to the store and you need a substitute in a hurry, or if you’re looking for a vegetarian alternative, there are several similar cheeses you can use in a pinch.
Feta is a good match for younger, softer cotija. Like cotija, it is crumbly and salty, with a slightly milky flavor. It also works well as a vegetarian substitute.
Queso fresco is another Mexican cheese with a fresh, milky flavour that works as an alternative to younger cotija. It lacks the saltiness of cotija, however, and is not suitable as a vegetarian substitute.
Parmesan is a great alternative to cotija añejo, with a similar hard but crumbly texture and sharp taste. Both are perfect for grating, and are typically used as a topping for savoury dishes. Parmesan is not suitable as a vegetarian alternative to cotija, as it also contains animal rennet, but there are popular vegetarian and vegan Parmesans available, both of which work equally well.
Pecorino Romano is an Italian cheese that works well as a substitute for cotija añejo. It is made from sheep’s, rather than cow’s milk, but it has a similar crumbly, gratable texture and salty flavour. Pecorino is not typically vegetarian, but vegetarian versions are available.