6 Excellent Cotija Cheese Substitutes
Cotija is an aged, Mexican cheese originating from the village of Cojito. It is made with fermented cow’s milk and can be aged anywhere from one week to six months.
Regardless of its age, cotija is characterized by its salty, milky flavor. When this cheese is aged for a long time, it becomes firm and dry, but the younger version has a mild, crumbly texture.
Cotija is used in a variety of dishes in Mexico and is a signature topping for chili cojito and Mexican street corn (elote) as well as on tacos, casseroles, salads, burritos, and more.
It is celebrated for its fresh, mild, and versatile flavor, as well as its ability to transform any dish from bland and monotone to something fresh and exciting! Simply by adding some cojito to a meat-based taco, the flavor, texture, and appearance of the dish is transformed into something much more interesting and appealing.
Adding this cheese also adds nutritional value as cotija is especially high in calcium, being made from cow’s milk. It has been adopted around the world as a finishing cheese for all sorts of dishes, from Italian pasta to fried delights.
It is a unique cheese because of its pure white color, and because it crumbles and does not melt; when it is grated or crumbled on top of piping hot food, it maintains its structure and appearance.
Fresh cotija cheese is produced during July to October, so outside of those months, it may be more difficult to find. It is likely available in any fine supermarket or specialty store, but if you cannot find cotija, here are six great substitutes for this classic, Mexican cheese!
The closest substitute to cotija is feta cheese because, like cotija, feta cheese is quite salty and comes in a range of densities, from dry and firm to soft and crumbly.
Feta is salt brined but has less salt content compared to cotija, so you may need to add a touch more salt to your recipes when using feta as a substitute. The only real difference is that feta is made from sheep’s milk and cotija is made from cow’s milk.
Feta is the same color and texture and is typically around the same price, so feel free to use it liberally in your cotija recipes and your guests likely won’t know the difference. Happy crumbling!
2. Queso Fresco
Similar to feta, queso fresco is a soft, pure white, crumbly Mexican cheese that is mild and salty, making it a perfect substitute for cotija cheese!
This raw cow’s milk cheese is often made at home by curdling and pressing milk. It differs from cotija in that it is not fermented and therefore is less tangy and has a different texture, but, overall, these cheeses act and taste very similar.
3. (A little bit of) Goat’s Cheese
Although goat’s cheese is known for having a very specific flavor profile, its texture is quite similar to cotija.
Since both cheeses are often used sparingly as a finishing cheese for crumbling on top of salads, soups and, in Mexico, tacos, these cheeses can be used interchangeably without affecting the flavor of the overall dish too much.
If cotija is the star of your dish, you may want to choose a feta or queso fresco, but if you’re using cotija to sprinkle over a dish, then goat’s cheese will do the trick!
4. Hard Cheeses, such as Parmesan or Romano
Some recipes call for a firm cotija cheese, which are those that have been aged longer and pressed so that, rather than being crumbly, they can be grated.
These types of cheese also have a stronger flavor and tend to be saltier than the young, crumbly, feta-like version. If you cannot find an aged cotija, parmesan makes a great substitute!
Hard Italian cheeses like parmesan, Pecorino Romano, Grana Padano and the like can be grated on any dish to give them a salty, flavor punch, making them a great substitute for cotija!
But they do tend to melt when heated, so be mindful of this when you are considering which cheese will work best in place of cotija.
In some applications, cotija is used as a filling for savory dishes such as crepes and ravioli, and Mexican fare such as burritos and enchiladas.
For these dishes, you can use a very soft cheese such as ricotta or risotto salata for the same texture and flavor profile.
Ricotta cheese may also be less expensive, so if you’re cooking en masse, this might be a good way to go. Keep in mind that ricotta and soft, unripen cheeses such as ricotta will be much milder than cotija.
Ricotta is bland, so if you’re using it as an actual replacement to cotija, you will need to add salt and perhaps some lemon juice or zest to achieve the same salty, tangy result. Ricotta is also much thinner and looser than cotija, so keep in mind that you may need to adjust the rest of your recipe to account for the extra water content.
6. Crumbled Firm Tofu
Vegans and dairy-free folks, rejoice! You can have your cheese and eat it too!!
Although cotija contains dairy, meaning it is unsuitable for anyone who doesn’t consume milk products, it has a vegan sister…crumbled firm tofu!
To create a cheesy effect, simply drain the tofu well and press between two paper towels until it is quite dry on the outside. Then, crumble the tofu into a small bowl and add a generous pinch of fine salt.
This is, of course, not cotija cheese, but it does mimic the texture of a cotija while adding a bright white component to the top of your dish and a nice dash of salt.
No matter what you’re cooking, whether it is a classic Mexican dish, some sort of fusion, or something different all together, cotija is an excellent addition to any recipe. It has a fresh flavor that lends itself to all styles of food, absorbing spices and flavorings well. T
ry marinating cojita in a blend of oils, spices, and acid and enjoy it plain as a snack, or add chunks or shavings to your favorite salads. Also, because it holds its shape when heated and doesn’t fully melt, this cheese adds beauty and texture to a plethora of plates.
Basically, the only way you wouldn’t want to use cotija is if you need a melting cheese (for grilled cheese sandwiches or emulsified cheese sauces), but otherwise, we can’t think of a dish that would not be made better by adding some cotija.
Depending on where you are in the world and the time of year, cotija cheese can be tricky to find, but we think that the substitutes listed here will make a great addition to your pantry, and to any dish that requires cotija. Cotija is one of the most versatile cheeses out there, and with these cotija alternatives, there isn’t really any way you can go wrong!