5 Tasty Substitutes for Manchego Cheese
Known as “the Spanish Cheese,” manchego (Queso Manchego) is popular worldwide for its distinct flavor and smooth texture, despite it being a fairly firm cheese.
In 2021, an estimated 5.9 million pounds of manchego cheese were exported around the world and consumed in Spain, which, believe it or not, is actually substantially less than in years past.
The reason behind the decline in production is due in part to the very strict rules around manchego production — to be labeled manchego, the cheese must be produced in one of the approved, designated areas of Spain, in the La Macha region.
It must also be made from 100% whole milk, which can only be sourced from the Manchega sheep, which are becoming increasingly rare. The only other ingredients this cheese is allowed to contain are rennet and salt.
It may be made with raw or pasteurized milk. The cheese must also be aged for at least 60 days (in which case it is labeled as fresh or semicurado) but no longer than 2 years (at 6 months, it is labeled curado and at two years it is labeled viego.) The longer the cheese is aged, the firmer it becomes and the stronger it is in flavor.
Most manchego sold in North America is semicurado or curado, and therefore has a firm and compact appearance and texture, and a smooth and buttery texture.
Like Swiss cheese, manchego has tiny air pockets within each wheel. Lastly, to be considered true manchego, it must be produced and packed in a large cylindrical, barrel-like container. Typically, producers use old straw barrels, which impart a certain criss-cross impression on the outside of the wheel, which manchego is famous for.
You can spot real manchego because it often has a stamp of wheat on its rind (which is inedible and dipped in paraffin) and sometimes a serial number from its inspection date. Manchego cheese is pale yellow and has a strong, distinct aroma of sheep’s milk. It is said to have an aftertaste of hay, grass or even fruit, and if it is aged for the full two years, it can even take on a sweet, caramel-like flavor, all while being zesty and slightly piquant. Manchego cheese is the versatile favorite of many Spaniards as it can be crumbled, sliced, and grated and it melts great!
The decline in this cheese’s production has caused the price to skyrocket, which is why manchego isn’t always the most affordable or accessible cheese for some folks.
It is becoming increasingly rare to see this cheese on your average cheese shelf, so you may have to seek out alternatives. However, this cheese is so good, you should definitely keep hunting for it to try it at least once!
We think with these manchego cheese substitutes, you can still make your manchego-inspired recipes!
1. Queso Ibérico
Although this cheese is technically not manchego, it is as close as you can get… and it is often substantially less expensive!
Queso Ibérico is produced in the same region of Spain but is made from a combination of cow, sheep and ewe’s milk.
This means it does not hold the designation of true manchego cheese as that is only made from pure sheep’s milk from the Manchega sheep.
However, Queso Ibérico is made in a very similar style, with a similar rind, and results in the same texture and flavor as the classic manchego. You can find either type at specialty cheese shops or in the Spanish food section of your local deli.
2. Hard Italian Cheeses, eg Asiago, Parmesan or Pecorino
Although not all cheeses are created equal, any one of these high-quality, hard, Italian cheeses would be as great alternative to manchego, especially if you are subbing them on a gourmet cheese board, or grating over a pasta dish or salad.
That is where these cheeses really stand out, and where you get your money’s worth so-to-speak.
If you are looking to substitute manchego in a more subtle recipe, keep reading, but if you are out of manchego and looking for a cheese that is full of flavor, complex in texture, and will be enjoyed by all, your guests will love any one of these hard cheese options.
Parmesan Reggiano shares the same slightly bitter, slightly nutty characteristics as manchego, and a nice asigo will lend the same melting quality, as well as the creamy texture and sharp bite.
Pecorino is probably the closest non-Spanish cheese to manchego because it is also made from 100% sheep’s milk and therefore will have the same aftertaste that sheep’s cheese lovers claim it is famous for.
Don’t believe us? Try a slice of manchego next to a slice of pecorino and you’ll see what we mean!
3. Cheddar Cheese
Classic cheddar is often made from pasteurized cow’s milk, so it will not have the same flavor profile as manchego, but it will melt and grate like manchego, especially if you find a good quality, aged cheddar like a Balderson or Collier’s Irish.
While these varieties do not have the same air pockets as manchego, they do have the same sharp bite, and they stand up to melting, slicing, eating raw, broiling, adding to salads, sauces and topping higher end dishes.
Cheddar also has the same smooth texture and firm bite as manchego, so it does make a suitable substitute at a pinch!
4. Monterey Jack
In some cheese circles, Monterey Jack is known as the American manchego. Consider this cheese a more approachable, more easy-going cousin of the high-end and, at times, high maintenance Spanish counterpart.
Monterey Jack is ultra versatile — it can be sliced and diced for quick snacks and cheese boards, or it can be grated and used to melt all over pizza, pasta, Mexican food and more. Although there is certainly a difference in taste and quality, we think you will find Monterey Jack is a great substitute, which is why it has been adopted in certain areas of the states as “American Manchego.”
In Spain, this is referred to as Queso Tipo Manchego, and it cannot be called true manchego, but it does have similarities and therefore will make a decent alternative.
This is another Spanish cheese that is certainly similar to manchego, but has its differences too. Zamorano is also made from sheep’s milk, but from sheep of an entirely different breed, diet, and region. Unless you are a trained cheesemonger, you would likely never be able to tell the difference.
You might spot the difference in their rinds though — Zamorano has a signature dark purple, brown rind, as it is rubbed with olive oil as it ages, which is often edible, whereas Manchego is not, so make sure you tell your guests if you are supplying the cheese board!
Manchego cheese accounts for 60% of all cheese production in Spain, but this number is changing. As the Manchega sheep population continues to decline, farmers are trying to keep up. They want to stick to their traditions and continue to make this delicious, beloved cheese for all to enjoy.
If you have the chance to taste real manchego, we highly recommend it (just make sure to remove the rind!). But if you’re looking for a great alternative for whatever recipe you are working on, we think you will find that any one of these options will make a great substitute.