Imagine a simple ingredient that's salty, tangy and rich, and that enhances foods, basic to complex. The home cook’s dream come true, right? This is exactly how the fresh cheese called queso fresco is used in regional cuisine from Mexico to Chile. Yet up until recently, queso fresco has been relatively unknown and little used beyond South and Central America.
Translating from Spanish literally as “fresh cheese,” queso fresco is just one of many different types of fresh cheese. Varieties of fresh cheese vary from culture to culture, even regionally, although many have characteristics very similar to each other. All types of fresh cheese are unaged and do not have rinds. They can be made from cow, goat or sheep milk, making fresh cheese high in protein, calcium and trace minerals. Many people are familiar with feta cheese, a salty, brined fresh cheese popular in Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine. Queso fresco is similar in texture and flavor to a mild, less tangy feta—which makes it even more versatile.
In Mexico City, queso fresco gets a starring role in a favorite street food, elote (ay-loh-tay). Elote is grilled sweet corn, topped with a combination of mayonnaise and lime juice, finished with a liberal dusting of queso fresco and chili powder (similar to a mild cayenne). It's usually served right on the cob but can be prepared off the cob, more like a salad, too. To bring these flavors home with a sophisticated twist, check out this recipe for Corn with Cilantro Cumin Butter, and sprinkle with queso fresco at the end for an authentic garnish.
Queso fresco is also frequently used as a garnish for refried beans and hearty bean soups, adding a salty, tangy twist to the rich, nutty flavor of the beans. Try it on your favorite bean soup recipe, or check out our Salsalicious Black Bean Soup for an easy, satisfying meal that comes together fast. As with feta, queso fresco also works in cold salads and sandwiches, even salsas, and you can substitute it for feta if the flavors seem appropriate. Queso fresco complements the spicy, tangy seasonings in this easy Black Bean and Corn Salad, which makes a tasty main course or accompaniment to grilled chicken or fish. And this wonderfully beautiful, equally flavorful Chicken Burrito with Chismol is bursting with flavor, thanks in part to queso fresco.
Because it's salty and mild, queso fresco also pairs beautifully with fruits like watermelon, peaches, pears, and figs. Try an arugula salad accented with queso fresco and fresh figs for a beautiful fall plate, or elevate a patio party with this composed Summer Melon Salad with Mint and Prosciutto (and substitute queso fresco for the feta).
Look for queso fresco in the dairy case of your local food co-op and enjoy discovering the versatility and tastiness of this regional fresh cheese.