Queso Oaxaca Info

Oaxaca is a Fun Cheese From Mexico

For the past several months we've been exploring cheeses across a pretty broad international spectrum.

First we visited the historical Dunlop cheese from Scotland, and then a modern twist on a traditional cheese from the Alps.

Now we travel to Mexico and explore an old standard that most likley was influenced by Italians migrating to Mexico in the late 1800s to early 1900s, Queso Oaxaca.

More about Queso Oaxaca

The name is derived from its place of traditional production, Queso, of course, is Spanish for cheese, and Oaxaca (WaHaKa) is the region it comes from. Within its area of production, it's commonly known as Quesillo. Similar cheese is sold in other parts of Mexico as Queso Asadero.

Queso Oaxaca is by far the most popular cheese for making quesadillas. It's a stretched curd cheese, kneaded and wound into balls. It should be pulled apart into thin strings before using to fill tortillas or melted on cooked food. Mozzarella or string cheese can be used in its place BUT its just not quite the same.

Queso Oaxaca is primarily used in cooking, but kids love also love to snack on it since it's so fun pull apart and eat plain.

Where Queso Oaxaca Comes From

It was shortly after the Spanish exploration (Conquest) that the first dairy animals (both cows and goats) were brought to the region of the Etla Valley in southwestern Mexico (currently the state of Oaxaca). Tucked in between the Sierra Madre del Sur and Sierra Madre Oriental mountains, this valley was an ideal area for agriculture, including dairy, since it had a temperate climate and adequate supply of water from the rivers.

The new dairy products quickly changed the eating habits of the indigenous people. Cheese making which, though introduced by conquerors from another continent, evolved into a regional occupation, producing distinctly Mexican cheeses. In many parts of Mexico, this trade has become a family tradition, it's secrets and techniques passed on from one generation to the next. Today, many families in the region are able to earn a comfortable living by producing milk and cheese for a local dairy cooperative.

Traditionally all cheese made in the heat of Mexico's climate was made and sold fresh for daily use. Little is known of how the cheese first made in this region, but it was most likely very different than today's Queso Oaxaca. Most likely it was a rather rustic cheese that was simply coagulated and drained.

The old stories were that the Dominican Monks that came to the area began to improve the process of cheese making but not likely that it was a stretched curd (Pasta Filata) style cheese even then. Other stories tell of an Italian influence coming to the area in the 1950s was the methodology behind this cheese but many elders say that they remember this cheese well before then.

The one thing that becomes readily apparent as you read the procedures below is that this cheese is much like the Italian Mozzarella. Further reading and research show me that this cheese is quite different in how it has evolved than what they learned from their Italian influence.

Different Varities of Stretched Curd Cheese

Queso Oaxaca cheese today seems to have several differences from those of modern mozzarella

  • The first thing I noticed was that the rennet was added much later than in the Italian style. Rennet is added several hours after the culture addition. This would cause a much higher acid production at the time that rennet is added and thus a much quicker and somewhat different coagulation.

    My thoughts on this are that traditionally milking was done at specific times of day, and it may have been several hours or even overnight before the cheese was made. Since this would have been raw milk, native cultures would have been at work and hence the higher acidity. Even today with modern cultures they develop a much higher acid before adding the rennet.
  • The stretching for this cheese is much more emphatic than most Mozzarella made in Italy.
  • The stretched curd is not folded back on itself but stretched into long flat ribbons that are then chilled in cold water before being wound into large yarn-like balls.
  • I see the cheese today as a hybrid comprised of more of a string cheese with more a soft Cacciocavallo or Provolla type texture than Mozzarella.

Today, throughout Mexico, you will also find several other stretched curd cheeses. The Asadero produced further north is one that is most often confused with this cheese.

I have also noted several papers discussing the problems of production in Mexico and even in the US using powdered milk and vegetable oil to make this cheese, along with all of those additives we really try to avoid. The problem in Mexico is such that the government has begun to crack down on facilities not labeling as such and passing it along as the real deal.

Large Batch of Queso Oaxaca

In the Oaxaca area of Mexico the cheese is made in both traditional home/small farm conditions and small dairy cooperatives. On the home or farm it is usually made the same day as milking holding evening milk and adding in the next mornings milk. In the small cooperative dairies the milk may travel some distance and held in bulk over several days before making. This may or may not be pasteurized.

Below are photos of a small cooperative showing how they do the initial stretch. This is done slowly and the curd is allowed to stretch on its own, then it becomes a group effort to finish the stretch into wide bands of Queso Oaxaca.

Note the effort and team work that goes into this and how the bands are kept separate before going into the cold water.