What Is Oaxaca Cheese?
Oaxaca cheese (pronounced "wah-ha-kah") is a creamy, stringy cheese that's similar to mozzarella, but it's made with cow's milk and hails from Mexico.
There are few things in life better than sinking your teeth into a piece of cheese, whether it’s something creamy, like Brie, or sharp, like an aged cheddar. It’s no wonder we’re constantly on the hunt for new types of cheese!
Meet Oaxaca, a cheese with roots in Mexico that has gained widespread popularity over the past several generations.
What Is Oaxaca Cheese?
Oaxaca cheese (also known as queso Oaxaca) hails from its namesake city of Oaxaca, Mexico, where it’s still most commonly produced today. It’s a stretchy, stringy, creamy cheese with a mild, buttery, slightly salty flavor and a yellowish-white hue. It’s a rindless cheese, which is why it’s often rolled into a yarn-like ball and sold in a rope shape. This helps preserve the semi-soft cheese’s flavor and elasticity.
Oaxaca is a member of the pasta filata cheese family. Though the pasta filata process is originally from Italy, the tradition is believed to have been brought over to Mexico by Dominican monks who settled in Oaxaca. Water buffalo milk—which is typically used to make mozzarella—was unavailable, so they used the more accessible cow’s milk instead.
How Is Oaxaca Cheese Made?
Oaxaca is made in a unique way that requires both patience and skill—one of the many reasons this cheese is so coveted. During the cheesemaking process, rennet is added to whole milk to separate the curds and whey. The curds are then submerged in hot water to soften the curds and make them pliable. In the last step, the curds are stretched long and thin and thoroughly kneaded to create the desired stringy texture of Oaxaca.
Most of the Oaxaca cheese is still produced in Mexico, but several dairy farmers and cheesemakers across the U.S. have mastered the process to create this cheese. Crave Brothers Farmstead, a family-owned dairy farm located in Waterloo, Wisconsin, makes and sells a variety of tasty cheeses, including mozzarella and Oaxaca.
George Crave, the company’s head cheesemaker, says, “Oaxaca is a great snacking cheese and tastes wonderful in a variety of meals. It’s quite universal.”
Where to Buy Oaxaca Cheese
Look for Oaxaca cheese in Mexican or Latin American grocery stores. More often than not, Oaxaca is sold based on weight, but some brands sell it pre-shredded in resealable bags. You can also find Oaxaca-style cheese at most Whole Foods, HEB and Publix locations, or in the specialty cheese section of your neighborhood grocery store.
Oaxaca Cheese Substitutes
If you don’t have Oaxaca handy or are unable to find it in a store near you, there are a few substitutes that offer a creamy texture and delicious, buttery flavor. As a rule of thumb, the best substitutes for Oaxaca are other stretched-curd or semi-soft cheeses.
- Mozzarella: Mozzarella is one of the most popular substitutes for Oaxaca due to its similar consistency and flavor profile. Mozzarella is a bit spongier than Oaxaca, but the rich, milky flavors are comparable. If possible, use a variety of mozzarella that’s labeled as “low moisture.”
- String cheese: Armenian-style string cheese (also known as braided cheese) is another great substitute. As the name implies, braided cheese refers to the twisted lengths of cheese that are intertwined to create a thick, round braid that resembles a rope.
- Queso asadero: Queso asadero is a stringy cheese that comes from the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Asadero is slightly drier than Oaxaca but still tastes divine. It’s often used to make zesty dips and spreads like chile con queso.
- Monterey Jack: This American semi-hard cheese made from cow’s milk and known for its mild, nutty, slightly sweet flavor, velvety mouthfeel and good melting properties. It’s a common cheese that can be found in most grocery stores.
Oaxaca Cheese Recipes
Oaxaca is widely used in Mexican cuisine, but it also tastes incredible paired with a simple plate of fruit. To incorporate Oaxaca into everyday dishes, it can be shredded, peeled and melted for pizzas, quesadillas, birria tacos, empanadas or nachos. You can even deep-fry Oaxaca cheese to make crispy, gooey, mega-elastic cheese curds.
The food blog Mexico in My Kitchen features a recipe for queso fundido with chorizo, a popular starter fare at authentic Mexican steakhouses. It tastes amazing served with warm, crispy tortilla chips. Rick Bayless, the world-renowned chef and owner of Frontera Grill in Chicago, shared his simple recipe for Oaxacan string cheese on his website.
George, the cheesemaker at Crave Brothers, highly recommends enjoying Oaxaca at room temperature for the first time to get a true sample of the milky flavor and semi-soft texture.