Cotija, which originated from the town of Cotija in Mexico, is a Mexican hard cheese with a mild, salty taste. It's crumbled on tacos, Mexican street corn, and I love using it on shakshuka. It has been gaining popularity because of its bold flavors (and can sometimes add a little heat to dishes too!). However, don't fear if cotija isn't readily available, because we have rounded up 14 great cotija substitutes in this post!
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Best overall substitute: Feta cheese is the best like-for-like substitute for cotija cheese. You can use it exactly as you would use cotija (either as a filling or garnish). It has a very similar crumbly texture, salty and mild flavor, and can be found at most local grocery stores. It's also cheaper than cotija!
However, it's not the only replacement. There are better replacements based on texture or flavor, as well as price and dietary restrictions! So read on to find out more.
Best substitute for both flavor and texture
If you want the best cotija cheese substitute similar in both texture and flavor, you have three options. Feta is likely most readily available in local grocery stores , but all three are great replacements.
When it comes to taste and texture, feta cheese has a salty, somewhat tangy flavor similar to cotija. This makes it a great addition to salads, tacos, pizzas, and everything in between. It's also quite crumbly in texture, and hence, makes a good substitution for cotija cheese. Feta is the most commonly available substitute. You can find it in the cheese aisle of most grocery stores. So, in a pinch, feta is the first cheese I grab to replace cotija.
Mexican queso fresco is an often overlooked substitute for cotija cheese, especially in baking dishes. It is usually made with skimmed cow's milk, has a milder flavor and is much softer than cotija. The flavor of this cheese is typically salty and it also crumbles easily, especially when heated, worked, or sliced!
It delivers most of the flavor and texture, but at a fraction of the cost. Queso fresco is usually cheaper than cotija, so this might save you some money!) It also has low-fat content and works well as a replacement for cotija cheese in any recipe. However, it is not as easily available as cotija. You might find it in the Mexican aisle of a grocery store, but most likely, you will need to go to a Mexican specialty store.
We are cheating here a bit. Añejo is an aged version of cotija cheese (has to be aged for at least 1 year). It's a great substitute if you can get your hands on it!
This aged cheese is smoked or air-dried for about a month during the aging process. It has a buttery and nutty taste, which can match well with most flavors that cotija is used with. As a result, you can use this as a great substitute for cotija, especially in Mexican dishes. However, this is the hardest option to find, so you might be in for a scavenger hunt.
Best substitute for flavor
If texture is not a consideration and you're just looking for a good flavor substitute, there are plenty of other options you can consider!
Grana Padano is an Italian cow's milk hard grainy texture cheese. It's almost 10% salt and derived from long-aged souring of pasteurized cow's milk. The flavor is mellow and nutty but the texture is much firmer than crumbly cotija, making it a delicious cotija cheese alternative if you're not looking for the same texture. Plus, it's never a bad idea to have some extra Grana Padano in the house!
Parmesan cheese is a great alternative for cotija. It is prepared from raw cows' milk, has a salty flavor, and a crumbly but hard texture that makes it a perfect substitute. Look for vegetarian versions since they're often made with animal rennet if unspecified! They're available at most grocery stores so can be a very easy substitute to find.
Psst: Parmigiano-Reggiano is the version that's produced in Italy, and parmesan is the domestic version of the same cheese. One unknown fact is that Parmigiano-Reggiano and Parmesan don't have any lactose, so if you're lactose intolerant, you can still enjoy these cheeses!
Pecorino Romano is a denomination-controlled cheese made from sheep’s milk ("pecora" means sheep in Italian!) It has to be from Lazio, Grosseto (Tuscany) or Sardinia in Italy, similar to how sparkling wine can only be labeled champagne if it's from Champagne in France! There is a consortium that regulates production of authentic Pecorino Romano!
The cheeses are aged for a period of at least 16 months in traditional caves and under ventilation. Pecorino Romano has a sharp, nutty flavor and is slightly salty.
What's the difference between Romano and Pecorino Romano, you ask? Well, American cheesemakers who don't have access to sheep’s milk, make the same cheese with cow’s milk. In the same way that Parmesan is the "domestic" American version of Parmigiano-Reggiano, Romano is the American version of Pecorino Romano.
Romano cheese tends to be milder, and more like Swiss cheese, than the crumbly Pecorino Romano, but can still be a good substitute for cotija cheese in a pinch (and way less expensive!)
Best substitute for texture
Sometimes, you actually want the perfect replacement for texture instead of taste. If so, the following cheeses will be the best cotija substitutes for you.
Ricotta Salata is a very salty sheep's milk cheese from Italy. It is made from cow's milk and has a crumbly texture similar to cotija. However, it has a much milder flavor that lacks the sharp edge of cotija cheese.
Goat cheese crumbles
Goat cheese crumbles are produced by removing some of the moisture from goat's milk and adding a little salt. In contrast to a soft goat cheese log, crumbled goat cheese has a texture that is more comparable to that of feta or cotija cheese.
To make it taste better, manufacturers often add herbs and other flavors (e.g., chives) to give the crumbles their unique flavor. This can be a great replacement for cotija cheese and you might be able to find a flavor of goat cheese that works well with the dish you're preparing too.
Cottage cheese (as well as pot cheese and farmer's cheese) is a fresh cheese curd that has been drained, but not pressed. It is a soft cheese that can be eaten by itself, used in dips and spreads, or as an ingredient replacement in savory dishes.
Cottage cheese has a texture that bears close resemblance to that of cotija and ricotta cheese. While more watery than some hard cheeses, cottage cheese is firmer than cream cheese and mozzarella. So it can be a great replacement for cotija.
Make your own cotija cheese!
Of course, this is really the last option but you could actually make cotija cheese at home using a cheese kit. It's not a super complicated process! But you need to get your hands on some bacterial cultures and rennet (microbial, so it's still vegetarian-friendly!)
Best vegan substitute for cotija
If you have dietary restrictions and prefer to opt for a non milk-based cotija cheese, you can either make your own vegan cotija at home or buy a great replacement.
Make your own: almond-based cotija
Making your own almond-based cotija is a great way to enjoy the flavors and textures of cotija in a vegan cheese alternative. This fresh, vegan version of cotija has more protein than regular dairy-based cotija because of the nuts used in its preparation!
You can do this by grinding almonds and boiling them in water, then straining the mixture to get nut milk. Then, boil the almond milk again and mix with lime juice, salt, and pepper. You can also add other spices like garlic powder or paprika to give it more flavor! Leave the mixture to curdle for a few hours, then strain into a cheesecloth or muslin cloth.
Make your own: tofu-based cotija
Tofu is one of the best vegan substitutions you can use when you run out of cheese. To make a vegan, tofu-based cotija replacement, boil the tofu in a medium saucepan with water for about 5-7 minutes. Drain and cool.
After draining excess water with a cheesecloth, add the tofu to a food processor along with apple cider vinegar, lime juice, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Pulse until you get a crumbly cotija-like texture. Press the cheese firmly to remove any air pockets. Store in the fridge for 2 hours. When ready to use, it should crumble easily!
Violife: Just Like Feta or Just Like Parmesan
Violife's "Just like Feta" and "Just like Parmesan" have similar texture and flavor to cotija cheese, except they're both vegan! The main ingredient is soy protein buttermilk. These are gluten-free, low-fat, and cholesterol-free cheese products.
Cover the cotija in new parchment paper prior to putting it in a plastic storage container after each usage. That way, pure cotija would last around one month in the refrigerator, while aging cotija could last up to 3 months.
Cotija softens but does not melt when heated, making it ideal for crushing and sprinkling. It was most commonly found in Mexican cuisine, where it's used as a garnish on tortillas, Doritos, quesadillas, and chilaquiles.
Though cotija is typically marketed in a brick form, it can be broken, shredded, or grated super easily without melting or applying heat!
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