Cotija Cheese is a popular ingredient in Mexican cooking, and its salty taste, crumbly texture, and unique melting texture make it one of the most recognizable cheeses out there. But that doesn't mean that there aren't good substitutes for this important cheese.
We've done the work for you and found some of the best cheese replacements for Cotija cheese. Whether you can't find it in your grocery store, aren't a fan of the flavor, or just need a last-minute replacement because your cheese went bad, we’re confident that one of these substitutes will work for you.
There are a lot of potential substitutes to talk about, so let’s dive in!
Why Substitute Cotija Cheese?
Cotija Cheese is a delicious addition to your favorite foods, at least for some people, but it isn’t everyone’s favorite. There are a lot of reasons you might need to substitute this cheese.
For one thing, not all grocery stores carry cotija cheese, especially smaller chains or grocery stores that don’t have a lot of extra space for specialty items. Cotija is likely to be absent from grocery store shelves in food deserts, or in areas where there aren’t any specialty grocery stores competing with the big chain stores.
You might also want to substitute cotija cheese because it can be an unfamiliar flavor and texture. For people with sensory problems, this cheese can be challenging on a first introduction, so sticking to a cheese they’ve already tested and like can make it easier.
The last big reason that some people substitute out cotija cheese, other than just not liking it, is for vegan eaters. Vegans don’t eat animal products, and cotija, as a dairy cheese, is very much an animal product. Fortunately there are some vegan alternatives that work just as well.
Now that you’re prepared with the reasons you might substitute cotija cheese, let’s talk about the actual substitutes.
The Best Substitutes for Cotija Cheese
Remember that not all substitutes are created equal. In addition to recommending different substitutions, we've also noted the best-case uses for each substitute. That way you can preserve the flavor of your dish while making a substitute that makes sense.
Feta is one of the best possible substitutes for cotija. It’s similarly salty, though it has a slightly stronger flavor than cotija tends to, and less of the fresh milk flavor. It’s also similarly crumbly, though you’ll find that feta doesn’t melt as well as cotija.
This is a good replacement when you would normally be crumbling cotija over a finished dish, in some kinds of tacos, as a soup topper, or to add a different flavor to burritos or quesadillas.
Queso Fresco is probably the closest to an authentic cotija cheese replacement since it’s another Mexican cheese. However, this cheese tends to be softer, milkier and creamier tasting, and isn’t quite as salty as cotija cheese. At the same time, it has the same sharpness as a good cotija, and it has the same crumbly texture too.
This is a good cheese to substitute anytime you would normally use cotija cheese, and it can be a little easier to find.
When it comes to substituting parmigiano instead of cotija, you're going to want to get the best parmigiano possible. Yes you can use US-based Parmesan if you really have to, but the flavor payoff will be a lot better if you get real Italian Parmigiano Reggiano.
That's because this cheese has better saltiness and a richer texture that is closer to the taste of cotija cheese. However, you might still need to add a little salt to make up for the missing sodium from the cotija cheese. It's also a nuttier flavor and adds a little more umami than cotija cheese.
This is a great substitute for any dish where the cotija cheese doesn’t fully melt.
Anejo is another good and authentic replacement for cotija cheese, though it’s not all that similar in taste or texture. Interestingly enough, anejo cheese can be accurately described as an aged cotija, though this is made from goat's milk.
Anejo is also coated in paprika before aging, which provides both the color and a smoky kick of flavor. This cheese will add more additional flavors than the others we've discussed so far because it also has a spicy kick and layers of additional umami and other flavors.
Replace 1:1 for cotija, but taste before adding other seasonings since you may need to adjust for the flavor of the Anejo.
Pecorino Romano can also be a bit of a challenge to get, like real Parmigiano, but it’s another good substitute. Made from sheep’s milk, it has a similar hard and crumbly texture, but with a more prominent slightly smelly flavor.
Pecorino is also slightly salty, but not as much as Cotija. You might find yourself adding a little more sodium to make up for the lost saltiness.
Otherwise, Pecorino is a good Cotija substitute in just about any dish.
Cotija Molido is another version of cotija cheese, which has already been grated. In terms of flavor and texture, this is an ideal substitute since it's still cotija cheese!
Plus, using this version of Cotija skips some of the extra work preparing your cotija.
Ricotta Salata is very different from the creamy ricotta used in a lot of Italian recipes. This version of Ricotta is the same kind of cheese but allowed to age and harden a bit. In terms of texture it's similar, and also a slightly salty cheese, but far creamier and sweeter than cotija.
This is a good substitute if you want to have a similar experience, but don’t like the flavor of cotija cheese and want something a little different.
Goat cheese in general tends to be a bit more salty than cow’s milk cheeses, and they also tend to be crumblier and strongly flavored, all of which are great features in a substitute for cotija.
Just look for any hard, unflavored, white goat cheese, or choose a flavor addition like jalapeno or habanero peppers that will complement your dish.
Goat cheese is pretty variable in how it melts and how well it melts.
Cottage cheese is a good option to get some of that cheesy flavor into your meals, but it’s not going to offer the same texture or even the same kind of cheese flavor.
You can get a little closer by salting your cottage cheese slightly and putting it in a colander or a mesh filter, and letting the whey drain off so you're left with the curds.
Homemade Paneer is one of the best last-minute substitutions. You can make it at home the same day as you need the cheese. All you need is a large amount of milk and some lemon juice and cheesecloth. No rennet or other cheese-making ingredients are required.
However, paneer is softer and sweeter than cotija. You may want to salt the milk slightly to increase the salty flavor. Adding a little onion or garlic powder can also help you get a more cotija-like flavor.
Almond cotija is a great substitute for cotija if you’re vegan or cooking for someone who is. Almond cotija has a convincing flavor and texture, and you can easily add the salt you need. However, it is a multi-step process, so plan a little extra cooking time for your meal.
Tofu can also be boiled and seasoned to resemble cotija cheese in taste and texture. Make this option at least 2 hours ahead to give the tofu time to harden and get crumbly. Boil the tofu for about 8-10 minutes, then drain, add to a blender with seasonings, blend until smooth, and then put it in a container (pack it in) and let it sit in the refrigerator until you need it.
Miyoko Vegan Cheeses
Miyoko vegan cheese is a great option if you can get it. They make spreadable soft cheeses and spreadable hard cheeses, you want the hard kind. You might want something flavored with flavors that complement your dish.
Taste your cheese when you’re getting ready to add it. If it doesn’t have a salty flavor, feel free to mix in a little extra table salt.
Lastly, nutritional yeast gives you cheese flavor, but none of the texture or meltiness. This is a good option for soups, the insides of burritos, and other meals where the yeast can be mixed into the dish, rather than added on top.
This is a good last-minute addition, but probably the least effective substitution on our list. So we wouldn't recommend using nutritional yeast if you have another option available.
There you have it! Some of the best cotija cheese substitutes you can get, to make cooking at home easier and a lot more fun. Looking for other ingredient substitutes, we can help! Check out our articles for the best substitutes for Champagne Vinegar and Liquid Smoke. Both will help you add flavor and variety to your meals, without adding any difficulty to the cooking!