Tortilla bowl with cotija cheese

Cotija cheese hails from Mexico and provides a variety of dishes with a salty finish. The cheese is often found as a piece of fresh soft cheese in the States, whereas in Mexico, most cotija cheese you’ll find will be aged 100 days or so and have a much firmer bite (via Gourmet Sleuth). Home to Cotija, Michoacán, the cow’s milk cheese is a popular taco fixing and corn topping. It’s known for crumbling wonderfully, making it a great choice for a last-minute sprinkling.

The cheese has a distinct salty taste, much like a variety of others worldwide. Aged cotija has been dubbed the "Parmesan of Mexico" due to the similarities, says Cheese.com, while fresh cotija is more reminiscent of feta. You won’t find cotija at just any corner store, but luckily, a comparable flavor can be found in plenty of other dairy products, or nondairy if you’re looking for a vegan alternative.

1. Feta

Block of feta crumbling

Feta is nearly the Mediterranean cousin of cotija and can be used in place to nail down that tangy bite in your dish. A Couple Cooks stand by this substitute for fresh cotija, likely due to the cheese’s similar ability to crumble to perfection. Feta originates from Greece and has a creamy texture that is tough to match. Its salty aroma can transform any dish or just be enjoyed solo with some fine olive oil and crusty bread. It’s fairly easy to find this cheese, making it a great substitute for cotija if it isn’t on the shelves of your local market.

When substituting feta for cotija, crumble the tasty cheese in the same fashion and sprinkle a generous amount onto your meal. Since feta has so many similarities, it can be used in place of cotija without any real tweaks. Feta is known to dry out rather quickly, so it is packaged in a container with brine to keep it fresh. Cotija isn’t typically packaged in brine, so when using feta, just be mindful of the liquid when adding the cheese. Depending on the recipe you’re perfecting, some extra salty splashes of liquid may put a damper on the meal.

2. Queso fresco

Queso fresco cheese

While this cheese is often compared to mozzarella as opposed to cotija, it has similar properties that make it a suitable choice to use instead of cotija. Asking Lot explains that queso fresco, which simply translates to fresh cheese, takes on other flavors easily which makes it a great addition to any dish craving dairy, but especially Mexican dishes that call for the traditional cotija. Gourmet Sleuth describes queso fresco as a more acidic cheese, yet it crumbles very well which is what makes it a great alternative to cotija.

Queso fresco is typically sprinkled over dishes such as tacos and salads, very similarly to cotija, and can be used in the same manner. Since it’s a tad more acidic, you’ll want to keep that in mind when adding acid-heavy ingredients to your dishes such as lime or tomato, but the mild creamier flavor of queso fresco shouldn’t alter the meal you’re preparing.

3. Añejo

Anejo cheese on board

The name says it all with añejo cheese, which translates to aged in Spanish. As the cheese matures, it morphs into a firmer block that allows for grating and shredding, according to Cheese.com. Añejo is actually just an older version of queso fresco (via Cook’s Info), so it has a similar flavor but with a harder consistency. If spotted at the market, añejo may have a red hue to the rind which can be attributed to seasoning. It is often rolled in paprika to give it a spicy kick.

Recipe Marker recommends using this sharp cheese for your next dish that calls for cotija if you can’t easily locate it because of its similar tangy saltiness. Cheese.com agrees, sharing that añejo is "as strong or robust flavored as its Hispanic cousin, Cotija."

When choosing grated añejo rather than cotija, the only thing to keep in mind is any added spice to the cheese. If you’re putting together a spicy burrito, you may want to cut back on the cheese just a tad.

4. Parmesan

Parmesan on cutting board

Considering cotija is part of the parmesan family (via Cheese.com), it’s fitting that parmesan works as a successful stand-in for the Mexican cheese. Parmesan grates in a similar fashion as an aged cotija — perfectly. The go-to Italian cheese is a staple in many households, often to tie together a pasta dish or fix up a quick chicken parmesan, which makes it not only a great alternative to cotija but an easy one to source as well.

Food Shark Marfa claims that the sharp and nutty hard cheese is the best substitute for aged cotija and can be swapped out in any recipe. The saltiness paired with the sparkling texture of parmesan makes it a winning replacement.

Whether you have an imported wedge or a pop-top container of grated parmesan, you can use it in place of cotija in your desired recipe. One thing to keep in mind is that the more aged parmesan is, the stronger the flavor will be. Keep tasting as you put your meal together to make sure the cheese flavors aren’t overpowering, or even worse, lacking taste.

5. Grana Padano

Shredded grana padano in bowl

Grana Padano is a crowd-pleasing Italian cow’s milk cheese. Similar to parmesan, this cheese has a crystal-like appearance and texture, but with a creamier finish. Castello Cheese describes the hard cheese as a bit nutty with a mild bite. Originally made in northern Italy, Grana Padano is aged for at least nine months and develops a one-of-a-kind flavor.

Cuisine Vault recommends this cotija cheese substitute because of its matching hard texture. While this cheese is delicious, they note that it has a sweeter hint to it and overall has a more subtle, low-key flavor than cotija. Using Grana Padano may steer the dish away from authentic, but it’s bound to still make a meal creamier and cheesier. The more mild taste makes it a great alternative cheese for those with a sensitive palate. Another great bonus to this dairy option is the price point. As far as imported Italian cheeses, Grana Padano is cheaper than its relative, parmesan, says Bon Appétit.

You can use Grana Padano as a one-to-one swap for cotija.

6. Pecorino Romano

Pecorino Romano cheese

Here is another cheese that graces us from Italy. Pecorino Romano is often outshined by its popular counterpart, Parmigiano‑Reggiano, or in other words, grade-A parmesan imported from Italy, confirms Cook’s Illustrated, who shares that the "rich, complex flavor is a quiet powerhouse" in a variety of dishes. The Italian cheese is one of the oldest that can be found on shelves today, so clearly, the makers are doing something right considering the demand remains high for cheese-lovers after all of these years.

It has a strong nutty flavor that traditionally aids itself well in pasta recipes, but it can take the place of cotija cheese in a bind. Recipe Marker shares that the funky, tangy essence of the hard cheese resembles cotija enough to be used as an alternative in recipes. In their Torta de Arroz recipe, which is a Mexican baked rice dish, they call for one and a half cups of either cotija or Romano cheese.

You can use Pecorino Romano as a one-for-one swap for cotija.

7. Ricotta Salata

Ricotta Salata wedge

At a quick glance, one might assume ricotta salata is the fluffy, versatile cheese found in comforting lasagnas and stuffed shells, but that’s just fresh ricotta. The addition of salata means salted, and that added gusto occurs during the aging method. After step one of the cheese-making process, this cheese is pressed to remove any liquid and then aged for a minimum of three months according to Fine Cooking. This process provides us with a deliciously tangy cheese delivering a much more dense consistency, which of course, makes it a great cotija replacement because of its rockstar grating abilities.

The salty crumbly cheese manages to combine the aroma of a light, fresh cheese with a hearty dry texture, giving it a milky taste, per Greedy Gourmet. This firm cheese is a Sicilian delight that has always been known as a great salad fixing but would do wonders on a Mexican-inspired dish calling for cotija.

You can use a one-to-one replacement of ricotta salata for cotija.

8. Almond-based vegan cotija

Vegan Cotija cheese in a bowl

While it may be tough to find cotija at your corner store, chances are that finding the ingredients to make a dairy-free alternative will be much more of a breeze. With just almonds, olive juice, lemon, and a bit of salt, you can toss together a vegan version of cotija, according to Dora’s Table. That briny olive element may be the secret to giving this pseudo cheese the same depth as real cheese. The texture of this dairy-free cheese matches cotija almost to a tee, making it the perfect crumbly companion to your tacos, salad, or whatever tasty Mexican plant-based meal is being prepared.

After pulsing all the ingredients in a food processor for about five minutes, place the goodness in a cheesecloth, squeeze out any extra liquid, and then put the concoction in the fridge. After 24 hours, magic happens. You’ll open the cheesecloth to find what looks like a perfect bundle of cheese. It should crumble easily at this point and be ready to complete your dish.

9. Violife Just Like Parmesan

Violife Just Like Parmesan

If you’re trying to limit your time in the kitchen or just the idea of making vegan cheese from scratch makes you yawn, there are plenty of prepackaged dairy-free brands that have perfected the crumbly quality that cotija adds to dishes. Larger grocery stores have shelves lined with dairy-free and different plant-based alternatives to dairy products.

Healthier Steps recommends grabbing a block of Violife Just Like Parmesan in place of cotija. They claim that the vegan brand’s cheese resembles cotija’s saltiness and crumbly consistency, making it a great choice in place of the Mexican cheese. Violife is a popular food brand that steers clear of animal products. Instead, it’s made using potato and rice starch, among other ingredients. Violifefoods‘ dedication to eliminating popular allergens from their products also makes them popular amongst more than just the vegan crowd.

You can use a one-to-one replacement of Violife for cotija.

10. Tofu-based vegan cotija

Vegan tofu Cotija cheese

If nuts aren’t for you, it can be tough to find the perfect dairy-free option when you’re seeking something creamy. Plant Based Positivity has a vegan cotija recipe featuring tofu as opposed to the typical nut such as almond or cashew. Recreate that tangy punch of cotija with tofu, apple cider vinegar, nutritional yeast, and some salt. Using cheesecloth to strain all the liquid from the tofu will help nail down that ideal crumbly texture of cotija.

Nutritional yeast is famous for adding that cheesy taste to dishes. You can indulge in this vegan version of cotija and use it generously in place of the cheese in recipes as a one-to-one swap. Plant Based Positivity’s recipe can be made ahead of time and stays fresh for up to a week, so no need to worry about delaying dinner time with this vegan recipe.