Choosing The Wrong Cheese Is The Mistake That Can Ruin Quesadillas

Some American palettes aren't picky about cheese, but ask folks from Mexico, home to the melted cheese quesadilla, and you'll likely get an earful. After all, the name of a quesadilla showcases its most important component, with "queso" being the Spanish word for cheese. If you want a genuinely traditional quesadilla, one that's also tasty and well-constructed, the type of cheese matters — a lot. 

Since the gooey treat has now spread across the globe, it has understandably taken on regional adaptations. But regardless of what else gets stuffed inside the folded flour or corn tortilla, it all falls apart if the cheese isn't right. Some of it comes down to personal taste, but the crucial factor is meltability. When grilled in a frying pan, the cheese must be smooth, warm, flavorful, and deliciously melting over any added fillings. If it oozes out the sides when sliced, even better.

It's no surprise that Mexican cheesemakers have cheese quesadillas down to a culinary art, given its long history starting, assumably, in the Sinaloa and Sonoran regions of Northern Mexico. The original quesadilla, a very simple cheese and tortilla affair, likely harbored the ages-old Mexican queso Oaxaca, which still holds status as a highly favored choice. It hovers toward the top of most lists identifying the best cheese for quesadillas, along with other Mexican delights such as Chihuahua and the more universally made Monterey jack, mozzarella, and even gouda. Cheddar is acceptable per taste, but the sharp version is not texturally ideal. 

Cheese compatibility and taste matters in a quesadilla

When choosing a quesadilla cheese, it helps to consider how it pairs with other intended ingredients. Apart from how well it melts, the taste of the cheese is the second-most important consideration, mostly based on personal preferences. But cheeses also have inherent characteristics that make them compatible with other foods. 

For example, some cheeses, including the Mexican Oaxaca and Chihuahua varieties, are slightly salty and work well in plain cheese quesadillas. But they also have a mild taste that doesn't clash with strongly flavored filling ingredients such as shrimp, spinach, or spicy seasonings. Oaxaca in particular is touted for its mild, buttery, slightly nutty flavor and its effortless melting ability. It's also relatively easy to find now that it's sold by some Western fromageries in cheese-centric states like Wisconsin.

Chihuahua cheese works well in shredded chicken quesadilla recipes, and it's available in many Hispanic markets. Mozzarella is a good second option, or even a mild cheddar if your palette insists on familiar territory. And "the jacks," including Monterey, Colby, and pepper jack, always cozy up well with beef, pork, and most vegetable fillings. A safe bet, at least while fine-tuning your quesadilla repertoire, is to use a shredded Mexican blend of cheeses, which you'll find in the cheese section of almost any supermarket.