What Are these Colombian Cheeses and What's the Difference?
Supermarkets here in Medellín have a mind-boggling array of Colombian cheeses with unfamiliar names like "cuajada," "quesito," and "campesino." And "queso." "Queso"! How can a type of cheese simply be called "cheese"?
Making matters worse, they all look the same. They're white, moist, and packed in square or round blobs.
To figure out the difference between all these Colombian cheeses and hopefully be able to face the supermarket cheese aisles with confidence, we did the only thing we could. We bought them all.
Kim and I stockpiled 18 different Colombian "quesos frescos" (fresh cheeses) and invited a dozen friends over to blind taste test them using our tried and true (and super fun) methods.
What we discovered was revealing, comforting, and sometimes just plain disgusting.
Dictionary of Colombian Cheeses
Here's a quick intro to the types of Colombian cheese we included in our blind taste test:
- Cuajada – Prounced "cua-ha-da," cuajada literally means “curdled” in Spanish. An extra watery white fresh cheese, it’s quite simply the pressed-together curds of whole pasteurized milk .
- Quesito – A traditional Antioquian cheese, quesito is basically cuajada with salt added.
- Queso – Simply called “queso” on packages, but also known as “queso blanco,” it’s a denser version of cuajada.
- Campesino – A semi-hard, more rubbery, version of cuajada.
- Costeño – Coming from Colombia’s coast, hence the name, it’s a very salty crumbly cheese that’s sometimes described as feta cheese made with cows milk
- Pera – Called “pear cheese” because of the way it’s packaged in a pear-like shape. The name has nothing at all to do with its flavor. This is considered to be the Colombian mozzarella
These measly descriptions were all I could patch together after hours researching on the internet and even exchanging emails with Colanta, Colombia's largest cheese producer.
I'm starting to think nobody really knows what these cheeses are.
At least the nutritional information is easily available. Below are the average nutritional values, by type, of the cheeses we tested.
Colombian Cheese Nutritional Info
Nutritional values of 30 grams of each type of Colombian cheese:
|Total Fat (g)||8||8||6||6||7||7|
The Blind Taste Test
Just as we did for Colombian beers previously and to find the best coffee in Medellín, we used a blind taste test to deliver the truth about which are the best Colombian cheeses. The 18 Colombian cheeses we tested were of the following varieties:
- 6 quesitos
- 5 campesinos
- 4 cuajadas
- 1 pera
- 1 costeña
- 1 blanco
Each was cut into little cubes and placed on a code-numbered plate so nobody knew which was which. Our twelve brave tasters then sampled each all as many times as they needed to rank them from best to worst.
It was maybe the most difficult blind taste test we'd ever done.
Ranking 18 of anything is hard enough. Ranking 18 indistinct-tasting fresh cheeses? It was a greater challenge than any of us had bargained for.
First of all, the cheeses tasted so similar one taster gave up on trying to rank them. Second, they weren't all particularly delicious—tasters had to spit some out on occasion. And third, eighteen fresh cheeses is a lot of curd to swallow.
Surprisingly, despite these challenges everyone's results were quite consistent. And quite compelling.
Here are the answers to the biggest questions we had coming into our Colombian cheese taste test:
Is Expensive Colombian Cheese Better?
The cheeses we tested varied in price from under 10,000 COP ($3.50 USD) per kilogram to over 27,000 ($9.50). Were the more expensive cheeses worth it?
As is often the case with blind taste tests, the answer was: Not really.
As you can see in the table further below, while two of the most expensive cheeses took the top spots in the final rankings, there was minimal correlation between price and quality. For example, our favorite cuajada came from the budget supermarket D1 and the most expensive quesitos were third and fourth out of the six quesitos we tested.
In short, we learned that if we're going to buy a queso fresco, we might as well get the cheapest one.
Do Colombians and Foreigners Have Different Preferences?
Was it possible that Colombians have developed a different taste for their cheeses compared to us foreigners?
Since half of our twelve tasters were Colombian and the other half were foreign (Canadian, American, Swiss, and French), the taste test would tell us.
The answer: Nope.
While the Colombians could sometimes tell a cuajada from a quesito, their average rankings compared us foreigners' rankings were remarkably the same.
Apparently queso fresco is not an acquired taste.
Which is Better: Cuajada, Campesino, or Quesito?
Did the average scores of the six quesitos we tested differ significantly from that of the five campesinos, or four cuajadas?
Cuajada was easily the worst of the three types of cheese. The average ranking of the four cuajadas was 14th out of 18.
For campesinos the average ranking was 7th out of 18, and for quesitos it was 8th.
As for the types of cheese we only had one of, the queso blanco was 14th, the costeño was dead last, and the pera was…
Which is the Best Colombian Cheese?
The grand champion of our Colombian cheese taste test was the queso pera.
This result wasn't much of a surprise. Being mozzarella-like, queso pera is the most familiar-tasting to foreigners, and amongst the Colombians it has a reputation for being a tasty snack.
Unfortunately, queso pera is also by far the most expensive type of cheese among the ones we tried. The one we tested was from the cheapest supermarket in Colombia, D1, and costed about $10 a kilo. It's twice that or more at more upscale shops. So even though it was the best it's not going to become a regular in my fridge.
Here are the complete rankings of the 18 Colombian cheeses (the lower the score, the better):
|Brand||Type||Supermarket||Price/kg||Total Score||Final Rank|
In Defense of Colombian Cheeses
All of the above discoveries need to be taken with a grain of salt. (That is, unless you've just finished eating a bunch of Colombian cheeses, in which case you don't need more salt in your life.)
That's because Colombian cheeses aren’t meant to be eaten on their own.
If we had done the taste test with the cheeses served on top of arepas, a quesito might have won, since that's how it's traditionally eaten. The same goes for queso costeño in buñuelos, cuajada drizzled with some sweet syrup, or queso dropped in a cup of hot chocolate (yes, hot chocolate!).
On the other hand…
I'm pretty sure there are French and Swiss cheeses that both taste great on their own and could have given those Colombian cheeses a run for their money no matter what they're served with. That may just be a big reason why per capita cheese consumption in Colombia is only 1.5 kilograms a year compared to 26 kilograms in France (and 31 kg in surprise world-leader Greece).
Nevertheless, if you find yourself face-to-face with an intimidating Colombian cheese aisle hopefully our efforts haven't been in vain and this will help you make the right decision. It's certainly helped me approach the cheeses with confidence at last.
And when in doubt? Get a non-Colombian cheese.
More Tasty Colombian Tips
More Colombian blind taste tests:
If you're traveling to Colombia