Akawi cheese is a popular white brined cheese in Middle Eastern cuisine.
It has a mild, salty flavor and is often used in dishes like manakish (flatbreads) or knafeh pastries.
However, akawi can be difficult to find outside the Middle East.
If you want to make traditional recipes but don't have access to akawi, you may need a good substitute.
The best substitutes try to mimic both the flavor and texture of akawi. When finding a replacement, consider:
Akawi has a mild, salty taste. Aged cheeses like parmesan or romano are too sharp. Young cheeses like mozzarella, provolone, or Mexican queso fresco better match akawi's mild profile. For the salty kick, add a pinch of salt to boost the flavor.
Akawi has a firm but smooth and pliable texture that holds its shape when cooked. Soft crumbling cheeses won't work. Aim for cheeses that melt well and stretch like mozzarella. Halloumi and paneer also hold their shape during cooking.
As a brined cheese, akawi is high in salt content. Make sure to choose cheeses packed in brine like feta or halloumi over unsalted fresh cheeses. Grating parmesan can also provide saltiness.
In pastries like knafeh, the cheese filling needs to melt and stretch. Hard grating cheeses won’t properly melt or incorporate into the pastry. Prioritize substitutes like mozzarella that excellently melt.
Key Takeaway: The best akawi substitutes match its salty and mild flavor, firm yet stretchy texture, high salt content, and melting abilities.
Top Cheese Substitutes for Akawi
With the criteria in mind, these cheeses make the best substitutes for akawi cheese:
Fresh mozzarella is many Middle Eastern cooks' go-to akawi swap. It has a very similar mild, milky flavor that complements spicy dishes. The soft, smooth texture melts extremely well. Part-skim mozzarella best mimics akawi's semisoft texture if using cow's milk mozzarella. For a closer textural match, try buffalo milk mozzarella which is saltier and less moist. The flavor and melt make it an obvious choice, especially for knafeh or manakish.
Key Takeaway: With its mild flavor and melting abilities, fresh mozzarella makes an effortless substitution for akawi cheese.
Halloumi has more peppery notes upfront compared to akawi's subtle saltiness. But as a fellow brined cheese, it has a similar firm texture that wonderfully stands up to cooking. When fried or baked, it gets beautifully browned and crispy edges yet stays soft inside. That makes it perfect for manakish flatbreads, though knafeh may be tougher since halloumi doesn't stretch when melting. Compared to mozzarella, halloumi is much saltier too due to the brining.
Key Takeaway: Halloumi matches akawi's salty brine and retains its shape beautifully during cooking.
Indian paneer makes an interesting swap with its mild taste and excellent griddling abilities. It holds its shape well when cooked just like akawi. And while traditionally unsalted, it absorbs flavors easily. Crumble paneer over cooked dishes for a similar salty effect. Or marinate paneer in salted liquids which firms and flavors the cheese. Unlike halloumi and feta, unmarinated paneer is lower in fat since it's an acid-set cheese, not a brined one. So the texture isn't quite as rich and creamy. But it has a comparable crumbly pliability when warmed.
Key Takeaway: Paneer substitutes nicely for cooking applications of akawi with its mild flavor and ability to retain its shape during cooking.
Queso fresco is a fresh Mexican cheese with salted, mild flavor like akawi. It also softly melts, ideal for knafeh fillings. Make sure to buy queso fresco packed in brine, not the unsalted grocery store variety. This imparts a salty kick closer to the Middle Eastern cheese. Queso fresco doesn't hold its shape quite as firmly as paneer or halloumi when cooked. But it makes up for that with its effortless melting abilities. Due to the high moisture content, the texture is also more crumbly and less elastic.
Key Takeaway: When melted, brined queso fresco has a similar salty flavor and stretchy texture as akawi cheese.
Feta is another nice salty, crumbly alternative. Traditional Greek or Bulgarian feta is too intense and sharp on its own. But Danish feta has a very mild profile closer to akawi's mellowness. The salty brine also mimics the Middle Eastern cheese. Blend feta with yogurt and olive oil to make a quick dip or creamier cheese filling for pastries. Just like queso fresco, feta easily incorporates into warm doughy foods. But it can get greasy compared to traditional akawi.
Key Takeaway: Milder Danish feta nicely substitutes for akawi cheese when its sharpness is tempered in other ingredients.
Aged provolone is an Italian cheese typically considered too bold for this substitution. But fresh provolone has a lighter taste and softer texture comparable to akawi. Its flavor is still stronger with a distinctive tang and smokiness. But when baked into dishes, provolone nicely melts into a creamy, gooey consistency. For best results, stick to milder medium aged provolone. And add a pinch of salt to recipes to account for provolone's lower sodium content.
Key Takeaway: Young, mild provolone makes a decent melted substitute for akawi in baked dishes.
How to Use Akawi Substitutes
These substitutes can recreate akawi's taste and texture. But small adjustments are sometimes needed to better match the original cheese. Here are useful tips for incorporating the top replacements:
Unbrined cheeses usually need extra salt to mimic akawi's salty tang. How much you add depends on the cheese's natural sodium levels and your tastes. Start with a large pinch of salt. You can always add more later once mixed into the full dish.
Tip: Sprinkle on more salt as you incorporate the cheese rather than over-salting initially.
Blending cheeses helps balance out their flavors. For example, combining mild mozzarella with very salty feta yields better results. The right ratios depend on your tastes, but a 1:1 ratio usually safely tames extremes. Shred or finely chop the cheeses so they evenly integrate. Melting and stirring also helps marry all the cheese flavors.
Tip: Grate firmer cheeses and cut softer ones into small chunks before mixing for even distribution.
Since paneer has no inherent saltiness, marinating develops flavor within the cheese's pores. Opt for oil, yogurt, milk, cream and other liquid marinades—not dry spice rubs that will just coat the exterior. Vacuum sealed pouches excellently force the marinade deep into the cheese. Even 30 minutes makes a difference, while overnight is ideal. Then pat dry and sear in butter or oil to intensify the marinade flavors.
Tip: Vacuum seal paneer with salty liquids like soy sauce or brine for the deepest infusion.
When swapping akawi for something with dramatically different salt or moisture levels, adapt recipes accordingly. For drier cheeses, reduce any added salt. Increase salt for blander cheeses. Dry cheeses may also soak up more liquid, so add extra moisture like oil, cream or even cheese brine. Wait to adjust until you can taste the dish as a whole.
Tip: Prepare any recipe as written first before changing proportions.
Can I use heavy cream cheese as a substitute?
Cream cheese is much softer, sweeter, and richer than salty, firmer akawi. Plain cream cheese overpowers most recipes' flavors. In small amounts blended into a sauce, it can add a pleasant richness and tang. But avoid using alone in place of akawi.
What about soft goat cheese?
Fresh goat cheese is far too tart and crumbly to properly stand in for akawi. Aged, harder goat Gouda or cheddar melts well but still has a sour kick. Stick to less acidic cheeses like mozzarella or Monterey Jack unless you want to significantly shift the end flavor.
How does Swiss cheese compare?
Swiss cheese melts well but has a much stronger, earthier flavor than akawi's mild saltiness. Its distinctive holes also make the texture too airy. Save Swiss for sandwiches and fondues rather than akawi's savory, stretchy applications.
Can I substitute brined cheeses cured in wines like wine cheese?
Wine-cured cheeses infuse acidic wine flavors that clash with Middle Eastern recipes. They overpower spices like za'atar and give a boozy sourness. Traditional brines better season while allowing akawi's delicate flavor to shine.
In a pinch, can I just use salted cheeses?
It's better to use naturally brined cheeses that absorb salt throughout like feta or halloumi. Just grating Parmesan or sprinkling salt on mozzarella gives salt without the deep, complex savoriness. But for a quick weeknight dinner, it works reasonably well.
Akawi cheese is a key ingredient in many traditional Middle Eastern recipes.
Thankfully, several cheeses make fine substitutes when you can't source akawi.
For most applications, fresh mozzarella is the most effortless swap. Its mild, milky taste and silky melting texture very closely resemble the original.