Panela Cheese vs. Queso Fresco

Mexican cuisine is renowned for its incredible variety of cheeses. With over 40 unique types of cheese to choose from, it can be difficult to keep them all straight!

Panela Cheese vs. Queso Fresco

Two of the most popular are panela and queso fresco. These two cheeses share some similarities but also have key differences.

What Is Panela Cheese?

Panela cheese originates from Mexico, though its precise origins are disputed. It goes by several common names including queso panela, queso canasta ("basket cheese"), and queso de la canasta.

Panela falls into the category of “fresh” Mexican cheese. It is not aged. Like most fresh cheeses, it is meant to be consumed shortly after production rather than preserved.

Traditionally, panela cheese is made from pasteurized cow's milk. The milk may be whole or low-fat. Modern commercial producers usually opt for low-fat or skim milk. This gives panela its firm yet spongy texture and fresh, mild flavor.

During production, panela curds are pressed into molds to give them their distinctive shape. These molds often take the form of small baskets, hence names like “basket cheese.” The basket leaves behind patterns on the rind.

Panela is white in color and features a fresh, milky taste with a hint of saltiness. While it has a semi-firm, sliceable texture, panela can also break apart into crumbles easily. When heated, it holds its shape instead of melting.

Key Takeaway: Panela cheese is a type of fresh, unaged Mexican cheese. Other names for it include queso panela, queso canasta, and queso de la canasta.

What Is Queso Fresco?

As you may have guessed from the name, queso fresco means “fresh cheese” in Spanish. It likely originated in the Jalisco area of Mexico sometime after the Spanish introduced dairy animals in the 1500s.

Like panela, queso fresco falls into the fresh Mexican cheese category. It is meant to be eaten shortly after production rather than aged for preservation.

Queso fresco begins as raw milk from cows, goats, or a combination. The milk curdles using acids like vinegar or lemon juice. After draining the curds and whey, the cheese is ready for consumption.

This cheese comes in both salty and non-salty varieties. It boasts a crumbly, moist texture reminiscent of feta. Queso fresco is white in color. Many Mexican markets package cubes of queso fresco in banana or corn husks, adding to its rustic appearance.

Key Takeaway: Queso fresco is another type of fresh Mexican cheese, usually made from raw cow's or goat's milk. Like panela, it has a crumbly texture when fresh and does not melt well when heated.

How Panela and Queso Fresco Are Similar

Now that you know the basics behind both panela and queso fresco, let’s take a look at their similarities:

  • Classification as fresh cheeses: Neither panela nor queso fresco are aged. Both are meant for quick consumption after making them.
  • Mild flavor: While queso fresco can taste tangier depending on the milk used, both cheeses share an overall mild, fresh dairy flavor.
  • Semisoft texture: The two cheeses have a similar density, being semi-firm yet sliceable and easy to crumble.
  • Whitish hue: Fresh panela and queso fresco are white in color, though some queso fresco can take on a pale yellow tint.
  • Heat resistance: When exposed to high temperatures, panela and queso fresco warm up but do not melt or brown much.
  • Mexican origins: Both cheeses are authentically Mexican, with long histories of production across Mexico.

How Panela and Queso Fresco Are Different

Panela and queso fresco share quite a few traits, but they have some important differences too:

Ingredients and Process

  • Milk source: Panela starts with cow’s milk exclusively. Queso fresco allows for cow or goat milk, or a blend.
  • Fat content: Panela often uses low-fat or skim milk. Queso fresco begins with whole milk.
  • Curdling agent: Panela curdles via enzymes like rennet. Queso fresco uses acids like lemon juice.
  • Molding method: Panela gets pressed into basket molds. Queso fresco curds drain in cheesecloth.

Texture and Taste

  • Consistency: Panela cheese has a smooth, rubbery texture. Queso fresco is more irregularly crumbly.
  • “Squeak” factor: When bitten into, panela squeaks against the teeth. Queso fresco does not.
  • Sharpness: Queso fresco is tangier due to the acid used to curdle it. Panela has a very mild dairy flavor.

Melting and Heating

  • Meltability: Panela keeps its shape remarkably well at high heat. Queso fresco oozes liquid when melted.
  • Frying suitability: Due to its heat resistance, panela cheese can be fried beautifully. Queso fresco struggles here.

Typical Uses

  • Snacking: Panela’s firm, squeaky nature makes it an excellent snacking cheese eaten as-is. Crumbly queso fresco does not work as well this way.
  • Sandwiches: Sliceable panela can be a sandwich filler. Queso fresco is better for crumbling over other sandwich ingredients.
  • Toppings: Queso fresco tends to work better sprinkled over dishes like tacos as a garnish. Panela is better for slices and shreds.
  • Frying: Because panela withstands heat so well, it can be fried or grilled more easily than queso fresco.

Key Takeaway: While panela and queso fresco share fresh cheese traits, they differ in ingredients, texture, melting abilities, and best uses. Panela works for slicing, shredding, frying, and snacking due to its smooth and squeaky texture. Crumbly queso fresco makes a better topping for finishing dishes.


Is panela cheese salty?

Panela can be slightly salty, but less so than many other Mexican cheeses. Salt brings out panela’s subtle flavors. However, you can find low-sodium or salt-free varieties if you prefer. Taste varies slightly depending on the producer.

What kind of milk is used to make queso fresco?

Authentic queso fresco relies on raw cow’s milk or a blend of cow and goat milk. Modern commercial producers often pasteurize the milk for safety. But traditional, homemade versions use raw milk. The type of milk impacts queso fresco’s tanginess.

Can you freeze panela cheese?

Yes, freezing helps prolong the shelf life of fresh panela cheese. To freeze:

  • Cut the cheese into cubes or shred it first. Large blocks freeze too slowly.
  • Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and aluminum foil. This prevents freezer burn.
  • Freeze for up to 2 months.
  • Thaw in the refrigerator before using. The texture may become more crumbly.

What is a good substitute for queso fresco?

If you can’t find queso fresco, decent substitutes include:

No substitute can precisely mimic queso fresco’s unique flavor and texture. But these options work nicely in a pinch!


While Mexican cheeses like panela and queso fresco share some characteristics, they also differ in meaningful ways that impact how they taste, melt, and get used in dishes.

Panela’s smooth, sliceable texture makes it perfect for eating plain, filling sandwiches, or frying up crispy. Thanks to its squeak factor and high heat resistance, we consider it the ultimate snacking cheese.

Queso fresco’s extra tang and crumbly texture suits it ideally as a finishing garnish. Its richness and saltiness perfectly balance out ingredients like beans, tacos, soups, and potatoes when sprinkled on top. Queso fresco also shines at room temperature in cold salad.

Cheese Lover Chloe 🧀
Cheese Lover Chloe 🧀

I'm a total cheese fanatic! When I'm not busy studying to be a cheesemaker, you can find me scouring local farmers markets and specialty shops for new and exciting cheeses to try. Brie is my all-time fave, but I also love exploring aged goudas, funky blues, and rich creamy camemberts. Looking forward to sharing lots of melty, gooey cheese pics and reviews!