Homemade Peruvian Cheese: Quesillo, the popular fresh cheese of Andean Peru, is quick and easy to make
When the Spanish arrived in the Incan Empire in 1528, they encountered a culture with highly sophisticated trade and agrarian systems.
Roads and runners so effectively connected the 300,000-square-mile kingdom that it was possible to deliver fresh seafood from the Pacific Coast to Cusco, more than 200 miles away and 11,000 feet above sea level, in less than two days. This network spanned a varied landscape, from the arid Pacific Coast to the Amazon River Basin, laying the foundation for a diverse culinary tradition that is now one of the hottest trends in international cuisine.
Spanish conquerors introduced important European ingredients, such as onions, cilantro, and dairy products, to their Peruvian colony. The pre-Columbian Peruvian diet included meat from llamas, alpacas, and cuyes (guinea pigs), but dairy consumption was unknown until cattle were introduced. Dairy cows remain very popular with farmers and ranchers in the high Andes, where they graze in mountain valleys and produce high-quality milk that can be converted to staple products such as butter, manjar blanco (milk-based dishes), and cheese.
Most Peruvian cheese production takes place on a small scale in home-based dairies where artisans convert fresh milk into a product with a longer shelf life. Cheeses vary from home to home and village to village, but one common type of cheese in the Peruvian Andes is quesillo. A fresh-style cheese, quesillo, whose name means “small cheese” in Spanish, is made by acidifying milk with lime juice and vinegar, then separating the whey and pressing the curd into small hand-formed disks or balls. In the high altitudes of the Andes, the boiling point for milk is significantly lower than at sea level, which results in a smallcurd cheese that is soft, mild, and milky with a clean finish. The cheese is rarely eaten on its own; Andean home cooks use quesillo to add flavor and texture to many popular sauces, soups, and entrées, one of which can be found here.
Heat the milk and salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat to 190°F. Stir frequently, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan to prevent the milk from scalding. Remove from the heat, and add the lime juice and white vinegar. Stir gently while the curds form, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Pour the curdled milk into a cheesecloth lined colander, and allow to cool and drain for about 15 minutes.
Gently squeeze the cheese into a ball in the cheesecloth to extract excess liquid.
Allow the quesillo to rest on a plate, refrigerated or at room temperature, for at
least 30 minutes before using. That’s it!
Written and Photographed by Taylor Cook and James Seppi