Manchego cheese, a staple of Spanish cuisine, has long been overlooked outside its native country by the wider public and has been enjoyed mainly by cheese connoisseurs. However, it has started to pick up serious steam lately, with more and more people adding it to their charcuterie boards, swapping the cheddar and gouda for it in sandwiches, and even experimenting with
That said, Manchego is still far from the mainstream success of cheeses like parmesan and mozzarella, with very few people knowing more than a couple of rudimentary details about where it comes from and how to best use it.
If you’re already a Manchego connoisseur, you can head right over to the Yummy Bazaar’s cheese store and enrich your collection with a few different varieties (along with some other gourmet cheeses). But if you’ve yet to learn about Manchego, then we think the guide below could be of help!
What is Manchego Cheese?
Manchego cheese - or Queso Manchego, as it’s called in its home country - is a traditional Spanish cheese made from sheep’s milk.
It’s protected under the Denominación de Origen (DOP) classification in Spain and has been granted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) by the EU, which means it can only be produced in a specific region (namely, La Mancha) with a particular type of milk from a specific breed of sheep, adhering to specific, tightly regulated, rules.
Manchego cheese is ivory color, with the shade growing darker the more it’s aged. It typically has a semi-hard texture (though a young Manchego cheese gravitates towards a softer texture) and has a rich, complex flavor with buttery, nutty, tart, and sweet undertones all mixed together. Which flavor component comes forward, again, depends on how long the cheese has been aged. Younger Manchego cheeses have a milder but tarter flavor, with a bit of grassiness characteristic of cheeses made with sheep milk. Older cheeses have a more strongly pronounced buttery richness and nuttiness, with sweet undertones becoming more pronounced. The aged Manchego varieties often have flavors compared to caramel and butterscotch, though the sweetness isn’t overwhelming and is largely balanced with more savory, nutty notes.
How is Manchego Cheese Made?
Due to Manchego cheese’s DOP status, it can only be made in the La Mancha region, specifically in the provinces of Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca, and Toledo (the place of manufacturing is usually specified on the label), and only in specifically designated areas.
The milk used to manufacture Manchego cheese can be either pasteurized or raw, but:
- It must be whole milk;
- it must come from Manchega breed sheep (yes, the name of the cheese comes directly from the breed of sheep used in production);
- The sheep the milk is from must be bred and raised on farms registered within the same designated areas of the four regions specializing in producing Manchego cheese.
Once the milk has been collected, it’s poured into heated vats and stirred together with rennet and culture to produce a firm curd. The curd is then cut into smaller parts and strained to expel excess whey. Once adequately strained, the curd is placed in a specialized cylindrical mold that has to be no higher than 4.7 in (12 cm) and no wider than 8.7 in (22 cm), according to the Manchego regulatory guidelines. The molds compress the curd expelling all remaining whey. As a final step before setting the cheese to age, the curds are soaked in a simple brine made with water and salt and then brushed with olive oil to lock in the flavor and moisture fully. Some Manchego cheeses are dipped in wax and aged through the anaerobic method, similar to Gouda cheese, not allowing oxygen to enter. However, most use the aerobic process, allowing the cheese to breathe. There are no strict rules about it, and the technique depends on the manufacturer, though, unlike Gouda cheese, Manchego cheese wax rind tends to be very thin and glossy.
Manchego cheese can be aged anywhere between 2 weeks and 24 months, with the length of the aging process resulting in four different types of product.
The Types of Manchego Cheese:
Manchego cheese is very roughly divided into four different types according to the aging process, varying from young and fresh to fully aged:
Fresco or fresh Manchego cheese is arguably not really Manchego, as it’s aged for no more than two weeks, while classic Manchego seems to require at least 60 days to qualify for the title. It has a very rich texture but a mild flavor. Manchego Fresco isn’t well-known or widely consumed, and it’s rarely exported to other countries, mostly produced in small quantities for local consumption.
Semicurado or semi-cured is any Manchego cheese cured for over two weeks required for Manchego Fresco and up to 4 months. Between 2-3 months seems to be the most common timeframe for this type. Manchego Semicurado is of bright ivory color and has a semi-firm texture with tiny air holes. It’s the most widely consumed Manchego variety.
Curado or fully cured Manchego cheese is aged anywhere between 3 and 6 months. It has a denser and firmer texture than Manchego Semicurado, with noticeably fewer air holes, but it isn’t firm enough to be considered hard cheese. It has a darker ivory color with light brown-ish edges near the rind.
There’s a noticeable overlap between Manchego Semicurado and Manchego Curado's aging timeframe, which can make separating the designations somewhat complicated. Manchego cheese aged for around three months can be described as both Semicurado and Curado, depending on what timeframe each individual manufacturer adheres to. Most Manchego cheese labels display how long the cheese has aged to give the consumer a clearer idea about the product.
Viejo (“old”), also known as Añejo (“aged”), is a type of Manchego cheese that’s aged between 12 and 24 months. Manchego Viejo has a firm and crumbly texture, somewhat similar to Pecorino Romano, and deep yellow color.
Manchego cheese made with raw milk is separated into its own unique category called Manchego Artesano. Manchego Artesano is typically aged for around 12 months, creating a cheese with a firm texture and a rich yellow color.
What Does Manchego Cheese Taste Like?
Similar to texture and aroma, Manchego cheese taste strongly depends on how long it has been aged.
Manchego Fresco has a very mild flavor, but with the distinct butteriness and saltiness of a young cheese and just a touch of grassiness characteristic of cheeses made with sheep’s milk.
Manchego Semicurado and Manchego Curado tend to be somewhat similar, especially when aged around the 2-4 month mark. They both have tanginess and nuttiness to them, as well as distinct sweetness. The younger the cheese, the more pronounced the tanginess, while the further it ages, the more the sweetness starts to overpower the tangy notes and the more fleshed out the nutty notes. If we were to separate the two strictly, we could say that Manchego Semicurado is tangier while Manchego Curado is sweeter, but the truth is unless the first has been aged for less than two months and the latter is pushing the 5 to 6-month mark in its aging process, it’ll be tough to differentiate between the two.
Manchego Viejo (or Manchego Añejo, however you prefer) is the easiest to differentiate through taste. It has a sharp, salty flavor with noticeable nuttiness and strong pepperiness to it. Overall, this type of Manchego is very complex and rich.
Manchego Artesano has a milder flavor than most Manchego Viejo types, but the distinct pepperiness and nuttiness are still there. It also has more well-pronounced sweetness, not as strongly overpowered by other flavor elements.
What Do You Use Manchego Cheese For?
Manchego is most often eaten raw, either served as an ingredient with traditional Spanish tapas, paired with fresh bread, jamón, and marinated olives, or as an ingredient in a simple sandwich assembled with similar ingredients (fresh and soft white bread, jamón, or other cured meats with milder, sweeter flavor to go with Manchego cheese).
Manchego’s robust, complex flavor that balances tangy and sweet notes lends itself well to being paired with both savory and sweet ingredients. That said, the common choice is to pair it with foods that have similar complex flavors and balance sweetness and tanginess. Sun-dried tomatoes, nuts like walnuts, hazelnuts, or Marcona almonds, fruits like figs and grapes (including the preserves), and cured meats like salchichon, lomo, jamón Serrano, are all considered classic flavor pairings to Manchego cheese.
Bocadillo de Salchichon, while not exactly a traditional Spanish food, is one of the most popular sandwiches in the country and is served all across the country in bars, taverns, and other simpler eating establishments, often with a pint of cold beer.
Notably, Manchego cheese is rarely used as a cooking ingredient in a lot of dishes since it’s not a good melting cheese due to the sheep milk’s relatively high protein and butter fat content. But Manchego Viejo is a good grating cheese and is often added as a topping to more complex dishes like salads and pasta.
How Long Does Manchego Cheese Last?
Commercially produced Manchego cheese should have either an expiration date or a best-by date printed on the label. But remember that this date is only valid for Manchego cheese that’s still sealed in the package.
Check the Manchego package upon delivery, and if you suspect any damage, contact the manufacturer immediately!
Once the package is opened, the cheese needs to be consumed within a much shorter period. Ideally, an opened Manchego wedge should be eaten within 5 to 7 days.
Do You Have to Refrigerate Manchego Cheese?
If we’re very technical, then no, strictly speaking, you don’t need to refrigerate Manchego. Any cool dark area like a temperature-controlled pantry or an old cellar will do.
But, semantics aside, refrigeration is the safest option for keeping Manchego fresh and suitable for consumption. So unless your fridge is literally bursting at seams, it’s better to find a place for your Manchego there.
Pro tip: do NOT wrap your Manchego cheese in plastic wrap before refrigerating. Unlike many other kinds of cheese, Manchego needs a small amount of oxygen to maintain its flavor. Wrapping in plastic will lead to its quality declining faster. But it is essential to protect the cheese from moisture less it develops mold, so either place it in a container, or wrap it in either parchment or wax paper.
Can You Freeze Manchego Cheese?
Yes, you can freeze Manchego cheese to prolong its shelf life. Frozen Manchego will be good for additional 5 to 6 months. Thaw the cheese in the refrigerator overnight for minimum damage to the texture and flavor.