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What’s the Best Substitute for Manchego Cheese?

Well, when we’re considering substituting Manchego in a dish, it’s really important to know what type of Manchego we’re trying to replace. Check out the page linked there to make sure you know what you’re talking about, then read on…

Finding a Substitute for Manchego Viejo

It’s most likely that this is what you’re looking for – a hard cheese with a complex, intense flavour. Maybe you’re grating it or just slicing it and eating it off a cheese board. The two obvious options are Pecorino Romano and Asiago.

Asiago is a beautiful cheese from a small region in the north-east of Italy. It can be aged to extreme hardness and has a spicy, sweet taste – really well worth trying! However, if you can’t get Manchego then it’s unlikely that you can get Asiago as it’s even less prominent.

So your best option is Pecorino Romano. Also Italian, this cheese rests somewhere between Parmesan and Manchego. It’s not as salty and strongly flavoured as Parmesan, and also not as dry. It doesn’t quite approach Manchego’s refined taste, but still it’s a pretty good substitute as it will behave essentially the same way – maybe use a little bit less so it’s not overpowering.

If you can’t even get Pecorino then you’ll have to go with Parmesan, but you really don’t want to use too much as it will rapidly take over the whole dish with its strong saltiness.

Filling in for Manchego Curado

The obvious substitute for this gorgeous melting cheese is Mozzarella. It’s also a semi-soft cheese which has high moisture content so that means that it melts perfectly – hence its traditional role on pizzas and lasagna. The main difference is that real Mozzarella is made from buffalo milk, which tends to be a bit lower in protein and higher in fat than the sheep’s milk of traditional Manchego, though conversely it’s also higher in calcium and lower in lactose.

If you’re not a Mozzarella fan then you can definitely try cheddar or Gruyère or even a Monterey Jack (if you’re in the US), but they’re all a bit more strongly flavoured than Manchego Curado so they won’t be a perfect replacement.

Manchego Cheese Nutrition Facts

The exact nutrition stats for Manchego cheese are pretty consistent across brands and across different types of Manchego, so we can easily give indicative values.

The first column is for a nutritionally standard one hundred grams of Manchego, the second is for a more realistic serving size of one ounce.

Serving Size
100g
28g
Calories
320
90
Calories from fat
70%
Calories from protein
30%
Calories from carbohydrates
0%
Total fat
25g
7g
Saturated fat
18g
5g
Trans fat
0g
0g
Cholesterol
70mg
20mg
Minerals
Sodium
500mg
150mg
Calcium
1000mg
300mg
Carbohydrate
0g
0g
Dietary fibre
0g
0g
Sugars
0g
0g
Protein
25g
7g
Vitamins
Vitamin A
535 IU
150 IU

Why is it so?

Manchego is a complex dairy product which concentrates the excellent nutritional values of the sheep’s milk that makes it up. This means it’s got plenty of protein and no carbs – good for building muscles – and a great amount of calcium and vitamin A – good for building bone strength. On the down side, there’s a lot of saturated fat, so you might need to go for a run after a big Manchego session to burn some of it off…

How Should I Serve Manchego Cheese?

There are many ways to eat a classic cheese like Manchego, and it depends a bit on how your particular cheese has been aged.

It’s easy with a nice Manchego Curado. This smooth, easy-eating cheese gives an interesting spin to a sandwich or a salad where you’d usually use a boring cheddar, or as a perk up for a soup which is lacking a bit in flavour. How about a hot-dog variant – spicy chorizo in a bun with grated Manchego cheese on top? Or a Manchego, tomato and olive pizza? Manchego on your beef burger? Endless options with this flexible cheese.

On the other hand, if you’ve got a Manchego Viejo, the intensity of the taste requires more forethought and respect. This is a cheese to savour for cheese’s sake, rather than as an adjunct to a larger meal. Serve it on a large platter with other classic Spanish products like a Jamón Serrano (the unspeakably delicious Jamón Iberico de Bellota if you’re a millionaire), with green olives and with dulce de membrillo – the sweetness of the quinces is a gorgeous counterpoint to the sharpness of the cheese. Crusty bread ties the whole platter together.

And, of course, you’ll need wine. Something with body is best to give it a chance against the strong Manchego – a Rioja Tempranillo is the perfect companion. For a different yet still delicious experience, a Jerez sherry is great, or even a Manzanilla if your tastebuds run to that particular delicate Spanish taste.

What Should I Look For When Buying Manchego Cheese?

For a start, it’s important to get a real Manchego, otherwise you’re bound to be disappointed.An example of an official Manchego cheese D.O. label Look at the back of the wheel to find an official D.O. tab labeling it Manchego. Without that, the cheese is a fake! Watch out especially for “Manchego-style” cheese, which comes with no guarantees of even being similar to real Manchego.

You also need to know what the cheese looks like.

As with any product with such a long history behind it, Manchego has a very recognizable appearance. It comes in big wheels, with a diameter of about 25cm and a thickness of 12cm, giving it a weight of around three kilos. Carrying one in each hand makes for an excellent and delicious exercise regime! (If a bit counter-productive…)

On the outside, there’s an inedible rind with a traditional herringbone basketweave pattern on it, which apparently has been used ever since the cheese was wrapped in sheets of woven grass in the Bronze Age. The top and bottom of the wheel are pressed with wheat ear patterns, and divided by lines into four equal parts.

The other question is always: which type of Manchego cheese? Check out our guide to the aging of Manchego to get a sense of the differences between the varieties. We can also help you out with some basic Manchego recipe ideas.

But really, you want to buy them all, as they’ve all got different strengths and I’m sure you can work out ingenious new ways to eat delicious Manchego cheese!

How Does Manchego Cheese Change With Age?

As with any of the great cheeses, the maturation and ageing of Manchego has big implications for the flavour.

In order to qualify as real Manchego cheese, the wheels must be aged for more than two months in natural caves in Spain’s the La Mancha region.

Two months is enough time to get a bit of flavour into the cheese, but that silky sheep’s milk has much more to offer.  This is where the cheese-maker’s art starts to manifest…

Pulling the cheese out of the cave after between three and six months gives you a Manchego Curado. The cheese is about halfway to being completely solid – technically, it’s semi-cured – and breaks easily when required, with just a hint of yellow in the colour. The taste is mild, not over-powering, with a nutty piquancy and a smooth, creamy texture in the mouth. At this point it works very well for melting or in other ways finishing off a dish.

However, if you’re prepared to wait a little longer for your cheese, you end up with a different beast. Restrain yourself for a year before opening the cave and you’ll find the wonderful Manchego Viejo. At this point the cheese is cured and has become much more solid, though retaining some of that interesting crumbly texture, and the colour has become a rich yellow. The flavour has increased in complexity, with a sharp edge to it and an intense, peppery body. The cheese is all grown up and ready to take center stage, shaved or grated, or eaten on its own.

(In La Mancha itself, it’s also possible to get Manchego Fresco, a white, fresh cheese which has only been aged for a couple of weeks.  This smooth, rich cheese is delicious but very hard to get outside the region, and isn’t technically considered a real Manchego cheese.)

Of course, the older the cheese, the more expensive it is. The best bet is to try them all so that you know what you’re doing, then you’ll be able to pick the one that fits into your meal. Though my preference is to plan the whole meal around Manchego

How Ancient Is Manchego Cheese?

Cheese-making existed in Ancient Egyptian times, four thousand or more years ago, so you might be surprised at the age of that wheel of Manchego in your fridge!

Cheese was made originally when it was discovered that this ingenious method of preservation allowed the nutrients in milk to be saved for later consumption.  It was probably an serendipitous accidental discovery many thousands of years ago.
An old-style kitchen where cheese was originally made
In Spain, archaeologists have found evidence of Manchego cheese production on the La Mancha plains well before the time of Christ, back when Iberian civilization was still in a relatively primitive Bronze Age.  These cheese-makers were surrounded by distant ancestors of the Manchega sheep whose milk give present-day Manchego cheese its nuanced taste.

So when eating Manchego, there’s an unbroken line of cheese which connects you back through thousands of years of science all the way to ancient Iberian shepherds!

What Is Real Manchego Cheese?

Manchego cheese is protected since 1984 by a Denominación de Origen, a classification controlled by a council which dictates exactly what can and can’t be called Manchego cheese – this ensures that you’re getting that classic Manchego taste every time. Push the boundaries and you better believe these tough cheese-makers will fix you up!

If you read Spanish you should check out the official D.O. website, linked at the bottom. But for those who don’t, what exactly makes a real, traditional Manchego?

  • For a start, Manchego cheese has to be has to come from the La Mancha plateau in south-central Spain.
  • The milk used in Manchego cheese has to come from Manchega sheep, an ancient breed which is used to thriving up on the high plains of La Mancha.
  • Once made, the cheese has to be aged in natural caves for at least two months.

Classic Manchego cheese is made from unpasteurised milk, and so has more character than the more modern industrial Manchego. This classic cheese is still produced by small artisan cheese-makers. However, in some countries the importation of unpasteurised cheese is forbidden, so it might be hard to get hold of any of this special stuff – you’ll just have to go over to La Mancha…

Look carefully when you buy the cheese – you can ensure that you’re getting a real Manchego by checking for the D.O. label, which is usually displayed proudly on the back of the wheel.

Official D.O. website: http://www.quesomanchego.es/

Where Does Manchego Cheese Come From?

When you’re eating Manchego cheese you can almost taste the dry, rolling plains of La Mancha
Windmills in the La Mancha region of Spain
La Mancha is, of course, in Spain.  You probably recognize it from Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote, whose eccentric title character lives in the region and tilts at its characteristic windmills. In fact, given the long history of Manchego cheese, and the fact that it pops up in the book, it’s likely that Cervantes ate it just as you do today!

La Mancha is a geographical rather than political area; a high plateau that stretches south of the capital, Madrid, encompassing the ancient, walled city of Toledo before reaching the beautiful Sierra Morena.  To the east, it encompasses the less noteworthy city of Albacete. It’s more than 34,000 km2 and covers 398 municipalities, mostly in the Cuenca and Toledo provinces.

La Mancha is an agricultural area with some fertile land, but this is mixed with rocky outcrops, and it has an extreme climate due to the height of the plateau. The variable rainfall, summer heat and winter frosts mean that the plant life throughout the region is naturally restricted to hardy plants with a tough constitution. This was recognised thousands of years ago by the Arabs who first lived in the area, naming it Al Mansha, meaning “waterless land”.

Despite this, wine is grown here, as in all of Spain – La Mancha has been certified as a Denominación de Origen for varieties of both red and white wine. It’s a big region for saffron, and the famous windmills are generally milling cereals. But, for our purposes, it’s the flocks of Manchega which are important, as they produce the sheep’s milk that Manchego cheese is made of.

What Is Manchego Cheese Made Of?

Manchego is a sheep’s milk cheese.

Sheep’s milk is much less common than cow’s milk, probably because sheep are much smaller than cows and so naturally produce a much smaller volume of milk. A sheep might produce about a hundred kilos a year, while cows can produce up to ten thousand kilos. Not much of a contest there!
Manchega sheep grazing in La Mancha
Manchego cheese specifically is produced by the smart, funny Manchega sheep which have roamed the plains of La Mancha for thousands of years. Originally, the species pushed down from Central Europe through the Pyrenees and was an ovis aries ligeriensis, before being bred and improved by the early inhabitants of the region.

The Manchega’s grazing on the idiosyncratic native wildlife and herbs are what gives Manchego its classic flavour, and means that it’s impossible to make it properly away from that area. To perpetuate this special cheese, the D.O. board strictly controls the breeding of the Manchega.

There’s not a lot of sheep’s milk drinking these days, but it is used in making some other great cheeses:

  • Feta cheese from Greece
  • Roquefort cheese from France
  • Pecorino Romano and Ricotta cheeses from Italy

It works well for cheese because sheep’s milk has more fat, more protein and generally more solids and less water than cow’s or goat’s milk.  But beware – it also contains more lactose, so unfortunately it’s not an option for the lactose intolerant!

There’s a Great Debate out there about raw vs pasteurised milk. In many countries raw milk or cheese made from raw milk is illegal, and instead the heating pasteurisation process has to take place first, which kills some bacteria but also hurts the flavour of the final product. Any industrial Manchego imported into your country is likely to be pasteurised, but if you’re in Spain you might be able to get a hand-made raw milk Manchego – it’s a whole different experience!