Like a lot of North Americans, my first introduction to Manchego cheese was on a trip to Spain.
Over the years, my husband and I have logged many months in different parts of Spain.
And Manchego has always managed to find its way into my fridge and onto my tapas order whenever I’m there.
Manchego is probably the most famous Spanish cheese, and once you’ve had it (and especially, once you’ve had it in Spain), it’s easy to see why.
Manchego is an easy eating cheese.
Made from the milk of manchega sheep, it’s frequently served on its own in perfectly thin triangles, because it’s so damn yummy on it’s own.
(it’s also great used in recipes!)
Manchego is generally firm and springy, getting a bit drier, crumblier and more crystalline as it ages. And it offers up a nice balance of sweet, nutty, tangy and salty, getting spicier with age.
It’s sometimes compared to Italy’s pecorino romano, another firm cheese made from sheep milk, but is milder and not as overpowering.
You can buy Manchego young, old, and at various stages in between – fresco, semi curado, curado, or viejo – and you can enjoy it on its own or in a recipe.
To this day, a taste of Manchego takes me back to Spain.
As I sit writing this in a windowless office, on a cold and rainy December in the Pacific Northwest, a wee nibble of the Manchego curado I have in my fridge takes me back to late dinners on warm nights, to enjoying a cold lager on Barcelona’s Plaça Reial, and to tables filled with meats, croquettes, pimientos de padrón, and friends.
If you’re intrigued by one of Spain’s staple cheeses, keep reading. This guide to Manchego cheese will help you understand the basics, like what Manchego cheese tastes like, how to use Manchego cheese, and Manchego cheese pairings.
And if you have a recipe that calls for Manchego but none on hand? Fear not, as I’ve outlined some good substitutes for Manchego cheese below.
Read on, future Manchego lovers!
What is Manchego Cheese?
Manchego is a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese hailing from La Mancha in central Spain, an arid and sweltering plateau southeast of Toledo that stretches through parts of Toledo, Cuenca, and Albacete provinces, and most of Ciudad Real province.
It’s a firm and springy cheese that’s fairly mild, and it gets harder, drier, spicier and more crumbly as it ages.
And it comes from an area of Spain with a rich culinary heritage. Despite being dry and high (it sits about 2000 ft above sea level), La Mancha actually produces some of Spain’s most notable culinary gems.
The Cheese and Wine of La Mancha, Spain
La Mancha has a long history of making sheep’s milk cheese, with evidence going as far back as the bronze age. It’s even mentioned in Cervantes’ Don Quixote!
Today, the area is home to artisanal manchego producers as well as large industrial factories. While both produce their own version of Spain’s most famous cheese, there’s a key difference for consumers: industrial producers use pasteurized milk, whereas the artisan producers use raw milk.
In addition to Manchego, La Mancha is known for its wines and saffron. In fact, it’s the largest delimited wine region in Europe, with more than 469,000 acres of vineyard – more than all of Australia.
The La Mancha wine region is best known for Tempranillo (sometimes known as Cencibel, locally), Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, although there are 25 grapes permitted under the La Mancha DO laws.
In the spirit of pairing food and drink from local regions, as has been done for centuries, manchego pairs well with different wines from the region.
Semi-curado and curado should go nicely with the fruitier of the La Mancha reds, such as Tempranillo or Merlot.
For whites, choose a Verdejo for a local companion, or a white rioja for a regional adjacent choice. For more mature manchego (which may include some curado as well as viejo), spicier reds such as regional Syrah, or Rioja from up north should work.
Types of Manchego
Manchego is a legally protected name. To be a true Manchego, the cheese has to be made in the Spanish region of La Mancha using the milk of Manchego sheep. That doesn’t mean it’s not manufactured at scale, however.
When shopping for Manchego, you can choose between Queso Manchego, Denominación de Origen (abbreviated as DO, and equivalent to a PDO) and Queso Manchego Artesano, DO.
The first is made from pasteurized sheep’s milk, and often from larger manufacturers. The second is a raw milk version of the cheese, often made by artisan farms (as the name implies!).
Within both types of Manchego, you can also choose from a wide range of tastes and textures, based on age. Worth noting, there’s some overlap between the different ages and maturation times, so these are a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule. As you get older, the cheese’s texture gets less smooth and becomes more crystallized, and the flavor gets spicier.
- Fresco: Matured for roughly 2 weeks to a month. You’re unlikely to find young Manchego in the US, as it has a short shelf life.
- Semi-curado: Matured for approximately 1 to 6 months. You can find some semi-curados in the US that are around 3 months or older.
- Curado: Matured for approximately 7 months to 12 months
- Viejo: Matured for approximately 12 months or more
In the US, Manchego is more commonly sold by amount of time aged, as opposed to the Spanish designations of Fresco, Semi-Curado, Curado, and Viejo. Personally, I like this system, as it lets you clearly identify age and taste preferences.
If you want to try some Manchego in the US, you can order from the following online cheese retailers:
- iGourmet has a range of Manchego to choose from, including pasterized and raw milk varieties
- Murray’s Cheese Aged 1-Year Manchego
- Di Bruno Bros Manchego and 1605 Manchego
What Does Manchego Cheese Taste Like?
Generally speaking, Manchego is sweet, milky, and nutty, with notes of grass or hay. However, there is a huge variation based on age and other factors. Artisan Manchego, in particular, will also vary from season to season and year to year, even from the same farm.
The Manchego you’ve probably tried is firmer and drier aged versions.
- Manchego Fresco is a wet and crumbly cheese, with a rubbery texture. Because Manchego DO has aging rules associated with it (between 30 and 60 days minimum ripening, depending on the size of the cheese), Manchego Fresco doesn’t technically qualify as a true Manchego. You’re unlikely to find this version outside of Spain, and it’s got a very short shelf life.
- Semi-curado (~2 to 5 months) – At several months, the cheese has a springy but firm texture that’s slightly rubbery. Color wise, look for a consistent creamy white. You can expect mild flavors and aromas that may be described as fruity, grassy, tangy, hay, milky, and creamy.
- Curado (~6 to 12 months) – The texture is generally firm with a bit of springiness, but it loses elasticity as it ages and some crystallization may appear. Appearance wise, it’s ivory in color, getting yellow or amber near the rind, and it has small, fairly evenly spaced holes throughout the paste. It’s around this stage in the maturation process that it gets a bit of a sweet and nutty or caramel flavor, and it’s still fairly mild. At room temperature, it should still slice smoothly, rather than crumble.
- Viejo – Aged for 1 year to a maximum of 2 years, Manchego Viejo is a hard cheese with a complex and lingering flavor that’s strong, sharp, sweet and peppery. Gone are the beautiful milky white triangles of younger Manchegos – with age, this cheese gets a bit ugly. You’ll see uneven eyes throughout and a predominantly amber paste that may have lighter or even pinkish veins, along with some translucency and more pronounced oiliness. While it can be enjoyed on it’s own, it’s also a nice alternative to pecorino romano or parmigiano reggiano when grated over pasta.
Words you might use to describe Manchego’s flavor, aroma, and texture include: springy, swee, nutty, butterscotch, dairy, milky, grassy, hay, buttery, tart, lactic, caramel, salty, seawater.
Worth noting, Manchego has a distinctive rind. Coloring ranges from light tan to dark brown, with a herringbone or basket weave pattern in it.
The pattern is a nod to the way Manchego was traditionally made before the advent of plastic molds. Back then, Spanish cheesemakers would use a wide strap to shape the curds, and the strap’s weave would leave an impression on the rind.
The rind is then covered with either plasti-coat (common with industrial manufacturers) or wax (more common with the artisan Manchego). That means it has an inedible rind you should remove, not eat!
How to Serve Manchego Cheese (+ Great Pairings to Try)
In Spain, you’ll often find manchego served on a tapas plate in thinly sliced triangles. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with doing the same!
If going for a tapas board, I recommend using a Manchego curado. Serve it up with quince or chutney, green olives, fresh figs, sundried tomatoes, chorizo, jamon iberico, honey, and nuts, such as marcona almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts.
For drinks, pair with crisp and fruity sparkling wines like Cava, Trento or Prosecco, Spanish wines like Rioja, Tempranillo, and Verdejo.
Generally, opt for crisper and fruitier for younger manchego, and spicier and more full-bodied for older Manchego.
Sherry is also a classic Manchego pairing, and some beers also work.
For beer, choose lighter ales with a bit of bitterness for younger Manchegos (i.e. semi curado) and get darker and maltier as the cheese matures (nut brown ales, porters, stouts, etc.).
- Semi-curado is good for cooking, for lunch
- Curado is great for a cheese board or tapas
- Veijo is good for crumbling over pasta, salad, etc
Substitutes for Manchego Cheese
If you can’t find Manchego, there are a number of substitutes that could work, depending on what you’re using it for.
- Tomme de Brebis is a firm French Sheep’s milk cheese that’s fairly similar.
- Zamorano is another firm Spanish cheese made from sheep’s milk with a nutty flavor
- Pecorino Romano is a fairly classic substitute, especially for Manchego Veijo. It’s stronger in flavor so use less than what your recipe calls for if Manchego is listed.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano is another substitute similar to Pecorino Romano, but even stronger.
- Monterey Jack is a good substitute for semi-curado, for cooking and melting. Dry Monterey Jack is closer to a Manchego Curado, but without the nuttiness.
- Chihuahua, like Monterey Jack, is a good substitute for semi-curado.
- Muenster is another good substitute for semi-curado.
FAQs About Manchego Cheese
Can you eat the rind of Manchego Cheese?
Nope! Unlike many cheeses, the rind of Manchego is not edible.
These days, a lot of Manchego has an inedible rind that uses plasti coat to seal it during the maturation process. While plasti-coat isn’t harmful, it’s not digestible either.
Even for manchegos that don’t use plast-coat, generally speaking you want to avoid the rind. It won’t hurt you, but it won’t be delicious, either.
For hard cheeses such as Manchego, the rind is the wall between the cheese’s paste and the world outside. And it serves as a barrier for the entire maturation period.
So while the cheese sits on a shelf in an aging cave for months or a year, the rind is getting exposed to all the elements in the cave.
More or less it can just get crusty and hard, and generally a bit groadie.
How to Store Manchego Cheese?
Always use new plastic wrap or more ideally, cheese paper, because Manchego easily absorbs the flavours fo plastic wrap.
This also means when purchasing, ideally ask for a fresh cut from a cheese monger, right off the wheel.
Final Thoughts About Manchego
Manchego is one of my favorite cheeses – how about you?