WTF is Paneer (and How Do I Make It?)
Paneer is South Asian cow- or buffalo-milk cheese. It’s used mainly in Northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and as a protein source in Hindu lacto-vegetarian cuisine. It’s a simple white cheese – unsalted, unaged, and acid-set. Its texture and consistency is similar to firm tofu (which is a good substitute for vegans) and its flavour is extremely mild due to the lack of salting and aging.
Sounds boring, right? Wrong; there’s more. Paneer doesn’t melt – which means you can do a lot of things with it that you can’t with most cheeses. Deep-frying, pan-frying, roasting, even grilling. Chop up paneer into 1″ cubes and add a splash of oil to a non-stick pan over medium heat, then fry the cubes for a few minutes each side and you’ll get nice browning, crispy edges, and a nice, soft, moist interior. Also similar to tofu, paneer can be marinated and it will absorb the flavours that it is cooked with. All of this makes it an ideal ingredient in South Asian cuisine; it’s an all-purpose, protein-rich flavour sponge that holds up to just about any cooking technique you need it to.
Paneer is available for purchase in blocks at Indian grocery stores with dairy sections (BJ Supermarket never lets me down). However, you can make it yourself for a few less dollars and some waiting. The preparation method is extremely simple: add acid to hot milk, then drain the whey and press the curds into a block. That’s it. So easy, I tried it myself and took pictures. However, before we do that, it may be helpful to know what’s going on first. Raising the milk to the boiling point, to start, will begin the curdling process as casein aggregates. Adding an acid at that point (often lemon juice, but white vinegar produces more consistent results, I’ve been told) stimulates the curdling process even further (producing an instant-souring effect) and the milk proteins form large clumps, leaving behind a thin, watery liquid called whey. You then strain the curds out of the whey, and press them into a block (or whatever shape you’d like, assuming you have the tools to do it). After it’s been pressed for about 3-5 hours, it’s a block of cheese. Done. So let’s go.
This recipe will make just over 1 lb of cheese.
- 4 L of homogenized / whole milk (3.25% milk fat content)
- 1/4 cup white vinegar
Things you will need: large pot, flat-edged wooden-handled tool for stirring/scraping, colander, cheesecloth (you can buy this at almost any grocery store – it’s very cheap)
1. Add the milk to the large pot and turn the heat to medium-high (about 6-7 on my dial).
2. As the milk heats up, the surface will get foamy (as shown above). Using the flat-edged tool (I used a silicon square spoon) stir the milk regularly and remember to scrape the bottom of the pan. If you don’t, milk solids will stick the bottom and eventually burn.
3. While the milk is approaching the boiling point, line a colander with 2 or 3 strips of cheesecloth. Leave a few inches of cloth hanging over the edge – you need extra cloth to wrap the cheese up when we get to the pressing stage.
4. Once the milk starts to boil, the foam on the surface will rise. Fast. That is why I didn’t get a picture of it. So when your milk is getting close to boiling, stay close! Once you hear the bubbles and see the foam growing, remove it from the heat immediately (or suffer the consequences), and stir in the vinegar. It will instantly get clumpy (like above). Let it sit like that for about 20-30 seconds to achieve maximum clumping.
5. Pour the entire contents carefully and slowly into the colander. This stuff is incredibly hot and a lot of steam comes off of 4 litres of boiling milk. Once you empty the contents of the pot into the colander, you’ll notice a pile of mush leftover. These are the curds. Right now they are loose and mushy. It’s not cheese yet. Well, it’s a kind of cheese already (you could eat it) but it’s not paneer yet.
6. Once the curds are relatively cool to the touch (let them sit for half an hour or so), fold the cheesecloth over the curd, and apply a heavy, flat weight to the top. I used another large pot filled with water. Once the weight is on, let it sit there for about 4 hours, or so.
7. After 4 hours, remove the weight, and open the cheesecloth up and magically you have a firm block of cheese! Remove it from the cheesecloth carefully, and when it’s relatively cool, it can be used immediately or refrigerated.
Paneer made like this has a fridge-life of about 1 week. You can freeze it for longer, but this is enough paneer for 1 or 2 significant meals, so you should use it right away!
Edit: Try the paneer with this recipe for Mattar Paneer! Fried paneer cubes simmered in a richly spiced, creamy tomato sauce with green peas!