I fell in love with paneer when I was in college and ate my first saag paneer. It was one of the dishes I ate where I thought that meat wasn’t necessary to make the meal more delicious. I loved the soft and slightly chewy texture of the cubed cheese, and it was the perfect sponge for all the spices in the saag paneer.
Paneer is a fresh cheese that is very common in Indian cuisine. I never cooked with it until last year, when I made a fried paneer recipe from Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India. Part of the battle is finding a store that carries the cheese in the first place. In Sacramento, you can find paneer at Nugget Markets, Sprouts, and Sacramento Foods Co-Op. You can also find it at Indian grocery stores.
One thing that I didn’t expect from store-bought paneer was the difference in texture from fresh paneer. If you have ever eaten packaged halloumi, you’ll know what I mean. When you bite into the paneer, the cheese feels quite chewy, and it makes a little squeak against your teeth as you bite. I don’t mind that feeling at all, but not everyone enjoys it.
In the photo above, the top row is store-bought paneer, and the bottom row is homemade. As you can see, the store-bought cheese is smoother, and it looks like mozzarella. Conversely, you can see a lot of texture in the homemade version (from the curds), almost like tofu. It is a lot more crumbly when you slice into it, too.
Homemade paneer tends to have a softer, more crumbly texture. In comparison, the store-bought version is much more dense and firm.
HOW TO MAKE PANEER
Making paneer at home is very easy. You want to start with whole milk because the texture of the cheese is creamier. Turn off the heat right when the milk boils. I usually boil the milk in a large pot with the lid on because it speeds up the boiling process. As a result, the milk tends not to burn on the bottom of the pot. The big issue with boiling milk with the lid on is that you need to pay attention to the stove. The milk can boil over quick and spill all over the stovetop.
Then, if you’re anything like me, you’ll forget about the spill and cook with the same hob soon afterwards. You’ll then start smelling something burning and then realize the area around the hob is dark brown from the burnt milk. Don’t make that same mistake.
After the milk boils, pour in some lemon juice or vinegar. Give everything a stir, and the milk should start curdling immediately. The liquid will turn into a yellow/light-green color, especially if you use vinegar, but that’s completely normal. I usually let the the curds sit in the pot like this for about 5 to 10 minutes. It gives the liquid a chance to cool, too. Many recipes will say to add a few ice cubes into the pot to help cool everything, which you can certainly do as well. I haven’t noticed a significant difference one way or the other.
Next, you want to strain the curds through a cheesecloth and rinse the curds with cold water. This really helps to cool the cheese and it helps wash away the lemon juice or vinegar.
Then, gather up the corners of the cloth and squeeze out the excess liquid from the cheese. Many recipes at this point will instruct you to tie a knot on the cheesecloth and hang the cheese on your faucet to let more water drain. I have done this several times, and didn’t notice much more water dripping from the cheese, so I skip this step. However, I do press the cheese to release more liquid.
This is how my block of paneer looks like before I press it between plates. Notice how I lay the cheesecloth flat over the block of cheese. This helps create a more smooth, even surface on the exterior. Afterwards, I will place the block of cheese on a plate, place another stack of plates on top, and stick everything into the refrigerator. Some people like to place the cheese over a colander so that the water drips out from the bottom, but I don’t have one that’ll fit the cheese.
Refrigeration really helps firm up the cheese. Otherwise, the curds will crumble quite easily when you cut into the paneer or cook with it.
After an hour or two of pressing, your cheese should look like this!
LOOKING FOR MORE PANEER RECIPES?
If you are looking for more ways to cook with paneer, check out my spiced pan-fried paneer recipe or the tasty recipes from some of my favorite food bloggers below!
Paneer Tikka Masala
Paneer Jalfrezi (cheese and pepper stir fry) from Playful Cooking
Matar Paneer (peas and paneer) from Indian Simmer
Paneer, Mushroom, Corn Curry from The Jam Lab
How to Make Paneer
- fine cheesecloth
- 8 cups whole milk
- 6 tablespoons lemon juice or white vinegar
- Pour the milk into a large pot and bring it to boil over medium heat. I like to cover the pot to speed up the boiling process (which also lessens the likelihood of the milk burning on the bottom). However, you need to watch over that pot like a hawk. Once you start hearing bubbling in the pot, remove the lid and check to see if the milk has boiled. Don’t let the milk boil over the pot because it is a mess to clean up later. You can also check the milk periodically and give it a stir as you wait for it to boil.
- While the milk is boiling, prep the lemon juice. If you are using vinegar, I recommend mixing it with 1/4 cup water so that it is not so intense when you pour it into the milk.
- Once the milk has boiled, pour in the lemon juice (or vinegar) mixture. Give everything a stir, and you should see the milk curdle immediately. If you don’t, you can add 1 more tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar. Let the contents of the pot cool for another 5 to 10 minutes.
- Line a colander with a cheesecloth and place the lined colander into the sink.
- Strain the milk curds through the cheesecloth. Rinse the curds under cold water to wash out the lemon juice or vinegar. This also helps cool the milk curds so that you can squeeze it immediately afterwards.
- Gather up the corners of the cloth, twist the cloth so that the soft cheese is in the shape of a ball. Squeeze out the excess water. Usually, the cheese is cool enough for me to handle at this point.
- Shape the cheese into a disc (see photos above for an illustration). Place wrapped the cheese over a plate and weigh it down with a small stack of plates on top. Press the cheese for 1 to 2 hours. I usually transfer everything to the fridge at this stage. If you don’t have enough space in your refrigerator, you can press the cheese on the counter and then transfer the cheese to the fridge when you are done. I like to refrigerate the cheese before cooking with it because it allows the cheese to firm up and decreases the likelihood of it disintegrating while I cook with it.
- Once chilled, the paneer is ready for cooking! You can refrigerate the cheese in an airtight container for up to a week. You can also freeze the cheese for up to several months.
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