It seems too easy a trick that a gallon of milk and a lemon yields over a pound of mild cheese that can be transformed into a soul satisfying dinner for four, but that’s exactly what happens when you make paneer.
Paneer is a soft, supple cheese of Indian origin, made from freshly formed curds. Originally from the North, paneer is a vegetarian treat in many regions, as expensive as meat in India and contributing the same toothsome, soulful satisfaction. South Indians I know will invariably order it when we go out for a special meal, usually in a sauce of pureed spinach (palak paneer) or in one of tomato, spices and lots of butter (muttar paneer). Paneer is also the basis of the classic dessert, ras malai, a sweet cheese dumpling poached in syrup and served with sweetened reduced saffron milk.
You can easily make paneer-it’s a great first lesson in housemade cheese making. The most seasoned chef cannot help but get a thrill from seeing the warm milk actually separate into curds and whey with the addition of a bit of acidity. Once the curds are drained, you will understand why cheese is generally expensive when 16 cups of milk becomes a concentrated 2 cups of delightful, fresh cheese.
The creative chef will be tempted to transform the tender curds into springy cubes ready to play the foil to a highly spiced sauce, to be flavored imaginatively and broiled or stuffed into vegetables. Making the cheese from scratch gives the chef the chance to mix in herbs or spices, tailoring it to the dish at hand.
Below is a basic paneer recipe. Click here for another.
Basic Paneer Recipe
There are several ways to ‘break’ the milk when making paneer. Lemon juice or white wine vinegar work equally well in small quantities that don’t contribute any discernable flavor to the cheese. An experienced sweets maker in India would use the liquid from drained yogurt or buttermilk to make his specialties.
If adding flavorings (see recipes below), fold them into the curds just after they have been ladled into the cheesecloth.
1 gallon whole milk
2 T white wine vinegar OR 4 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/8 t. kosher salt
- Heat the milk in a large saucepot over medium heat until just below the simmer. Stir in the vinegar or lemon juice and salt.
- Continue to warm the milk over medium heat until it just begins to simmer and turn of the heat. The milk should start to separate or “break”. Let sit 5 minutes.
- Line a large strainer with rinsed cheesecloth. Gently ladle the curds into the strainer, discarding the cloudy liquid (unless you have a whey-loving pig out back). Fold the cheesecloth over the curds, evening them out as much as possible to form them into a cake about 1 ½ inch high, gently pressing down. Place the strainer over a bowl and then place a plate with a light weight, about one pound, on top. Refrigerate until cold and set. *
- A perforated rectangular steamer works great for this.