While living over in India, my spouse and I first learned of paneer, and grew to love it. Essentially, it's close to cottage cheese, except with all the liquid removed and the resulting curds often pressed into a more solid form.
Making paneer is ridiculously easy, and basic paneer requires nothing more than milk, lemon juice or white vinegar, normal kitchen equipment, and some time.
The following recipe makes one pound, which is plenty for a 4 serving meal such as stir-fried vegetables or fried rice with paneer.
- 1 gallon milk (2% okay, whole or raw is better)
- 1/3 cup lemon juice (can substitute white vinegar) mixed with 1 cup water
- 1 tbsp flour (any kind)
- Spices are optional and limited only by your tastes and imagination; plain paneer is still yummy anyway
- Same with minced veggies such as chiles, onion, garlic, etc.
- For the lactose intolerant and/or vegans, it is possible to make this with high fat soy milk (4-5g/serving), but essentially you are just making tofu.
- Yes, this can be done as a 1/2 gallon batch, too. Just cut the lemon juice (or vinegar) and flour in half, too
- If you want richer paneer (and more of it), you can fortify the milk fats by adding a pint of heavy cream or up to a quart of half & half, but be aware the mixture will have a greater tendency to foam up as soon as it reaches boiling temperature, so you have to watch more closely.
- One large pot big enough to hold all the milk at once. I use a heavy non-stick stock-pot.
- Colander and either muslin cloth or several folds of cheesecloth (I prefer muslin, easier to work with and paneer doesn't stick to it as much).
- Large capacity food processor with a dough blade
Heat the milk over medium heat stirring very frequently. Don't let the milk burn or scorch. A decent food thermometer can be a handy way to track the temperature as it approaches boiling.
As soon as the milk begins to boil, turn down the heat to low and, while continuing to stir, slowly add the watered lemon juice. As soon as it's all in, it should be less than 30 seconds before you notice the curds beginning to form and the liquid becoming milky-clear. If not, you can add more raw lemon juice a bit a time. Keep stirring until the curds are well-formed and solid-looking. Turn off the heat and wait about three minutes.
Pour it all into the cloth-lined colander and let the liquid drain off. For this part, it might be helpful to have another person hold onto the cloth for you to keep it in place.
Note: The liquid is whey — just like from the Miss Muffet nursery rhyme about her eating her 'curds and whey'. It's usuable for lots of purposes, including making tasty baking dough or flavoring certain kinds of soups. At the least, consider saving it in a bucket and dumping it (after it's cooled, of course) on your garden because it's still chock full of good nutrients which your plants will love. I read somewhere that the whey can be used as a curding agent in future batches, instead of lemon juice or vinegar, but haven't given this a try yet.
Rinse the curds thoroughly with cold water; this gets rid of the remaining whey as well as the lemon juice. Gather up the cloth, twist it together and squeeze the liquid out. At this point, I like to tie it up in a ball for a while to let more seep through. Maybe 15 minutes later, I squeeze again until I can't get any more liquid out.
The paneer ball inside your cloth will look pretty solid, but tend to fall apart at the slightest touch. Some folks do like their paneer at this point…but to really make it Indian style, you'd have to then spend the next half an hour or more making a huge mess as you knead it into a solid form and then let it sit under a heavy pot for a few hours.
This next part is where my recipe departs from the others: How to keep the paneer from being so damned crumbly.
Fortunately, there are food processors (aka, a Cuisinart). Put all the paneer into a food processor equipped with the dough kneading blade. Add the tablespoon of flour (this helps it stick together, acting as a bonding agent). Run the processor on pulse and low speeds until the paneer breaks down and reforms into a fairly cohesive ball. It'll take about 2-4 minutes and is done when there are no more curd crumbles. If you have a small processor, do this step in multiple batches.
You'll probably need a spatula to get it all out and off the dough blade. Put the paneer onto a non-stick tray or a plain dinner plate. At this point, it'll have the consistency of thick dough and pretty much stick together without any help. Shape the paneer into a rectangular slab about 1-inch thick and put it in the fridge for about an hour to set up. (Covering with plastic is optional… the paneer will dry out somewhat more if you leave the plastic off.) Once set, it should come off the plate or tray without breaking or crumbling.
If you don't have a food processor of any kind, yes, you can hand-knead the paneer, but be prepared for it to be messy and time-consuming. No idea how to keep it from sticking to my hands like crazy, which is why I recommend the processor method instead.
That's it. One gallon of milk will produce about one pound of paneer. The batch I made a couple weeks ago with an extra quart of half & half ended up as 1 1/2 pounds. You can use it just as you might use tofu in dishes, although unlike tofu, paneer can be shredded or grated (gently, but it does work) or re-crumbled. It will keep for several days to a week in the fridge or up to months in the freezer. What we usually do with our pound of paneer is cut it into three equal pieces, two to be frozen, and one for use in a given week's dinner some night.
One of our favorite paneer recipes is to slice it into small chunks and fry them separately in olive oil & spices until just beginning to brown on the outside. Then add this to a vegetable stir-fry in the wok. Unlike tofu, paneer has a taste all its own — mild, buttery, cheesy — and a far more 'meaty' texture. It's amazing.
As noted above, you can make flavored paneer by adding whatever spices or ultra-finely chopped vegetables you like to the milk as it's heating up. We did this with another gallon of milk the other day using dill and dried chile flakes. Very tasty.