Paneer, sometimes known as ‘Indian cottage cheese’, is a mild, white cheese, widely used in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, and often served cut into cubes and fried. It is a non-aged, non-melting soft cheese with a firm texture, a little like cottage cheese, and is a popular ingredient in pakoras, kebabs and curries.
Used throughout the Indian subcontinent, paneer has become a readily-recognised and much-loved ingredient around the world, thanks to the growing popularity of Indian cuisine. Its mild flavour makes it perfect for absorbing the rich sauces and complex spicing typical of Indian food, and it tends to play a similar role to that of tofu in Southeast Asian cuisine.
Paneer was traditionally made with buffalo milk, but is now usually made from a blend of both cow’s and buffalo’s milk. It does not use animal rennet to curdle the milk, instead opting for fruit or vegetable derived acids such as lemon juice. Production methods are similar to that of cottage cheese, except that paneer tends not to be salted, and the curdled milk is typically pressed to remove the whey rather than allowing it to drain, giving it a more compact texture.
A great choice for a vegetarian curry, popular paneer dishes include saag paneer, paneer cooked with spinach and spices, and mattar paneer, or paneer with peas in a garam masala spiced tomato sauce. If you’re ordering from an Indian restaurant, many of the tastiest vegetarian foods are classed as side dishes, but the portion sizes are usually pretty generous, so be sure to check out this part of the menu for some hidden paneer gems.
Unlike many other parts of Asia, which tend not to involve a lot of dairy, the subcontinent has a long history of cattle farming, and is also famous for various other dairy products, including ghee, or clarified butter, and lassi, a popular drink made from a blend of yogurt, water, spices, and sometimes fruit.
Cheese is thought to have been made on the subcontinent as early as the Indus Valley civilisation, which lasted from 3,300 BCE to 1300 BCE, with acidic leaves, barks and berries used to curdle the milk. There is even mention of two paneer-like cheeses in the Rigveda, a sacred Hindu text written around 1,500 to 1,000 BCE, which makes it one of the oldest extant texts in any Indo-European language.
For the Aryan civilisations that followed, however, making cheese became taboo due to the sacred nature of the cow. ‘Spoiling’ the milk of this holy animal by curdling it to make cheese was considered sacrilegious, and cheese making was largely forgotten for hundreds of years,
Modern paneer dates back to the sixteenth century, when it was introduced by the Persian and Afghan rulers of the Mughal empire. This paneer was made using sheep’s and goat’s rennet, with the word ‘paneer’ coming from ‘peynir’, the generic term for cheese in the Persian and Turkish languages. The current method of making paneer is thought to have been introduced by Portuguese settlers in the seventeenth century.
You can buy paneer from your local Indian market, and these days it is available from many regular stores too. Good quality paneer should be soft and light, but ready-made varieties can be a little rubbery. If your paneer is a bit hard, simply put it in some hot water before you use it. This will soften up the cheese, and the longer you leave it, the better the texture will be.
The best paneer is homemade, however, and as paneer is actually one of the simplest cheeses to make at home, it’s well worth trying to make your own. Homemade paneer has a fresh, delicate flavor you can’t get from store bought versions, and all you need to make it is some milk and some lemon juice.
When making paneer, you will need to use whole milk, as the fat is what makes the cheese. Use a full gallon to make a decent sized batch of paneer, with ¼ cup of lemon juice to curdle the milk. Pour the milk into a large pan and bring to the boil, then remove from the heat immediately, and add in the lemon juice.
Stir the pan as the curds start to form. The milk will begin to turn yellow and separate straight away. Leave for 5 to 10 minutes, then line a colander with two layers of cheesecloth and pour the mixture through. Give the curds a good rinse with cold water to cool them and get rid of any lemon residue.
Next, take the cheesecloth by the corners and wrap tightly around the curds, twisting it into a ball shape and squeezing to remove the excess liquid. Keep squeezing until you can’t extract any more liquid, then sandwich your cheesecloth full of curds between two dinner plates and weigh down the top plate with some heavy cans of food. Refrigerate for a couple of hours, and your delicious homemade paneer is ready to eat.
Pour away any additional liquid that has collected on the plate during refrigeration and remove the paneer from its cheesecloth cover. Cut it into cubes, and for best results begin cooking right away. If you’re not ready for more food preparation just yet, it can be refrigerated for 2 to 3 days in an airtight container.
There are many different ways to enjoy paneer. It can be eaten fresh, either by itself or flavoured with a hint of cumin or mint, deep fried in spiced chickpea flour to make paneer pakoras, or marinated in spices and cooked in a tandoor oven to make a paneer tikka kebab. It is also a star ingredient in various curries and side dishes, and may be substituted into a traditional meat dish to make it suitable for vegetarians. It pairs well with a pale beer like lager, or a light, zesty wine like Sauvignon Blanc.
If you can’t get hold of paneer, and you don’t have enough milk or free time to make some fresh, there are several similar ingredients you can use in a pinch. Mexican queso blanco is probably the closest match, and should be easier to find, but you could also try a mild feta, rinsed to remove some of the brine. Extra firm tofu is a good vegan option, and will absorb the flavours of the dish like paneer does. You can even try using some cottage cheese - just put it inside some cheesecloth and squeeze it like you would when making paneer, and what you have left should be similar in texture.
For a gourmet twist on paneer-making, try our recipe for chilli paneer, a fresh, homemade paneer seasoned with coriander and chilli flakes. Or, if you’re in the mood for a curry, this lentil and paneer curry really packs in the flavour, with plenty of onion and garlic, aromatic, earthy spices, and sweet coconut milk.
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