Paneer is an Indian cheese made by curdling milk using heat and acid. It's made quickly, typically within an hour or two, and has the unique property of not melting when heated.
- Made from: Cow's milk or buffalo milk
- Origin: India
- Texture: Firm, squeaky
- Aging: Not aged
- Color: White
- Rind: None
What Is Paneer Cheese?
Paneer is a fresh cheese used in a wide variety of Indian recipes, made by heating and then curdling milk using acid. It's very mild and milky in flavor, white in color, and its texture is soft, spongy, and squeaky. This texture helps it to absorb the flavors of sauces or marinades. It can be made from cow's milk or buffalo milk, either pasteurized or raw, and can be made from whole, skim or reduced-fat milk.
Paneer is a non-melting cheese. Since paneer is made using heat and acid, instead of rennet, to curdle the milk, it changes the way the milk proteins are bound together. When paneer is heated, it doesn't melt, but holds its shape, allowing it to be simmered, fried or grilled without liquefying. In fact, rather than melting, heating paneer causes the milk proteins to bind together more tightly, squeezing out any remaining water. Heating for too long can cause paneer to turn rubbery.
How Paneer Is Made
Unlike cheeses made with rennet and live cultures, which require extended aging in conditions where the humidity is carefully controlled, making paneer is a simple process that takes only a few hours from start to finish and can easily be done at home.
The first step is to bring two quarts of whole milk to a rolling boil, and let it boil for two minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently to ensure the bottom doesn't burn. While the milk is boiling, add two tablespoons of lemon juice to one cup of water. Once the milk has boiled for two minutes, remove it from the heat, add the lemon juice solution and stir gently. Within seconds, you'll start to see lumps of white milk protein separating from a thin, greenish liquid called whey. At this point, chilled water is added, which slows the cooking and ensures that the paneer will be soft.
Now the mixture is poured through a strainer lined with cheesecloth or muslin. Some cooks like to save the whey to use in other recipes, such as making a flatbread called chapati. Next, the cloth containing the curds is loosely gathered and washed with cold water by dipping it in a succession of bowls until the liquid appears clear. This helps reduce the sourness of the cheese.
Finally, the cloth is twisted tightly to squeeze out the liquid, the curds are formed into a flat disc, which is then pressed by placing a heavy object such as an iron pan on top of it. Within 30 minutes to two hours, the cheese is ready to eat.
Paneer is in a category of fresh, non-melting cheeses, so if you want to substitute something else for paneer, it's best to use another cheese of this same type. Examples include queso fresco, haloumi, farmer cheese, or a mild feta cheese with the brine rinsed off. You could even substitute cubes of firm tofu.
In Indian cuisine, paneer is usually cut into cubes before using it in dishes. Because it is a non-melting cheese, it can be grilled, fried and cooked on skewers over open flame without losing its shape. It is frequently added to curry dishes such as palak paneer, which is a spinach curry with paneer, and paneer makhani, which is a tomato-based curry with paneer. Paneer pakora is cubes of paneer coated in a chickpea flour batter and then deep-fried. Paneer tikka is made by marinating cubes of paneer in yogurt and spices then cooking it on skewers along with vegetables, and then cooked in a clay oven.
Because of its spongy texture, paneer will readily absorb the flavors of the spices and other ingredients it's cooked with. Sometimes the cubes are fried before adding them to a dish, and cooks often hold the fried paneer in water to ensure that they don't dry out.
The best way to store paneer is in a container filled with water. Keeping the paneer submerged in water prevents it from drying out and turning rubbery when heated. A fresh paneer can be stored in water, in the refrigerator, for up to a week. For best results, change the water every 2 to 3 days.
Paneer is used widely in Indian cooking. Here are a few traditional Indian recipes featuring paneer cheese.