A native of India shares her country’s classic homemade cheese
As a child growing up in northern India, I seldom ventured into the kitchen. Meals in our home were something I ate, not something I took part in creating. Even later, in my young adult life as I worked toward a career in science and IT consulting, cooking somehow escaped me. But cheesemaking did not. One of the food lessons I learned early on was that homemade paneer was fresher and therefore better than any you could buy in the market. A simple, firm, mild cheese made with just cow’s milk and vinegar, paneer was a staple ingredient in many of our dishes. Northern Indians swear by their versatile paneer and use it in a multitude of recipes, from snacks to curries and even desserts.
Because it doesn’t melt and its texture is chewy, paneer is also a perfect substitute for meat in a lot of Indian dishes. (Vegan or vegetarian dishes abound in India for both economic and religious reasons.) Paneer’s mild flavor blends well with all kinds of vegetable-based sauces. Palak Paneer—the classic creamy Indian spinach dish studded with cubes of the cheese—is just one example of how paneer can transform a dish into a meal, instantly.
Now that I’ve become a professional disciple of food and cooking—since moving to the States and attending Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago—I’ve discovered how much I like paneer infused with various herb mixtures, like thyme, rosemary, and cilantro, or with saffron or nuts. It’s also satisfying eaten plain with a little salt and pepper or a drizzle of honey. As I continue to marry my Western culinary training with my Indian upbringing, I expect I’ll find more ways to savor this homemade cheese. You can, too.
Heat the milk in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally. When the milk comes to a boil, add the vinegar gradually and stir gently. When curds begin to form, separating from the whey, turn off the heat and stir gently until all curds are formed and the vinegar smell begins to dissipate.
Drain the whey from the curds (you can reserve it for other uses; see tips at right) by passing the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth. Gently fold herbs or seasonings into the curd, if desired, while it is still warm.
To remove more moisture from the cheese and create firm paneer, press the cheesecloth-wrapped curd under a heavy pan or other clean, weighted object for about 2 hours. (I place the wrapped curd in my sink, beneath a cutting board topped with a kettle full of water.) Once it’s drained, remove the cheesecloth, wrap the paneer in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until using.
• Softness in paneer depends largely on the milk’s fat content; whole milk results in a softer cheese.
• Fresh lemon juice may be substituted for the vinegar in making paneer. If using lemon juice, rinse the wrapped curds under cold water and drain well, to remove any sourness from the lemon.
• Before you cut paneer, refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes. The cheese will be firmer and easier to handle.
• When making paneer with vinegar, you can save the leftover whey for use in bread dough for roti (unleavened flatbread) or in cooking vegetables.
Written by Ipshita Pall
Photography by Kaitlyn McQuaid