Homemade paneer is do-it-yourself cheese
Saag paneer is a delicious and toothsome South Asian dish consisting of cubes of fresh cheese (that’s the paneer) combined with greens (that’s the saag) in a creamy sauce. The first time I made paneer was in the test kitchen at Gourmet magazine. I just about did a happy dance around the room. I couldn’t believe there was a way to make fresh cheese in your own kitchen without any special equipment.
And it tasted very fresh, mostly because there were no additives, but also because it had spent no time in the refrigerator absorbing random flavors from its neighbors. Trust me when I tell you that mastering the making of paneer at home is well worth your time.
There are two basic ways to turn dairy such as milk or cream into cheese — add either rennet or an acid. For today, let’s stick with the acid method, since rennet is harder to come by, and chances are good that you already have an appropriate acid in the kitchen. The only equipment you’ll need is a pot, a thermometer, some cheesecloth and a strainer.
You start by heating your choice of dairy (milk, cream, half-and-half, or a mixture of the three) in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring often to prevent the dairy from scorching. Be sure to avoid UHT (ultra-high temperature treated) milks, as they don’t work well for making cheese.
When the milk reaches 190 degrees, the acid is added and everything is briefly stirred. There are two choices of acid: fresh lemon juice, which gives the cheese a slightly citrusy flavor, or distilled white vinegar, which produces a neutral tart taste. The milk then is allowed to stand for 15 minutes, during which it starts to separate into curds and whey almost immediately.
After 15 minutes, the milk is poured through a cheesecloth-lined strainer set in the sink. It’s best to transfer the curds to the strainer in batches, using either a skimmer or a slotted spoon. After it drains for 20 minutes, you have your fresh ricotta-ish curd cheese. It’s plenty delicious as is.
But this recipe calls for paneer, which is a semi-soft cheese. So, after the curds drain for a bit, they are wrapped in cheesecloth and pressed under a weight, which squeezes out excess water and makes the cheese quite firm. Eureka! You’ve made cheese. Now it’s ready to be used in this recipe or any other that calls for a firm fresh cheese. Paneer also is a respectable stand-in for firm tofu.
Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows.