Paneer cheese is a staple of Indian food. It's next to impossible to find a kosher brand, but super simple to make yourself at home. All you need is milk (any whole milk works) and lemon juice or vinegar. Paneer only requires about an hour or so to set and then you can use it in recipes or save it in the fridge for later.
Paneer: a fresh, pressed cheese
Making paneer is very similar to making farmer's cheese (the traditional filling for many Ashkenazi sweet cheese dishes, such as cheese blintzes). Like farmer's cheese, paneer is made by heating milk to just shy of a boil, then adding an acid (vinegar or lemon juice) to curdle it. The main difference is that after straining, paneer is pressed until it's firm enough to slice. Unlike more complicated cheese, paneer doesn't require rennet tablets or other specialty ingredients.
The recipe will make enough for one paneer-centered dish for about 4. It's easily halved if you need less: use 2 cups of milk and 2 tablespoons of vinegar/lemon juice. And yes, despite all the warnings to the contrary, this recipe works just fine with pasteurized milk, including ultra-pasteurized.
Okay, this is not an attractive process. Here in the twenty-first century, where most of us are fairly removed from foodmaking processes, this is going to look a lot like taking perfectly good milk and spoiling it. I should also warn you that this smells pretty unattractive, too. However, I promise that you are actually transforming all that milk into ultra-fresh, 100% kosher, authentic Indian paneer cheese and it will look and smell wonderful once it's pressed and chilled.
Anyway, you effect the curdling process by heating up the milk, then adding the acid (vinegar or lemon juice) to the steaming, but not boiled, milk. You can use any kind of vinegar, the milder the better, since you're after the chemical reaction and not the flavor. I usually use apple cider vinegar if going the vinegar route.
About 30 seconds to a minute or two after adding the acid to the hot milk, it'll look like this:
Stir gently and leave the pot to sit for about 10 minutes, after which the curds will be more vigorous, like so:
The yellowish liquid is whey (the part of the milk that's high in protein) and you can look up ways to use it, or discard after draining. I've not found a great use for it so I usually go with the latter after trying to pass some whey off on my plants and the cat.
Cheesecloth and straining the curds
Once the curds are pretty well formed, you'll strain them into a cheesecloth set over a (preferably footed) colander or strainer.
The type of cheesecloth sold in supermarkets as just plain cheesecloth is actually frustratingly coarse. That is, the weave is too loose and lets curds sneak out too easily. The non-frustrating kind of cheesecloth is #90 grade, an essential tip I picked up from the wonderful (and kosher-friendly) One-Hour Cheese. It's worth ordering from Amazon, although I've made plenty of cheese in my day without it. If you're using regular cheesecloth, be sure to souble-layer it.
After pouring the curds and whey into the cheesecloth and waiting for the whey to drain away, you'll want to rinse the curds with some cold tap water to wash out a bit of the acid. You'll be left with something that looks like this:
Season with salt and you're ready to press.
Pressing the paneer
As soon as the curds are cool enough to handle, form the cheesecloth into a bundle and ring it out well. For paneer, you'll then shape the curds into a disc shape:
If you get really into this and get yourself a cheese mold (slash tofu press), you'd insert it into the mold at this point.
Then, weigh down the cheese with a heavy object. I usually use a cast-iron skillet, which works very well. You can also use a heavy can set on top of a plate (on top of the block of cheese).
After an hour or so, you'll have a nicely compressed block of cheese, which can be sliced:
At this point, you can put the cheese in a sealed container in the fridge for up to a few days, or use right away. Paneer will fry up beautifully, like haloumi.
Homemade Kosher Paneer Cheese (dairy)
- cheesecloth, preferably #90 grade
- 4 cups whole milk
- ¼ cup vinegar or lemon juice
- 1-2 tsp kosher salt
Curdle the milk:
- Heat the milk in a pot over medium heat. Clip a thermometer to the side of the pot if you have one. Heat the milk until it reaches a simmer, just below boiling, 190°F. This will take approximately 7-10 minutes.
Strain the curds:
- Line a strainer, preferably a footed one, with a piece of cheesecloth (doubled if coarse) large enough to overhang the strainer.
- Pour the acid (vinegar or lemon juice) into the hot milk. Turn off the flame and stir gently. You should see the curds begin to separate from the watery, yellowish whey. For me this tends to happen more vigorously with fresh lemon juice than with vinegar, which can take several minutes to take effect.
- Allow the milk to sit for 10 minutes.
- Pour the curds and whey into the cheesecloth in the strainer. You can keep the whey for other uses, or discard.
- Rinse the curds with cold water to remove the acid. Salt the cheese.
- Let the curds sit in the cheesecloth and drain until cool enough to handle.
Press the curds:
- Gather up the ends of the cheesecloth, forming a bundle. Wring out the curds quite firmly over the sink.
- Form the curds into a disc shape and plate on a plate.
- Place a heavy object over the disc of cheese - I usually use a cast-iron pan, and you can also use a second plate weighted by a heavy can.
- Press for one hour. Remove the weight and carefully unwrap the cheese.
- Slice the paneer into cubes. Store in the fridge in a covered container, or use right away.