Knowing how to make paneer cheese was a crucial skill for some Indian and Pakistani families. It provided quick, safe vegetarian protein to round out a healthy meal. Making paneer is just as quick and healthy within modern kitchens.
Nuzy learned how to make paneer cheese from her father. Growing up in Pakistan, she had a cook for most meals. Her mother only made dishes for special occasions. But her dad was the expert on paneer; Nuzy and her siblings gathered around and watched in fascination.
In those days, a milkman delivered fresh cow milk in large canisters. It wasn’t pasteurized so Nuzy’s family always boiled it at least three minutes before drinking. Boiling is also the first step in making paneer; adding lemon juice comes next. After straining curds through a cheesecloth, her father saved the whey to make rice dishes, telling his children to never waste such a nutritious byproduct. He rinsed curds then drained them by hanging the cheesecloth overnight. After kneading the cheese into a ball, he used it for meat dishes or a snack.
Nuzy learned how to make paneer cheese so well that, after emigrating to the United States, she tried it from memory and said it “turned out pretty good.”
Though paneer accompanies meat in some cuisine, it’s often used as a vegetarian staple. A large and populous country, India has many religions and caste systems which may encourage or mandate abstaining from meat consumption. Cheese provides a complete protein. Perhaps the most popular dish is saag paneer, also called palak paneer, a spiced entrée of cooked spinach or mustard greens bejeweled with cheese cubes.
Paneer is also one of the safest cheese products. Because it’s boiled right before lemon juice is added, and is then eaten fresh, any possible microbes have been destroyed. Raw milk issues are no longer a problem.
Often, making cheese from cows’ milk is different from goat milk. A good cheese making book will instruct adding a thermophilic culture to produce goat milk mozzarella or baking soda to make goat ricotta as fluffy as the bovine version. But making goat cheese paneer is the same process as crafting it from cows’ milk. No added cultures or lipase are necessary.
The process can be done in a large pot or a slow cooker, in the same manner used for making ricotta cheese, though the pot is more traditional. It also involves lemon juice, water, a cheesecloth, and colander.
How to Make Paneer Cheese
First, collect whole milk that is either raw or pasteurized. Avoid ultra-pasteurized or heat-treated products. Whole milk is often recommended for burfi, a fudge-like dessert using cardamom and pistachios, while two percent is often used for rasmalai cheese patties that steep in sweetened cream. As with any cheese, using whole milk creates more resulting curd than two percent because the cheese itself is a combination of butterfat and protein.
Heat milk in a slow cooker or pot. How fast you do this is up to you, as long as you don’t burn it. If you don’t want to stand constantly by the stove, stirring, reduce the temperature or use a slow cooker. At the same time, mix ¼ cup lemon juice with about the same amount of water.
Stir milk frequently as it approaches boiling temperature, to avoid scorching. When it bubbles, slowly add the diluted lemon juice. Turn off the heat and keep stirring. Soon white butterfat and proteins will separate, looking like tiny dots within yellowish whey. If milk doesn’t immediately separate, add more lemon juice. Line a colander with tightly woven cheesecloth or butter muslin, setting the colander over a large bowl or pot if you wish to save the whey for gardens, chickens, or other food preparations. Pour curdled milk into the lined colander and allow it to drain.
Lemon juice gives paneer a sour flavor. If you wish to remove this sourness, hold the cheesecloth-lined colander under cool running tap water and rinse the curds. Turn off the water, allow curds to drain again, then wrap them in the cheesecloth and squeeze.
What you do next depends on how you wish to use the paneer.
If you intend to use it as a soft, smooth spread, in the same way you would use ricotta, salt it and you’re done. Drain a little longer if you want a drier curd. But if you want to make a cubed cheese, hang the cheesecloth from a rolling pin or strong faucet, letting it drip a few hours or overnight. You can also squish the curd flat and fold cheesecloth over it, letting it remain in the colander as you set a heavy object, like a full milk jug, on top. This removes excess moisture so you can knead the curd.
Now remove curd from the cheesecloth and place in a bowl. Salt to taste. Knead by pushing and mixing with your fingers until all salt is mixed in, then continue mixing in the same way you’d mix bread: folding over, pressing down, then rotating a quarter turn and repeating. Do this until curd holds together in a smooth ball hat doesn’t crumble.
Shape paneer by pressing it, either by folding cheesecloth over it again and setting a weight atop or pushing it into a refrigerator container and closing it tightly. After a few hours, it can be cut into desired shapes, though it holds together better if you refrigerate it overnight before cutting.
Eat the cheese soon. You can refrigerate several days or freeze for a couple months, keeping in mind that frozen cheese often thaws crumbly.
Nuzy’s family used paneer in saag spinach dishes or stuffed, deep-fried wontons called samosas. She also ate in vegetarian curries that contained peas or garbanzo beans. It accompanied meat such as goat and lamb.
Whether it’s used to save aging milk or as the main protein in a vegetarian dish, knowing how to make paneer cheese is a simple but useful kitchen skill that has survived generations of tradition.