I’ve always appreciated mottos like Cook (almost) Anything at Least Once, with the idea that the home chef really can (and should) attempt to create anything and everything edible under the sun. Of course, there are plenty of things that I don’t, and won’t cook, for various reasons- but still, I love the idea of trying six impossible things before (or after) breakfast. For some reason, cheese making had always seemed like an impossible thing to me. Millions of cheesemakers, both professional and of the home variety, would probably laugh at me- but the idea of me, a mere mortal, turning milk into something as cool as cheese just seemed impossible. But as I was thumbing through my copy of Bombay Cafe Cookbookand considering the bunches of spinach in my refrigerator, when I came across a recipe for Kashimiri Palak Paneer (Fresh Spinach with Homemade Indian Cheese) and saw that the recipe referred to a homemade paneer recipe, I thought “Why Not?” I usually just buy paneer at my local Indian market, but homemade paneer sounded delicious- and it somehow seemed more accessible than other cheeses. Of course a spinach paneer dish alone does not a meal make, so I also decided to make an Okra Mango dish and some basmati rice. However, for me, the meal was really about the paneer. But what is paneer, anyway?
According to Wikipedia, paneer is “the most common Indian form of cheese. It is an unaged, acid-set, non-melting farmer cheese that is similar to acid-set fresh mozzarella and queso blanco, except that it does not have salt added, much like hoop cheese. Another significant difference between mozzarella and paneer is the fact that mozzarella melts like any other cheese whereas paneer does not melt while cooking. Most paneer is simply pressed into a cube and then sliced or chopped, although Bengali paneer is beaten or kneaded like mozzarella. Paneer is one of the few types of cheese indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, and is widely used in Indian cuisine and even some Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisine. Unlike most cheeses in the world, the making of paneer does not involve rennet; it is therefore completely vegetarian.”
Sounds pretty good, yes? So let me show you how I made my very first homemade paneer.
A Step by Step Homemade Paneer Recipe
I poured 8 cups of lowfat milk (1/2 of a gallon) into a pan that had been previously rinsed out with water. According to Neela Paniz, this prevents a milk skin from forming on the pan that can burn. I then brought the mixture to a boil, which was something like waiting for a kettle to boil, except worse. Once it finally came to a boil, I took it off the burner and slowly poured in 1 quart of buttermilk, whisking as I poured. At this point something really scary happened- the liquid separated into watery, yellow curd, and little white whey bits floating in the curd. At this point I was seriously concerned I would have a very un-cheesy flop on my hands.
Then, I prepared a colander by covering it with a thin muslin towel (not cheesecloth) and letting the ends of the towel hang over the edge. I slowly poured the liquid mixture into the towel bit by bit and squeezed the curds together in a towel repeatedly. I drained some of the whey into a bowl because it was threatening to overflow and then finished pouring the whey liquid into the towel.
Next I tied the edges of the towel together and squeezed the last of the liquid out of the lump of solids in the towel. Finally I left the wrapped up cheese somewhere where it could drain (on the top of an inverted strainer) and put a cutting board on top of the cheese with a pan on top for added weight. Thirty minutes later, the cheese was done.
Somehow, magically and inexplicably, those little globs of white curds had knitted together to form solid, lovely cheese. I admired it in its whole form- imprinted, like good quality tofu, with the grain of the muslin cloth it was wrapped in, and then sliced it into lovely, cheesy wafers for my spinach dish.
While making paneer was time consuming and required a fair amount of preparation (buying buttermilk, and setting up an assortment of pots, pans, and bowls), it gave me a huge sense of accomplishment. Somehow I had taken the most basic of ingredients, milk and buttermilk, and turned them into a genuine food product. I now had a hardy, smooth block of cheese which begged to be grilled or simmered- a sturdy staple that could take any preparation method I could throw at it. While I may not make fresh paneer every time I get the urge to make a recipe, but will probably just buy it from the Indian grocery, I definitely have a renewed appreciation and understanding of it as an ingredient. The next time you have a surplus of milk in your fridge, why not try making your own homemade paneer? I promise that it will be the sweetest, and freshest paneer you’ve ever tasted in your own home.
Unsure about what to do with your homemade paneer? Check out this lovely alternate recipe for paneer, or this recipe for Paneer Jalfrezi in Ahaar: Pleasure and Substance. Or, for something truly original, try Goat Milk Paneer from Eat Like a Girl.
This post is the first in what I hope to be a series of posts on the gluten free fromagerie- I see homemade ricotta in my future, at the very least!