I didn’t grow up eating a lot of paneer—partly because my mother didn’t love cooking it (she’s a devout carnivore and I get the feeling she thinks that paneer is vegetarians’ sneaky way of trying to convince meat eaters that they don’t have to have meat in every single meal—unthinkable!), but also because it isn’t really an ingredient that’s widely used in most south Indian cuisines traditionally. That said, it’s grown tremendously in popularity, and it’s not uncommon to find it in kitchens all over the south these days.
Still, the paneer that most commonly gets used is the hard, extremely durable, almost rubbery, kind that you buy at the supermarket. I’ll admit that it can have a certain appeal—it’s robust, you can sear it and give it a lovely golden-brown colour, and it feels, especially if you’re looking for something that approximates the texture of meat, substantial.
All of that said, there is something rather dispiritingly bland about most of these store-bought paneers. They are, in their bland whiteness, almost the perfect embodiment of the convenience food: a building block with no intrinsic value of its own. Who would eat and relish a piece of that supermarket paneer on its own? It’s practically unthinkable.
This is changing, though, especially as more people from the north move to southern cities. I’ve been surprised in the last decade or so to see little stands pop up even on the sides of busy arterial roads on the outskirts of Bangalore selling soft, handmade paneer and other fresh milk products. In many northern cities (well, northern relative to Bangalore—I’m including Mumbai on this list, obviously), it’s fairly easy to find soft, handmade paneer, but it’s still a relatively new sight in Bangalore.
And in New York you can forget about it altogether. The store-bought paneer available in most stores in the US is a wan shadow of even that sad Indian supermarket paneer.
So, it was partly out of necessity that I decided to make my own paneer, but also because it’s such an easy thing to do, albeit something that requires a gentle touch.
If you’ve ever made homemade ricotta, you’ll find a lot of similarities here. Basically, you bring milk to a boil, add a curdling agent and then separate the resulting curds from the whey.
But there are a few things to keep in mind. For one, a common problem when splitting milk using heat and an acid is that you risk ending up with curds that are tough and springy. What we’re looking for is something tender and creamy. Some ricotta and other fresh cheese recipes address this by simply adding less of the curdling agent to the milk, so that the whey remains quite white after the curds have formed. My deeply ingrained desi thrift rebels at the idea of all that unsplit milk protein. So rather than cut back on the acid, I recommend adding the acid only after taking the milk off the boil and letting it cool for a minute or two. And once the milk does in fact split, I add ice cubes to the mix to cool it down and keep the heat from continuing to act on the milk protein and hardening it.
One final thing to note is that though it means it’ll take your paneer a little longer to drain, I do recommend washing it out with fresh cold water to remove the taste of the lemon or vinegar from it. It’s certainly not an unpleasant taste, but washing it out will allow you to better taste the taste of the milk.
A note on texture: Though I far prefer the taste of this paneer to that of the firmer, store-bought variety, I should note that this recipe will give you a very soft, quite delicate paneer compared to what you get in stores. If you do want something firmer, this is easily accomplished by simply pressing out more of the liquid during the draining stage.
2 quarts whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup fresh lemon juice, or as needed
3 cups ice cubes
A piece of clean muslin cloth or a thin tea towel
A 6–8-inch bamboo steamer or a similar sized ring mold
If using a ring mold to form the paneer you’ll also need a perforated plate (a cooling rack would also work here) to place underneath it
A heavy object to weight down the paneer
Rinse out a large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven with water and do not dry off before using. This gesture is nominally intended to keep the boiling milk from scorching, but it isn’t strictly necessary.
Pour in the milk and cream and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently.
While the milk is coming to a boil, run the muslin or tea towel under a tap, wring it dry and then open it up in a strainer or colander set over a large bowl. Set aside until needed.
When the milk comes to a boil, turn the heat down to keep it from boiling over. Stirring frequently, allow the milk to boil for five minutes.
Turn off the heat and allow the milk to cool for just a minute or two.
Add the lemon juice one tablespoon at a time, stirring well to incorporate before adding more. When the milk has fully split and the whey has turned a faint seaglass green, quickly add the ice cubes and stir through to cool down the split curds.
Use a slotted spoon to scoop the curds into the muslin cloth. If you can’t quite gather all the curds with a spoon, tip all the liquid into the strainer, after first making sure that the bowl underneath is large enough to hold all the liquid.
After five minutes of draining, remove the strainer and muslin to the sink and place it under cold running water for thirty seconds or so, to wash off any remaining lemon juice.
Return the strainer or colander to the bowl and allow to drain for fifteen minutes.
At this point, the paneer is ready to be pressed and formed.
(A side note: don’t discard the nutritious and delicious whey, which is wonderful to add to dhal, soups, rotis, curris, or really in most places where you might otherwise use water.)
To form the paneer, gather the sides of the muslin into a loose knot and gently squeeze the milk solids inside to extract any excess water.
Nest the muslin cloth, with the ends still securely on top, inside the bamboo steamer, pressing the milk solids down with your hands to form an even and uniformly thick disc.
Place this arrangement over a shallow bowl and place a weight on top of the milk solids to encourage draining. I used a small saucepan filled with water. Allow to drain for two hours before unmolding. The paneer will keep, refrigerated for three to four days. Use according to instructions in any recipe that calls for honey, or you can do what I do and eat it all on its own in a bowl with just a drizzle of honey on top.