Why would I, a non-Indian food blogger, write about Indian food when you could easily read about it on blogs written by Indians? I’ll tell you why: I, unlike most Indians, harness the power of the Germans. As a Korean-American who likes to make Indian cheese with German ingredients for use in Italian dishes, I’m one step shy of hosting a United Nations conference in my own kitchen. Curiosity piqued? Read on.
Paneer is a fresh cheese used in savory dishes like mutter paneer (peas and paneer in a rich red sauce) or in sweet treats like the divine ras malai. Fresh paneer can be pressed to create a texture similar to that of firm (not silken) tofu for savory dishes or kneaded with sugar to a soft smooth texture for use in desserts. You’ll often see advice to substitute firm tofu for pressed paneer if you don’t have paneer on hand. In my opinion, paneer has an unmistakable fresh dairy flavor that tofu’s, er, tofuiness lacks, but in a flavorful dish like saag paneer that may be acceptable.
[Pictured: Sheet of pressed paneer cubed with a pizza cutter.]
Paneer is easy to make but takes time. Basically you boil milk, add an acid, strain out the curds, and press the curds. Exact methods vary. Some people boil the milk for a while, others bring the milk just to a boil, some take the milk off the heat after adding the acid, some boil the milk with the acid for a while, and so on. Unless you need an especially soft paneer to use in a dessert, I find that the exact method doesn’t matter much. What does matter is the acid you use—either white vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice, yogurt, or whey left over from a previous batch of paneer.
Whey supposedly yields the softest paneer, but since I make paneer only a few times a year, I don’t generally have leftover whey on hand. Yogurt is an interesting suggestion that I haven’t tried because one of the greatest draws of homemade paneer is that it’s dirt cheap, and the cost of the yogurt used often exceeds the cost of the milk to make the paneer. When I’ve made homemade yogurt I’d rather just eat it or use it in other dishes. Citrus juices add a pleasant sour flavor but can also add to the price of the paneer unless you have a lemon tree. White vinegar adds that disctintive acetic acid flavor plus a trace paint thinner taste, probably because white vinegar is only about 5% acid, leaving 95% Something Else. Other vinegars such as red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or ::gasp:: balsamic vinegar have flavor profiles that are just, well, wrong.
Which brings us to the Germans. Koreans often use vinegar in many kinds of namul, vegetable side dishes served with rice. At some point many Korean-Americans (not sure about Koreans) started using Surig, a high-acid German vinegar with a clean, pure flavor superior to that of distilled white vinegar. If you don’t have a German grocer, try looking for Surig at the Korean grocer. Because of the high acidity, you need only about a fourth or a fifth the amount of Surig that you’d need of white vinegar, giving you less Something Else to add off-flavors to your paneer. I recommend it for use in savory dishes where the acetic acid flavor won’t be a problem. In sweet dishes I’d stick to lemon or lime juice. Failing that, white vinegar works just fine, but you’ll no longer be welcome in German Club. Nein!
EIN PANEER REZEPT, JA!
Makes about 4 cups of lightly packed half-inch paneer cubes
· Big pot
· Something heavy, preferably not alive
· 1 gallon lowfat (2%) milk, allowed to come to room temperature (optional, but saves time)
· 1 tablespoon Surig, maybe more,
OR 4 tablespoons white distilled vinegar, maybe more,
OR the juice of 2 lemons, maybe more,
OR the juice of 3 limes, maybe more
1) Line a large colander with 4 layers of cheesecloth cut large enough to dangle generously over the edges. Place in sink.
2) Pour milk into a large pot with at least 3 inches of spare space above the milk. You’ll thank me for this extra space later. Bring milk to a boil on medium heat. High heat may burn the milk and make a funky paneer (bad funky, not good funky), so err on the side of lower heat. A non-stick pan helps if you have one that big. Stir frequently.
3) When the milk boils and starts to foam up but not over your generous 3-inch margin of safety (you’re welcome), blow hard on the milk to keep the foam under control, then add your acid. Stir for about 15 seconds. The solids should separate out and leave behind a greenish translucent whey. If you don’t see that greenish color and a distinct separation of solids and liquids, add a bit more acid and stir again for 15 seconds. Repeat as needed. Results will vary depending on the kind of milk you use and the acid employed.
4) After the curds and whey have separated, turn off the heat and carefully pour the contents of the pot into the lined colander. Let the visible whey drain out for several minutes, then carefully pull up the edges of the cheesecloth and lift up your paneer to drain some more. At this point some people like to tie up the corners of the cloth into something resembling one of those packs that hobos always carry on sticks in old cartoons and hang the paneer up to drain. I’m lazy and prefer to go straight to the pressing step.
5) Place the cheesecloth on a flat surface such as a heat-proof cutting board and carefully cover the paneer with even layers of the cheesecloth edges, lifting and shaping the paneer into a flat rectangle as you do so. Slide one edge of the cutting board over the sink then place a folded towel under the other edge to slightly slant the board so that the whey drains into the sink. Place a large flat item such as a plate or a tray on top of the paneer, then place a heavy weight on top of that, making sure the paneer is being pressed flat and level. I use barbell weights, but some people like Encyclopedia Britannica volumes A through H. Whatever you use, let the paneer flatten and drain for a few hours. The longer its pressed, the firmer the paneer will be.
6) Remove the paneer from the cheesecloth and cut into desired shapes and sizes. Store paneer in refrigerator or freeze for future use, though it’s best fresh. Many recipes call for frying the cubes in ghee, but I consider that an optional step unless the paneer will be eaten plain.
Flavored paneer: You can add salt and other herbs and spices to the paneer. Mix them in with the crumbled paneer before pressing. Yum.
Different milks: Whole milk yields softer, richer paneer; skim milk yields grainy, rubbery paneer. Lowfat milk is a good compromise between flavor and health.
Reduced batches: The recipe can easily be halved, quartered, maybe even reduced some more. If you have milk on the brink of going bad, this is a great way to use it up.
On whey: According to King Arthur Flour, leftover whey is highly nutritious and due to its acidic nature has an effect like buttermilk or vinegar in baking. More information and a recipe. To save some whey, put your colander over a large heatproof container to catch the draining liquid. Lift the colander up and out of the whey, remove the container, then continue as directed. Things will be hot, so use caution.
Nutrition: According to New Indian Home Cooking by Madhu Gadia, each 1/2 cup of paneer cubes (an eighth of this batch) made with lowfat milk has 160 calories, 4 g carbs, 16 g protein, 9 g fat, and 36 mg cholesterol.