Sunday, March 20, 2005

Paneer - fresh Indian cheese

One of our favorite ingredients in Indian cooking is paneer, a fresh unsalted cheese that's a bit like feta in texture, and a little like ricotta in flavor. Paneer goes excellently with many flavorful Indian sauces, and dishes containing it are some of my favorite items to order at Indian restaurants. Making paneer is relatively easy; all it takes is some whole milk, lemon juice, and a bit of time. We just made some today, so it seemed like a good end-of-the-week recipe blogging post; we got this recipe from Sahni's "Classic Indian Cooking."

Note: This recipe solely makes paneer, which is typically used as an ingredient in other Indian recipes; this is not a meal in itself (unless you like fresh, unsalted cheese with nothing on it). In the coming weeks I'll post a recipe or two that use this cheese.

8 cups whole milk (1/2 gallon)
1/4 cup freshly squeezed, strained lemon juice

0. Line a strainer with at least a double layer of cheesecloth, and place the strainer in either a very large bowl (enough to hold the 1/2 gallon of milk) or the sink.
1. Bring the milk to a boil in a heavy-bottomed pot (we use a non-stick stockpot), stirring frequently to prevent burning and sticking. Keep a close eye on the pot to ensure that it does not boil over.
2. Once the milk has boiled, reduce or turn off the heat, add the lemon juice, and gently stir until the curds start to form (~10 seconds). Once the curds have started forming, stir even more gently until the curds have completely separated from the whey. Once this occurs the pot should be filled with clumps of curds (precipitated protein and lipids) floating in the whey (the translucent yellowish liquid of the milk, including most of the carbohydrates and minerals).
3. Pour the curds and whey into the strainer you've lined with cheesecloth. Let the whey drain off from the curds.
4. Rinse the curds in the strainer with cold water for a few seconds to remove the lemon flavor.
5. Wrap the cheesecloth around the curds (bringing the corners together), and squeeze out as much water as you can. Be careful, as the water and curds will still be quite hot at this point, so alternating squeezing duty with a partner can help.
6. Once you've gotten most of the water out (don't worry if a bit still comes out when you squeeze the cheese hard), hang the cheese for an hour and a half to let it finish draining.
7. After the hanging period, press the cheese into a disk by putting it under a heavy item for half an hour. We typically put the cheese under a plate that has a few large cans stacked on it.
8. Remove the cheesecloth, cut the cheese into whatever size pieces are desired, and use in your recipe. The cheese will keep in the fridge just like other fresh cheeses.

While this recipe uses half a gallon of milk, it makes less than half a pound of cheese. However, this recipe is easy to scale up; we've regularly doubled the ingredients to make a gallon's worth of cheese, and it's just about the same amount of work as making half a gallon's worth.

Sahni says that instead of lemon juice you can use either "3 tablespoons cider vinegar mixed with 3 tablespoons water, or one cup plain yogurt," though we have not tried either of those methods.

Sahni, Julie. 1980. Classic Indian Cooking. William Morrow & Co, NY. pp. 52-54.

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