How to make paneer

On Wednesday, I made cheese for the first time, and documented the process with my trusty digital camera.

I used the paneer recipe on page 297 of Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant. You need 2 quarts of milk, 3-4 tablespoons strained lemon juice, a large pot, a large spoon to stir the milk with as it heats, cheesecloth, a colander, and something to weight the cheese with as you press it.

First, you put the milk in a pot and heat it to a vigorous boil over high heat. Make sure to use a pretty big pot. I used a 6 quart stockpot. The milk foams a lot as it starts to boil, and if you aren’t careful, it will foam over the edge and you’ll have an awful mess to clean up. (This did not happen to me, but it did foam quite a lot, even in a 6 quart pot. I was glad I didn’t try to use a smaller pot.) Stir the milk often as it heats, so the bottom and sides don’t burn.

Once the milk has boiled, turn off the heat and stir in the lemon juice. I used just a smidge under 3 tablespoons, because that’s what I got out of 1 lemon, after straining the squeezed juice through a tea strainer. The recipe said you might have to use an extra tablespoon, but I didn’t. It also said you might have to heat the mixture on low heat for half a minute or so to get it to curdle, but mine curdled almost immediately, once I’d mixed in the juice. What you’re looking for is that the solid part of the milk (the curds) will separate out from the liquid (the whey), first in little tiny globules, then in larger chunks. (Who can avoid thinking of Miss Muffett at a time like this?)

After adding the lemon juice. Appetizing, huh?

Then you pour it into a colander lined with cheesecloth. I wasn’t sure how much cheesecloth to use. The recipe said several layers. I took 3 long strips of cheesecloth that I unfolded from the piece of cardboard in the middle of the package. I used about 1 1/2 packages.

I worried that I might have used too much cheesecloth. I'm still not sure.

After most of the liquid has drained away, lift up the cheesecloth around the curds and pick up the whole thing like a bag. With your hands, keeping the curds inside the little cheesecloth bag, squeeze out as much liquid as you can. This is where I wondered if I had used too much cheesecloth. I felt that if I had used a little less, maybe only 2 strips instead of 3, I would have been able to squeeze out more water. I thought the texture of the finished cheese was maybe a little soft. On the other hand, I’m not sure the 2 strips would have enfolded all the cheese curd properly, and some of it might have gooped out around the edges. I guess if I try this again, I might try 2 strips, and see what happens.

Here’s what it looks like after you’ve squeezed the water out. According to the Moosewood recipe I was using, this stage is called chenna, and is a soft cheese that is often used in Indian sweets.

After squeezing out as much liquid as possible

Next, keeping the cloth wrapped around the cheese, squish and/or pat it into a sort of flat block. The recipe said 5″ x 5″ or 4″ x 6″. Mine was more like 5″ x 6″, but close enough.

Next, you put it back in the colander and put a heavy weight on top to press it into paneer cheese. I had a bit of trouble with this step, because the colander I was using was too narrow to fit in any weight that would cover the whole surface of my cheese. You want the whole cheese to be covered, or the edges won’t get pressed (they’ll probably be a bit crumbly no matter what you do). I ended up switching out the original colander for the drainer part of my salad spinner. I wasn’t quite as happy about this, because I’m not sure the drain holes are really elevated far enough off the surface below to allow the liquid being squeezed out to escape properly. But it was the best I could do. I filled a 4 quart pot with water and put that on top as the weight.

You can see the overhang of the roof outside reflected in the water

The recipe says to press it for 30-60 minutes, and that the longer you press it, the firmer it will be. I let it go about 70 minutes. Here’s what it looked like, after being unwrapped.

Here's how much you get

I rinsed out the cheesecloths under running water and hung them out to dry, planning to wash them properly this weekend when I do laundry. I didn’t want to throw them out, because I bought one of the packs at the grocery store and it was kind of expensive (at least for such a small amount of cloth).

I hope everything I use these for doesn't taste like spoiled milk

That’s it! I wanted to cook something with the paneer, so I cut it up into small cubes.

It’s kind of amazing to think that this is all the cheese you get from 2 quarts of milk, isn’t it? With harder cheeses like cheddar and Parmesan, where you do a more effective job of squishing out the whey, the yield is even lower.

Two cups of cheese cubes from two quarts of milk

I used the paneer to make the Spiced Paneer on page 351 of Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special. Cubes of paneer sauteed in oil with cumin, cayenne, cardamom, turmeric, salt, and a bit of yogurt to help the spices stick to the cheese. It was very tasty! The paneer went into a salad for dinner that night (Spinach with Cilantro-Cashew Dressing, page 289 of the aforementioned book). I used the famous baby spinach that I had worried might have been squished under my corn, and a tomato from the 4 1/2 pound box of CSA tomatoes I received this week.

The final product

The paneer did crumble apart a bit as I cooked it, especially the edge pieces, and the texture was kind of soft, but it firmed up nicely in the fridge.

I did taste the paneer before cooking it with spices, and it was very mild, but definitely tasted like cheese. I’m wondering if this might be a good substitute for the sort of cheese curds they use in Canada (and which are impossible to find here) to make poutine. Next time I have leftover gravy, I’ll have to find out!

I was surprised by how easy it was to make the paneer. The whole process (not including the hour of pressing) took less than 45 minutes, including clean-up. And that’s 45 minutes in real time, not Rachael Ray time!

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