Indian

The Quest for the Easiest, Tastiest Palak Paneer

April 13, 2016

I had a hunch about palak paneer, and three restaurants here in the San Francisco Bay Area confirmed: It’s one of the most popular Indian dishes in the U.S.

Made from “palak” (spinach) and “paneer” (Indian cottage cheese), the dish is classified under the generic cluster of Punjabi food. It’s also called “saag paneer,” as “saag” means any cooked greens, and is generally eaten with naan, tandoori roti, or paratha.

With its popularity in mind, I began my mission.

Shop the Story

My goal: Figure out the best palak paneer recipe. My strategy: Pore over recipe books, speak to two Punjabi women who can make it in their sleep, and then filter this newly-gained knowledge through my own experience to come up with a glorious recipe.

First, I went through Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries; Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking; Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking and World-of-the-East Vegetarian Cooking; and Jody Vassallo’s My Cooking Class: Indian Basics. Each recipe had a distinction that appealed to me for a particular reason.

  • Raghavan Iyer prefers to keep spinach whole to provide textural interest and pan-fries paneer.
  • Julie Sahni cooks spinach (unclear whether by boiling or sautéing) and pan-fries paneer pieces that are lightly dusted with flour.
  • I could not find palak paneer recipe in the Madhur Jaffrey books and looked, instead, at the closest substitute: “saag aloo” (spinach with potatoes). Here, she uses frozen spinach, an alternative to bagged, pre-washed spinach.
  • Jody Vassallo drops un-cooked paneer in her spinach purée.

But in the end, it came down to two main questions: to purée spinach or not, and to pan-fry paneer or not. When I made palak paneer in the past, I always puréed spinach and pan-fried paneer, but I was eager to find tastier—and easier—alternatives.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“However, I am a little confused - there is a picture caption "Vegan Palak Paneer", yet it seems to me that this is a vegetarian recipe. Can you clarify? I would really like to find a vegan recipe :) Thanks!”
— Chris N.
Comment

I tackled the spinach question first and started with Raghavan Iyer’s recipe, as it was the only one calling for fresh and un-chopped (whole) spinach. The flavor and aroma of the dry fennel seeds and the sublime, golden sheen of the overall dish were the best parts of his recipe. Plus, he skips the blending step (to purée the spinach), which saves time and makes cleanup easier.

Nevertheless I was missing the silky-smoothness of a spinach purée and decided that in my final recipe, I would purée spinach instead of keeping it whole.

Having made a conclusion on the spinach question, I thought about the paneer. In Julie Sahni’s recipe, I loved the idea of coating paneer pieces with flour (to ensure that the cheese doesn't disintegrate in the spinach). But I was keen on finding out what would happen if the paneer were not pan-fried. Jody Vassallo adds raw paneer pieces to spinach purée, but she does not elaborate on why, which left me still unsure about the paneer.

To refine my recipe, I decided to speak to home cooks who had grown up eating and making palak paneer. My contacts were Priya Sharma and Mridula Vasudevan, both of whom come from the Punjabi community of Delhi. They rattled off so many variations and nuances that by the end, my head was buzzing with ideas. That’s what I love about seasoned home cooks: Over the years, they prepare food for every possible situation, accommodate quirks, preferences, and idiosyncrasies, and, along the way, garner a fantastic repertoire of knowledge that chefs would kill for.

Generally, Mridula pan-fries the paneer while Priya does not, but both said that they had tried the alternative, too. And both agree that pan-frying paneer gives the dish a certain richness, which is ideal for parties and special occasions.

Here’s some other golden dust that Priya and Mridula dropped on me in the course of our conversation:

  • For guests who don’t eat garlic and onions (many Indians abstain from these ingredients for religious reasons), palak paneer can be easily made without them, no problem.
  • Add garam masala at the end.
  • If you’re not pan-frying paneer before you add it in, make sure it cooks for 10 minutes at low heat in the spinach purée so that it can soak up the salt and flavors.
  • Last but not the least, if you’re using store-bought paneer (or homemade paneer that’s been frozen), cook it in boiling water for 10 minutes. This step allows you to skip the thawing process and makes the paneer soft at the same time. However if your paneer is freshly made, you can skip this step.

And, finally, my own learnings from years of making palak paneer:

  • Tomatoes are a must. In this dish, I find spinach to be an introverted vegetable that needs tomatoes to break out of its shell. Even in Sahni’s recipe, the absence of tomatoes brought forth a grassiness of spinach that was not appetizing.
  • I found sautéing spinach (before puréeing) produced tastier result compared to boiling spinach.
  • I didn’t “get” paneer for many years, and my store-bought paneer always, without fail, stuck to the pan when I fried it. Luckily, the solution was simple: **Paneer stuck to the pan because my oil was not hot enough.((
  • Store-bought paneer is absolutely fine. Priya told me that even in India, where women make their own paneer often, it’s common to use store-bought for this application.

And so, the recipe for palak paneer, distilled from all the above Olympian efforts:

What Indian dish do you want to learn to make at home? We're taking requests in the comments!

Order now

A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

Order now

14 Comments

Toneweaver April 16, 2017
Upma!
 
Amy February 2, 2017
How much cardamom should I use in this recipe? One pod?
 
Author Comment
Annada R. March 6, 2018
Sorry, Amy, missed your question! Yes, please use one cardamom pod.
 
Chris N. April 18, 2016
Hi! This looks and sounds delicious. However, I am a little confused - there is a picture caption "Vegan Palak Paneer", yet it seems to me that this is a vegetarian recipe. Can you clarify? I would really like to find a vegan recipe :) Thanks!
 
Francesca April 18, 2016
That's rather odd. I don't cook vegan food as a whoole and I cannot find that caption on my post. I have just re-read it and just cannot see any reference to Vegan in the pic captions. the only way to make this dish vegan would be to use oil for the initial frying of spices and find a vegan style cheese to cut up. Better still, just make Aloo Palak ( with oil) which uses potato and spinach- perfect for vegans. Thanks, Francesca
 
Ttrockwood April 20, 2016
You're seeing a link to the vegan recipe- which is very different. I would use this recipe and just swap in firm tofu for the paneer and some canned coconut milk or a thin cashew cream for the dairy at the end. <br />Their previous vegan recipe is here <br />https://food52.com/recipes/37464-vegan-palak-paneer
 
Chris N. April 20, 2016
Francesca, Ttrockwood ~ Thanks for your responses! I will heed your suggestions. ~C<br /><br />
 
Francesca April 18, 2016
If you grow silver beet ( Swiss Chard) try Palak Paneer made with silver beet for a very rustic version. https://almostitalian.wordpress.com/2014/10/16/silver-beet-paneer-curry-for-a-cold-snap/
 
Transcendancing April 18, 2016
P.S. I also can't wait to try this recipe!
 
Transcendancing April 18, 2016
I want an amazing recipe for butter chicken that brings in all that smoky tandoor chicken flavour - especially if it can be replicated at home in an ordinary oven without a smoker. I know it's cliche, but it's such a great comfort food dish and I'd love to have an excellent recipe to draw on - ones I've tried thus far haven't satisfied. I'd also love a great korma recipe, a run down on different ways to prepare daal, and a primer on putting together a banquet of curries veg and non-veg and what considerations are involved in that.
 
Chit.Chaat.Chai (. April 14, 2016
Wow. I am so impressed with all the details, effort and research! Thank you
 
Sachin V. April 14, 2016
Great tips and a wonderful recipe. Here is one more tip..<br />If you add a small amount of dry methi leaves, it cranks up the flavors (commonly known as Kasoori Methi). Usually store bought. I like to add two large spoons towards the end and let the flavors blend over a low heat for about 10 minutes.
 
Author Comment
Annada R. April 14, 2016
Thank you for the tip, Sachin. I will definitely try this.
 
Brooklynp April 13, 2016
Chana masala!