Every week, a DIY expert spares us a trip to the grocery store and shows us how to make small batches of great foods at home.
Considering that India is one of the largest milk producing countries in the world, it is rather surprising that it doesn't have a major cheese-making culture. You won't find stinky and moldy cheeses in the shops that line India's busy, narrow streets -- but almost every dairy shop carries paneer, an immensely popular fresh cheese.
Paneer is such a dominant culinary symbol in India because, unlike other cheeses, it doesn’t require animal rennet. This makes it perfect for the predominantly vegetarian Indian diet. Paneer makes a great meat substitute in most Indian recipes, but even non-vegetarians like myself love it. From sweets, to fried snacks, to cream-drunk royal curries, paneer is used in North Indian cuisine extensively. It has a mild taste, its texture (similar to that of halloumi or tofu), and its capability to soak in flavors and withstand high cooking temperatures make it a household favorite.
I like to compare paneer to the humble potato. On its own, a potato is rather bland. But when coupled with simple ingredients and cooked with the right technique, it is converted into irresistible dishes that the whole world loves!
The ingredients here are basic, but the methodology is important to follow for the best results. I'm sharing my own technique for making paneer and a few tips I hope will help you get through paneer making. Trust me: once you make your own, you will never go back to store-bought.
Makes about a cup
2 liters fresh whole milk
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon or lime juice
What you will need:
2 deep, heavy-bottomed pots
Cheesecloth or muslin
A wooden spoon
Heat the milk in a pan over medium heat. Let it come to a gentle boil and stay there for a minute, making sure the milk does not boil vigorously. If it does, reduce the heat and bring the milk back to a gentle boil.
Add one tablespoon of juice and quickly stir it in. At this point, you will start to see small curds in the milk, but no whey. Add another tablespoon of juice and stir. More curds will appear and you will slowly begin to see the greenish whey. Add the last tablespoon of juice and with this, you should be able to see a clear, greenish whey separating from the curds. Switch off the gas immediately at this point. Depending on the acidity of the juice, the amount of juice you require may differ. Start with one tablespoon at a time until you achieve the results.
Once the curds and whey have separated, you'll want to work quickly. Line another pot with double-layered cheesecloth, making sure the cheesecloth is long enough to be bundled up and hung later. Pour the contents of your pot into the cheesecloth to drain off the whey and collect the curds. Wash the curds by running them under cold water to remove the lemon taste.
Tie up the cheesecloth in a tight bundle and let it drain for about 30 minutes. Then place weight on the cheese to get it to be flatter and drain out extra moisture. I generally place it between two cutting boards and set a heavy pot on top of them for 1 to 2 hours. Be careful: adding too much weight for too long will result in hard, crumbly paneer. Wrap your paneer and store it in the fridge for up to a week.
Note: I often add a good pinch of salt to the milk for more flavor, but it is not essential. Other flavorings like cumin, herbs, and other spices can be kneaded into the curds before draining. Yogurt can be used in place of lemon for those with a sensitivity to citrus: about ¼ cup of yogurt should work for this recipe, but it will depend on the quality and sourness of the yogurt.
Tip: Use the leftover whey for pancakes, roti or other bread, or smoothies -- or use it to water your plants.
Photos by Kulsum Kunwa