When I think of cheese, Indian food rarely comes to mind. But there is one type of cheese that stands out in Indian cooking. It’s easy to make and, depending on how you process and flavor it, it can be used in sweet and savory dishes. That cheese is paneer, and unlike its western counterparts, it doesn’t melt when heated and it holds its texture and structure rather well when cooked. Much like Halloumi, paneer can be skewered, marinated in the tandoori sauce, and grilled.
In many ways, paneer reminds me of tofu: It absorbs the flavors of any dish it is cooked in, and you can crumble it or cut it into cubes or any shape you desire. Paneer is sometimes described as Indian cottage cheese, but I’m hesitant to describe it as such—not only do they have different taste and texture (cottage cheese is rather loose, whereas paneer is firm), they are also made differently (rennet is used to curdle the milk to prepare cottage cheese). —Nik Sharma
about 2 1/2 to 3 cups
whole or 2% milk
freshly squeezed and strained lemon juice, divided (you might not need to use all the juice)
Pour the milk into a large thick bottomed stockpot and bring the milk to a rolling boil on medium-high heat while constantly stirring with a large wooden spoon or Silicone spatula.
Once the milk starts to boil, pour in half of the lemon juice and stir. The milk will start to curdle. If the whey (the watery liquid that separates from the solid cheese curds) still looks slightly milky, add a little more lemon juice. The whey will be slightly yellowish-green in color while the cheese curds will separate and float to the top.
Remove the pot from the stove and drain the contents into a colander or sieve lined with a clean piece of dampened kitchen cloth or a few layers of cheesecloth placed over a large bowl or pot.
Discard the whey that collects in the bowl and wash the curds by running cold tap water over the cheese in the cloth. Wash at least 3 times to get rid of any residual lemon juice that might be trapped in the cheese curds.
Once this is done, tie the ends of the cheesecloth/kitchen cloth and squeeze to release any extra liquid out of the cheese. The cheese/paneer inside the cheesecloth will be appear to resemble crumbs.
To set the paneer into a more firm cake, place a large heavy pot filled with water over the cheesecloth containing the paneer and let it sit for one hour at room temperature on a flat surface. The weight will help pack the paneer into a tight and firm structure.
Unwrap the cheesecloth and cut the paneer into 1- by 1 1/2-inch rectangles (or any shape or size you like) and store in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to a week. You can also freeze the paneer for long-term storage by wrapping it in plastic wrap and then storing it in an airtight plastic bag.
Nik Sharma is a molecular biologist turned cookbook author and food photographer who writes a monthly column for Serious Eats and the San Francisco Chronicle and is a contributor to the New York Times. His first cookbook, Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food, was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation award and an International Association of Culinary Professionals award. Nik resides in Los Angeles, California and writes the award-winning blog, A Brown Table. Nik's new book, The Flavor Equation will be released in October 2020.