This is a recipe for how to make Paneer, a cottage cheese from the Indian subcontinent used in traditional dishes such as Palak Paneer (Spinach Curry). It’s far superior to store-bought with a much softer, creamier texture.
Super-easy to make, and so very satisfying!
Paneer – Fresh Indian cheese
Paneer is a fresh cheese that is a common ingredient used in northern Indian (as well as other nearby countries’) cooking. Perhaps most well known is Palak Paneer, the iconic green spinach curry served with golden pan-fried paneer!
These days, you can buy paneer at large grocery stores in Australia such as Coles and Woolworths. But it’s much harder in texture and not a great product. Homemade is far superior – it’s softer and creamier.
Besides, it’s such a cinch to make and lasts for a couple of weeks in the fridge. So why wouldn’t you just make your own??
What paneer tastes like
Paneer is a fresh cheese so it’s somewhat similar to other fresh cheeses like ricotta, quark and cottage cheese. It’s got a milky flavour and a lovely texture a bit like firm ricotta. It’s not as creamy as say a brie, because it doesn’t have anywhere near the same amount of fat.
Paneer is unsalted so it’s quite bland if eaten plain. For Indian cooking, it’s intended to be eaten with flavourful sauces or spicing – like the Spinach Curry sauce pictured below for Palak Paneer!
What you need for homemade paneer
All you need is milk, and lemon juice or vinegar. Gee, I wish more recipes on my website called for just 2 ingredients!
- Milk – It has to be full-fat, otherwise it won’t set properly. I’ve only used cow’s milk, but I’ve read that buffalo milk works just as well; and
- Lemon juice or vinegar – This along with heat is what causes the milk to curdle, the starting point of any cheese. Curdling is when the dairy separates from the liquid. I prefer lemon juice because it’s fresher and not as harsh in acidity flavour-wise, but standard white vinegar works too.
How to make paneer (fresh Indian cheese)
- Heat milk, add lemon – Bring milk to just below boiling point. This is when the top is all foamy, and you can see it’s hot and steamy.
Once the milk is hot, turn the stove off. Add the lemon juice and stir for 1 minute;
- Curdled milk – You’ll see the milk begin to curdle, with little white bits separating from the clear(-ish) liquid. This liquid is called the whey. The white bits are the good stuff, called curds – the foundations of cheese!
Milk not curdling? Turn the stove back on and bring the milk to a boil again, just until it starts separating. Then turn the stove off and keep stirring.
- Line colander with cheesecloth – Set a sieve, strainer or colander over a large bowl, then line the strainer with 2 layers of cheesecloth (yes we’re actually using cheesecloth today for it’s original purpose!)
What’s cheesecloth? It’s a thin, loose-woven fabric used for cheese-making and other cooking purposes. It acts like a sieve, but the holes are much finer than standard utensils. Don’t try to drain paneer in a fine-mesh strainer or sieve –- you’ll lose the curds through the holes!
Where to find cheesecloth? At fabric stores and some kitchenware stores. You can get it for as little as $3 per metre.
Cheesecloth alternatives – Clean blue Chux wipes (yes, seriously!), a double layer of good-quality paper towels (don’t use cheap paper towels, they will disintegrate), or very thin handkerchiefs.
- Drain paneer – Start by ladling the curdled milk into the lined strainer. When you have spooned in about half, you can pour the rest in. The whey can take 5 to 10 minutes to finish draining away, so if your strainer is small, you may need to strain the curdled milk in batches.
The paneer is drained once liquid stops dripping out. At this stage, the paneer will still be quite soft and watery.
- Rinse – Bundle up the paneer so it’s wrapped in the cheesecloth, Then give it a rinse under the tap. This is just to remove the excess lemon flavour.
- Squeeze out excess water – Twist the top of the cloth and squeeze the bundle itself, to squeeze out excess water and whey.
You don’t need to use brute force here because we will be draining further in the fridge. Just squeeze out what you can. If the paneer starts getting forced out through the cheesecloth holes, you’re squeezing too hard!
At this stage, the paneer will still seem watery and wobbly. It sets more in the next step!
- Prepare to refrigerate – Discard all the liquid in the bowl. Then set the paneer in the cheesecloth back in the strainer, and set over empty bowl. Shape the paneer into a 2cm/ 4/5″ thick disc.
- Weigh down – Top with a small plate, then weigh down with 2 x 400g/14oz cans or something else of similar weight. This weight helps the paneer set because it’s compressing the cheese, as well as helping to further remove remaining excess water.
Leave in the fridge for 4 hours.
Try not to leave much beyond 4 hours. The longer the paneer is in the fridge with the weights on it, the firmer it will get (as more liquid continues to be pressed out of it).
- Ready for use! Remove the paneer from the fridge and unwrap it. There will be a dent in the middle – this is normal, it’s from the liquid draining away.
You can either use it immediately for cooking, or you can keep it for up to 2 weeks in the fridge. Just keep it whole in an airtight container, then cut off pieces as you need them!
How to cook and use paneer
Paneer is typically cut into small bite-size pieces, either cubes or rectangles. Then they are either:
- Stirred into curries, just as-is. Paneer doesn’t need cooking, just heating through. The idea here is that the paneer absorbs the flavour of the curry sauce; or
- Pan-fried until golden – like you do halloumi – before being stirred into curries such as Palak Paneer, and other dishes.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that I prefer the latter. Because, as I always say, browning = flavour!! The paneer looks irresistible when it’s crispy and golden on the outside. You just want to eat it straight out of the pan. You really will. I do!
Bonus: Pan-frying also causes the paneer to set better, so it’s less likely to break up when stirred into curries – a common problem when uncooked paneer is stirred into curries.
Dishes using Paneer
I’m sharing today’s homemade paneer recipe for use in Palak Paneer, India’s famous Spinach Curry with Paneer.
But there’s a wide variety of other Indian dishes that use paneer, both savoury main dishes as well as desserts and snacks.
It’s also common to substitute paneer for meat in some dishes, as it makes a great vegetarian alternative that’s equally filling and satisfying. Here are a couple of curry recipes I’ve previously shared that can be made vegetarian by switching the meat with paneer:
- Paneer Tikka Masala – Substitute the chicken with paneer in my Chicken Tikka Masala recipe; and
- Paneer Butter Masala Curry – Switch the chicken in my Butter Chicken.
Enjoy! – Nagi x
Watch how to make it
Homemade Paneer (Fresh Indian Cottage Cheese)
Use paneer to make the great Indian classic, Palak Paneer (Spinach Curry with Paneer)
- 2 litres / 2 quarts milk , full-fat (low-fat won’t work)
- 4 tbsp lemon juice (sub white vinegar)
Heat the milk in a large saucepan over medium high heat until the top becomes foamy, just as looks like it’s about to boil.
Turn stove off. Add lemon juice and stir for 1 minute. The milk should begin to curdle. If it doesn’t, turn the stove back on and bring back to a gentle boil until the solids separate.
Strain & remove excess water:
Line strainer or colander: Place over a deep bowl. Line strainer with 2 layers of cheesecloth (Note 1).
Strain: Ladle in half of the curdled milk to begin with, then pour the rest in. Leave until all the liquid drains – this might take 5 to 10 minutes.
Rinse: Discard liquid (whey) in the bowl. Bundle the paneer up in the cheesecloth (it will still be quite watery at this stage) then rinse bundle briefly under cold tap water. This helps to remove lemon flavour + cool for easier handling.
Squeeze out excess water by twisting the cheesecloth and squeezing the bundle, but not so hard that paneer squeezes out through the cloth. Once liquid no longer comes out, stop. The paneer will still be quite soft at this stage.
Set in fridge:
Weigh cheese down with weights: Shape cheese into a disc around 2cm / ¾” thick, still wrapped in cheesecloth. Place in a strainer or colander set over a bowl. Top with a small plate then 2 x 400g/14oz cans (or similar weight).
Refrigerate for 4 hours. During this time the paneer will set (become firm) and remaining liquid will drain out. (Note 2)
Storage / cutting:
Remove paneer from fridge and carefully unwrap. There will be a dent in the middle, this is normal (it’s from the draining).
At this stage, the paneer is now ready for use. You can either cut it immediately and use in a recipe (such as Palak Paneer!), or store the whole uncut block for another time and just cut when needed.
Store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, or freeze for 3 months.
Alternatives: Clean blue Chux wipes (yes, really!); old thin handkerchiefs used in a single layer; 2 layers of good-quality paper towels (not cheap stuff, they just disintegrate). Standard tea towels won’t work, they are too thick for the liquid to drain out.
2. If you leave it in longer, the cheese will become firmer and can be more crumbly to cut because the weight continues to press liquid out. So try to stick to 4 to 5 hours for the time the paneer is in the fridge with the weights on. Your paneer will be nice and soft, like we want!
Life of Dozer
Weekend teeth inspection. I always think he has disproportionally small teeth for a dog that big!!