The moment you tell someone you are making homemade cheese they either look at you in awe or think you are, frankly, insane. What they don’t know is how easy it is, especially if there is no rennet involved or any hazardous steps of sticking your hand in boiling liquid to gather balls of creamy cheese, mozzarella style. Making whole-milk paneer, a mellow tasting, slightly creamy cheese and a common ingredient in every north Indian kitchen, is as simple as boiling milk—literally. In a country where more than a billion people exist, it seems a bit unfair that there is only one cheese (and it’s the nonmelting kind). Who said life is fair? What’s fair is that this cheese can also be purchased in the cheese section of some high-end supermarkets. Cut up, it’s great in stir-fries, stews, or even crumbled over salads. Extra-fi rm tofu (drained before use) is a great stand-in for paneer. The vegan at your table will appreciate that.
Makes 1 1⁄4 pounds
1 gallon whole milk About 1⁄4 cup distilled white vinegar
1 Line a colander with a double layer of cheesecloth or a clean dishcloth, making sure 2 to 3 inches hang over the rim of the colander. Place the colander in the sink.
2 Pour the milk into a large saucepan or Dutch oven and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently to prevent the milk from scorching. When it comes to a rolling boil, stir in ¼ cup of vinegar. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside until the milk separates into curds and a pale green, thin, watery whey, 15 to 30 seconds. Sometimes, depending on the acidic strength of the vinegar, you may need to add a bit more, 1 tablespoon at a time, until you see the separation happening.
3 Use a long-handled strainer to spoon the curds into the lined colander (or pour them in), and let drain. Once it’s slightly cool to the touch, gather the edges of the cheesecloth and fold them over the curds to cover them.
4 Fill a heavy pot with water and set it directly on top of the cloth-wrapped curds in the colander. Set this aside until the curds are firm, 3 to 5 hours. (The weight will press on them and force out almost all of the moisture.)
5 Remove the weight and unwrap the fi rm, milky white cheese. Wrapped in plastic wrap the paneer can be refriger- ated for up to 1 week. (You can also freeze the cheese, sealed in a freezer-safe plastic zip-top bag, for up to 2 months. Thaw the paneer in the refrigerator before using it.)
• Paneer is often fried before it’s used in dishes.
To fry paneer, you have two options: one is deep-frying; the other is panfrying (my preferred method).
To deep-fry paneer, cut the fresh cheese into 1-inch cubes (or any other size). Pour oil to a depth of 2 to 3 inches into a wok, Dutch oven, or deep medium-size saucepan.
Heat the oil over medium heat until a deep-fry or candy thermometer inserted in the oil (without touching the bottom of the pan) registers 350˚F. (An alternative way to see if the oil is at the right temperature for deep- frying is to stick a wooden skewer into the oil; once bubbles start to emerge from around the skewer, the oil is ready.) Line a plate or baking sheet with
3 or 4 pieces of paper towel. Once the oil is hot, gently slide in the paneer cubes. Fry them, turning occasionally, until they are golden brown and slightly crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. The oil will spatter because of some moisture in the cheese, so please be careful. Remove the fried paneer cubes from the oil with a slotted spoon and transfer them to the paper towels to drain.
To panfry paneer, heat 1⁄4 cup of vegetable oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Arrange the cubes of paneer in a single layer and cook them, turning occasionally, until all sides are honey brown and slightly crisp, 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer the fried paneer to a paper towel– lined plate to drain.
One and a quarter pounds of fresh paneer will yield about 3 cups fried cheese (1-inch cubes). To store fried paneer, place the cubes in a bowl of water (it will keep them moist) and refrigerate them for up to a week, changing the water daily. Drain and pat dry before using. You can also freeze the cubes without immersing them in water in a freezer-safe plastic zip- top bag for up to 2 months.
• It’s easy to customize paneer by folding in any array of herbs or spices you wish to add to the curds before you press them down. Some of my favorites are 3 to 4 ﬁ nely chopped chiles, 1⁄2 cup each chopped cilantro and basil, 1⁄4 cup chopped mint, 2 tablespoons garam masala, and 1⁄4 cup fresh pomegranate seeds when in season.