Paneer (A.K.A. queso fresco) is a unique style of cheese whose only close cousin is Ricotta. Unlike other cheeses, it is made not with cultures or rennet, but rather with a combination of heat and acid. To make this cheese, all you have to do is bring milk to a high temperature, then add an acidic ingredient to the pot. The acid causes a change in the shape of the milk proteins which causes them to emerge from the whey as cheese.
Paneer can be made with any milk, homogenized or un-homogenized, full fat or low fat (though a high fat milk will yield more cheese because of its higher solids content). You can use pasteurized milk or raw milk (though raw milk will be pasteurized by the heating process). Only UHT milk will not do. THe ultra high temperature processing denatures milk proteins and destroys any hopes of making cheese…alongside much of the milk’s vitamins and nutrients. You can recognize UHT milk as it doesn’t have to be refrigerated, though in North America, it is increasingly found in the refrigerated dairy case…Read your labels closely.
As for the acid, any vinegar will do. Every variety of vinegar or lemon juice will yield a different paneer, each with very distinct flavours. My favourite vinegar to use is apple cider vinegar – the appleyness comes out in the cheese.
Lemon juice will work too, though it is not as acidic as vinegar. You will need to use twice as much to curdle the same amount of milk: one cup of juice per gallon of milk. Paneer made with lemon juice will be softer and more difficult to strain then when made with vinegar. You may have to pass the contents of the pot through cheesecloth to strain it. Use fresh squeezed lemon juice, otherwise you’ll be underwhelmed by the taste of the reconstituted lemon juice in the cheese.
In India, paneer is made traditionally by adding yogourt or kefir to the hot milk. Yogourt is much less acidic than vinegar or lemon juice, and as much as a half gallon of it is needed to curdle a gallon of milk. This is the most natural way to make paneer; it makes a paneer whose flavour is most delicate, and not shrouded by vinegar or lemon juice.
————- Technique —————-
Step 1: boil the milk
Bring a gallon of milk to a boil. Use a heavy bottomed pot to keep the milk from scorching, and stir, stir stir. The more time you spend stirring, the less time you’ll spend scouring the pot.
When the milk comes to a full boil – you’ll see foam rising rapidly in the pot, and big bubbles rolling at the surface – take the pot off of the heat of the stove. Let it cool for one or two minutes until the milk comes to rest.
Step 2: add the acid
Pour in one half cup of vinegar(or one cup of lemon juice or half a gallon of kefir). Give the pot of milk two steady stirs, no more. Watch as the curds separate from the whey. You’ll see billowy white curds emerge from the bright yellow whey.
Step 3: strain the curds
The curds will be soft and delicate at first, quite difficult to handle. But if you wait five minutes, they will firm up and be much easier to strain. Strain the curds with a slotted spoon to get the curds out of the whey and into a wire-mesh strainer or spaghetti colander suspended over a large pot (if you pour the curds from the pot straight into the strainer, they will get broken up and mixed up with the whey, and will become waterlogged and harder to press).
Step 4: flavour the curds
if you wish to flavour the curds with herbs or spices, this is the time to do it. Add in dried or fresh herbs to give the cheese another level of flavour. Or add fresh edible flower petals like calendula to give the cheese some vibrant colour. my favourite addition to paneer is dried and smoked chipotle peppers, which give the paneer a wonderful smokiness without having to smoke it.
Step 5: Press the curds
If you wish to have a firm paneer that is easily sliced, you will have to press your curds. If you just leave the curds to hang out in the strainer until they cool, then the curds will have a cottage cheese-like consistency. If you press them, though, the cheese will be much firmer and can be cut into cubes which can then be added to curries.
To press your paneer, you don’t need any fancy cheese presses. You can easily improvise a cheese press at home, using a pair of yogourt containers. One yogourt container, to be used as a form, can be carefully punctured with holes using a skewer or a sharp tipped knife all around. This container will hold onto the cheese while allowing the whey to escape. The second yogourt container can be filled up with hot whey and capped with its lid to be used as a press.
Scoop up the paneer from the strainer, and fill up the yogourt container form most of the way to the top. Place the yogourt container press on top of the paneer in the form. And wait. The warm whey will press the cheese into an extra firm round. Once the cheese has cooled, it can be taken out of the form, and sliced into cubes for cooking…