The many times I’d read recipes for paneer, the firm, chewy cheese in the muttar paneer and saag paneer I get in Indian restaurants, I was always a little amazed at how straightforward and uncomplicated the procedure looked. Could making cheese really be this easy? The basic outline is simply: heat milk, add something acidic, cook until the milk solids separate out, wrap them in cheese cloth and squeeze out the liquid.

Paneer: the finished product in its cheesecloth wrapper

The particulars do vary, though, and as always when making something for the first time I had to face some undocumented choices. So that’s how one day I found myself looking into an 8qt pot at a half gallon of milk going from simmer to boil, deciding whether or not to skim off the froth. None of the half-dozen recipes I consulted had anything to say on this point, and I know nothing about the impact of milk froth on the cheesemaking process, so I took a middle ground, skimmed off the first bit of foam and stirred the rest in.

I’d already had to decide how much milk to use, what to use for the acid, and how much acid to add. The advice on these points from the recipes I consulted varies widely: juice of 1 lime to 1/2 gallon milk; juice of 3 lemons to six cups milk; 1/3 cup lemon juice to 10 cups milk; 3 cups buttermilk to 6 cups milk; 1-1/2 tsp lemon juice or vinegar or citric acid (where would I get citric acid?) to 1 liter of milk. And also, what kind of milk will work for this? In a moment of diet-consciousness, I tried to research whether skim or 2% milk could be used. When a recipe is specific on this point, whole milk is called for, but I couldn’t find any explicit discussions of why, or any definitive statement that lo-or-no fat milk should not be substituted. In the end I went with whole milk as the safe approach, but I don’t feel that I’ve fully answered why.

In the end I went with lemon juice and an entire half-gallon of whole milk. I squeezed 3 lemons which gave me about 2/3 of a cup of juice – I wanted plenty in case I’d need extra – but only ended up using half of that. When the milk was at a low-but-full boil, I poured juice in; I expected to have to wait a few minutes but the milk broke instantly, separating into clumpy white curds and watery whey. I cooked this for five minutes, then let it sit with the flame turned off for 20 minutes or so.

The next step is pouring off the whey and gathering up the curds. Some recipes say to scoop up the curds with a slotted spoon, but this turned out to be a tedious method. It was more effective and much quicker to pour the whole thing through a cheesecloth-lined colander. One source recommended saving the whey, and recommended some uses for it (making naan comes to mind) but mine just went down the sink drain. Next time perhaps I’ll be more frugal.

I expected a cheese as big as bread loaf, but what I got was about the size of an orange: I’m glad I used the entire half-gallon of milk. Next decision: to extract the remaining liquid do I use the hanging method or the weighting method? Maybe, hanging the cheese above a bowl to drip and form itself of its own weight has a bit of dramatic flair to it, but most recipes suggest weighting, and it seems like a more effective way to squeeze out the liquid and form a solid ball. So press I did: I set the cheese inside a paper-towel lined pan and placed a water-filled pan on top.

End result: paneer success! Next time I’d consider adding some salt, and I’d love see how it comes out differently with lime juice or with buttermilk. And I’m very curious why the amount of acid should vary so much from recipe to recipe. Is there some difference in the milk itself – which of course varies widely across different regions – that requires adjustments in the amount of acid that’s used? And how much does the amount and type of acid affect the flavor of the final product? I can’t seem to find any writeup to answer these questions, so maybe I’ll need to do a paneer cook-off some time in the future.

Now, what do I do with this ball of cheese? Check the Saag Paneer post to find out.

Here’s my Paneer experience written as a recipe.

Here are other recipes I consulted when preparing this dish:
http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/recipes/recipe/0,,FOOD_9936_21470,00.html

http://www.indianfoodforever.com/basic-preparations/how-to-make-paneer.html

An excellent recipe from an excellent blog with great pictures:
http://www.nandyala.org/mahanandi/archives/2005/06/06/delightful-paneer/
Also, a recipe in The Spice Box by Manju Shivraj Singh: (http://www.powells.com/biblio/62-0895940531-0)