In my humble opinion, cheese is one of man’s finest inventions. Transforming nutrient dense but highly perishable milk into a more stable, flavorful food is absolutely genius. And delicious. And doable at home!
Like baking, cheese making is one of the more scientific and complex cooking techniques that requires precise measurement, exacting execution and patience. But it ain’t rocket science and it is one of the most rewarding cooking techniques I know of (besides homemade yeast bread).
One of the easiest and most forgiving cheeses to make at home is paneer. It is a moist, creamy, fresh cheese that takes less than 30 minutes of active prep time and is finished in a couple hours. It is a completely vegetarian cheese as it is curdled with yogurt, lemon juice, or vinegar, not with animal rennet as some other cheeses are. Paneer doesn’t require any specialized ingredients (just milk, acid, and salt) or equipment (I don’t even use cheesecloth, just a tea towel). You don’t even need a thermometer.
It goes like this: heat milk; stir in acid/salt; drain whey from curds; eat! I find yogurt-curdled paneer to be the best tasting; sometimes lemon juice or vinegar can leave an acidic flavor that overpowers the mild, sweet milk. One of the most well known paneer preparations is Saag Paneer, where seared pieces of paneer are sauced with a luscious spinach sauce, but it can also be eaten fresh, fried or used in desserts. I love experimenting with new ways to use it!
Most recently, I made a fresh paneer insalata caprese, with tender cubes of the mild cheese standing in for the more traditional mozzarella di bufala (buffalo milk-mozzarella). With sweet tomatoes, rich balsamic vinegar, grassy extra virgin olive oil and tender basil leaves this is an antipasto that I never get sick of. Make it with your own fresh paneer, and I bet you won’t either.
Homemade Paneer Cheese
This recipe is inspired by Nabia, who writes the blog food i make and teaches the Indian Cuisine class at Cook's World, where we both teach. Her recipes are fantastic and I encourage you to check out her blog!
Makes 1 ¾ pounds cheese
1 gallon milk (whole or 2% work best)
1 ½ cups plain yogurt (nonfat is fine), plus additional if necessary
½ cup water
4 teaspoons kosher salt
Heat the milk. In a large pot, heat the milk over medium heat until it comes to a simmer; stir occasionally. While you are waiting for the milk to heat up, line a colander with cheesecloth (or a thin tea towel) and set it over a deep bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk the yogurt until smooth and then whisk in the water and salt; set aside.
Curdle the milk. Once the milk comes to a simmer, turn the heat down to low. Pour in the yogurt mixture in a continuous stream while stirring the milk gently. After a minute or two, the milk should separate into curds and whey. If you do not see this happen after three minutes, pour in a bit more of diluted yogurt (1/4 cup or so). Once the milk has separated, remove the pot from the heat.
Strain the milk. Ladle the curd/whey mixture into the cheesecloth-lined colander. They whey should drain out rather easily, leaving the soft white curds in the cloth. Once you have ladled all the mixture into the cheesecloth, pour out the whey from the bowl.
Press the curds. Fold the cheesecloth (or towel) over the curds, top with a small plate and put several cans or jars on top to weigh the cheese down. Refrigerate for 2-3 hours, allowing the excess whey to drain away. The cheese is now ready to be consumed fresh or thoroughly wrapped in plastic and frozen for up to two months.
Paneer Insalata Caprese
Serves 4-6 as an antipasto
2 cups cubed homemade paneer
2 large or 4 small ripe tomatoes, cubed
2 tablespoons best quality balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons best quality extra virgin olive oil
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
¼ cup fresh basil leaves
Assemble the salad. Arrange the paneer and tomatoes on a serving platter or on individual plates. Drizzle the balsamic vinegar and olive oil over the salad and season to taste with salt and pepper. Scatter the basil leaves whole (or torn) over the salad and serve immediately with fresh bread to sop up the vinaigrette.