Paneer is the cheese of the Indian subcontinent.
It is used, in one form or another, in all countries across Southern Asia. Many well-stocked supermarkets outside India have started to offer paneer due to increased interest.
Paneer recipes are part of many household fares and appear on most restaurant menus, especially in India and Bangladesh.
What is paneer and how is it produced?
Cows milk (or sometimes buffalo) is heated, and acidity in the form of lemon juice, diluted vinegar, or yogurt is added. The acid will cause the protein in the milk to lump together – the milk curdles and separates into curd and whey.
No animal derived rennet is used to ensure the suitability for vegetarian consumption.
Once the milk has separated,the whey is squeezed out of the solid curd.
What’s left now is a white, fresh cheese with a crumbly consistency.
From here, any further processing depends on the location and the desired outcome of the paneer production.
The soft mass is now pressed down for a varied amount of time to achieve a more stable shape. The longer the pressure is kept, the harder the cheese will get.
Some regions prefer a softer and more malleable consistency for their paneer recipes, similar to mozzarella cheese.
Paneer is probably the easiest of all cheeses to make at home.
All you need is full-fat milk, lemon juice and a bit of squeezing strength.
The end product can be rather bland. However, it is the perfect vehicle to absorb the richly flavored sauces and aromatic spices in many paneer recipes.
In predominant vegetarian diet, paneer is a welcome source of protein and calcium. The fat content is usually around 20% depending on the used milk.
Paneer holds its shape when heated and lends a semi-solid texture and slightly chewy consistency to the dish.
Some paneer recipes include grilling or frying the cheese which will result in a crusty brown outside and a lovely soft inside.
For dishes which require the firmer paneer, but you have none in your hand, you could substitute it with the Middle Eastern halloumi cheese. It has a comparable, harder consistency but is already salted and therefore, needs less salt for the dish.
There are some favorite paneer recipes across the Indian subcontinent, for example, saag paneer or palak paneer (both include spinach), paneer jalfrezi (stir-fry), mattar paneer (with peas), paneer tikka (a vegetarian version of chicken tikka) or, as dessert, such as the rasgulla.
Many pizza bakeries offer paneer as a topping replacing mozzarella or other cheeses.
Even the fast food industry discovered paneer as an ideal ingredient for fritters or wraps.
If you cannot make your own paneer, buying the cheese outside the Indian subcontinent gets easier every year.
Make sure the product looks white and fresh. When you press the cheese, it should bounce back. Otherwise, it might not have the right consistency.
Paneer is an ingredient worth getting to know. It might not be something for your cheeseboard, but it is unrivaled in absorbing and transporting aromas and flavors while giving texture to every dish.