Learn Everything You’ve Ever Wanted To Know About Paneer Cheese!
Paneer. It’s a key ingredient in a lot of great Indian dishes (Saag Paneer, we’re looking at you) but you may not know much about this soft, mild cheese, where it comes from, how it’s made, and other such details.
Well, we’re here to change all of that! In this article, we’re going to discuss everything that you’ve ever wanted to know about paneer cheese.
What Is Paneer Cheese, And Where Does It Come From?
Paneer cheese is a fresh, creamy, normally unsalted cheese. It’s widely used in north India, and in nearby countries like Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Traditionally, it was made with buffalo milk in these countries.
Today, though, a blend of both buffalo and cow’s milk is widely used by paneer manufacturers. While paneer can also be made wholly from cow’s milk, it will have a slightly different texture and lower fat content.
Unlike most other types of cheese, paneer is made without rennet. This is because rennet is typically sourced from the stomachs of unweaned calves. In parts of the world where Hinduism is the predominant religion, cows are considered sacred – so rennet can’t be used to curdle milk.
Instead of rennet, paneer is made by curdling hot milk using lime/lemon juice, vinegar, yogurt, or citric acid. The result is a soft, fluffy cheese that is firm and can be cut into blocks, but doesn’t crumble easily. The texture is usually similar to that of firm tofu, and paneer has the ability to retain its shape for a long time, even when it’s cooked over high heat.
How Is Paneer Cheese Eaten? How Does It Taste?
The most common way that paneer is eaten is in cubes. The paneer is cubed and fried, which is how it’s served in dishes like saag paneer. However, paneer cheese can be eaten in plenty of other ways. It can be crumbled over dishes, eaten fresh, or even flavored with mint and cumin to add another dimension of flavor.
The taste of paneer is mild and milky. The taste can be compared to other types of fresh cheeses, such as the Italian ricotta, or the cottage cheese that is common in American supermarkets. Because it’s usually unsalted, some people consider it to be bland when eaten alone.
The best paneer is homemade – but you can also buy store-bought, ready-to-eat cheese from Indian stores and ethnic supermarkets. This cheese should be immersed in hot water before eating, as this will make it softer and less rubbery.
Is Paneer Cheese Good For You?
Yes! Like other types of soft, fresh cheese, paneer is very healthy. It has a great combination of essential fats and protein, and other nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. This is why it’s an important part of traditional vegetarian Indian diets. It can help supply many micronutrients and macronutrients that may be missing a typical vegetarian diet.
It’s been shown that paneer, along with other similar soft cheeses, can help strengthen the teeth and bones, regulate blood sugar levels, encourage better heart health, and improve digestion – to name just a few benefits.
What Dishes Use Paneer?
Paneer is used in a tremendous variety of dishes from India and the surrounding regions, so we’ll just discuss a few of the most well-known and popular dishes below.
- Saag paneer – Of course this is first on our list. This blend of savory spices, delicious sauce, finely-chopped spinach and paneer cheese is one of our favorite dishes. Spread some saag paneer over a bed of basmati rice – and don’t forget the naan bread – and you’re in for a real treat.
- Paneer tikka – Paneer tikka uses paneer in place of meat ingredients like chicken. Cubes of paneer are roasted and then placed in a spicy tomato-based sauce, and this dish is popular both in India and America as a vegetarian alternative to chicken tikka.
- Paneer pakora – Paneer can be fried on its own or combined with onions, spinach, or chili peppers to create paneer pakora – delicious, bite-sized pieces of cheese fried to tender, melt-in-your-mouth perfection.
- Palak paneer – This dish is distinct from saag paneer, and is made from a spinach puree, which is combined with ginger, garam masala, garlic, and a number of other traditional spices.
- Matar paneer – This dish originates in North India, and consists of peas and paneer stewed in a rich tomato-based sauce, heavily spiced with garam masala. Potatoes, corn, yogurt or cream can also be added, depending on regional variations, and it’s usually served over rice with naan.
Paneer is extremely versatile, and can be used in a huge variety of Indian dishes. It can be used to replace tofu in most recipes, too – even in non-Indian cuisine!
The History Of Paneer Cheese
It may seem surprising that India has an indigenous cheese product when most other Asian countries like China do not – but it makes sense when you consider the strong tradition of raising cattle on the subcontinent, and the presence of other dairy products like ghee and lassi.
Modern cheesemaking in India traces back to the Indus Valley Civilization, which curdled milk with a special variety of green leaves, berries, barks, and yogurt. However, the Aryan people who invaded the region believed that curdling cow’s milk was dishonorable, and put a stop to this practice. This is because the cow was held to be sacred, and “spoiling” its milk, which was held at the top of the Ayurveda food hierarchy, was seen as a taboo.
Modern paneer is usually traced back to the Persian and Afghan rulers who introduced it in the 16th century, primarily in North India, where it was made with either goat or sheep rennet. The term “paneer” comes from the word “peynir,” which just means “cheese” in the Turkish and Persian Languages.
Today’s method of making paneer, which involves “breaking” milk with an acid like lemon juice, may have been introduced by the Portuguese in Bengal in the 17th century – and this is when cheeses like paneer and chhena first entered their modern forms.
Making Paneer Cheese At Home (It’s Easier Than You Think!)
If you’re not eating at an Indian restaurant, the very best way to enjoy paneer is to make it yourself at home. Homemade paneer is always better than store-bought, thanks to its freshness and delicate flavor. Don’t think you can make it at home? You can – it’s easy!
- Start with whole milk. Don’t skimp on quality, either – the better the milk, the better the cheese will be! Pour 64 oz of milk (or a whole gallon, if you want) into a large pot. Then, bring it to a boil, and turn the heat off as soon as the milk starts boiling. Stir regularly to avoid burning milk on the bottom of the pot.
- Next, once the milk has boiled, add 1/4 cup of lemon juice or lime juice. Stir the liquid, and you’ll see it start to curdle right away, and turn a yellowish color. Let the curds sit for about 5-10 minutes in the pot.
- Next, line a strainer or colander with two layers of cheesecloth. Dump in the curds, and then rinse them with cold water. This cools the cheese and helps wash away the excess lemon juice.
- After this, gather the cheesecloth by the corners, and start squeezing it to remove the excess liquid. Keep squeezing it until the cheese is firm and no more liquid comes out easily.
- Flatten the cheese in the cheesecloth, and put it on a plate. Then, put a second plate on top, and weight it down with several cans of food or a pot. Then, put it in the refrigerator for an hour or two. This step helps press out any more liquid, and keeps your paneer from crumbling.
- Remove the paneer from the fridge and cut it into cubes. Then, start cooking – or just enjoy the delicious taste of fresh paneer on its own! Your fresh paneer will be good in the fridge for about 2-3 days, so use it soon!
It really is that easy, and making paneer takes no time at all once you get the hang of it – so consider trying it out for yourself, and enjoying fresh, delicious homemade paneer.
Paneer – A True Indian Delicacy!
With its versatility, mild flavor, and long history, paneer is a true delicacy of the subcontinent – and not only is it great for Indian dishes, but it can also be used to replace tofu as well as other soft cheeses in many recipes!
So whether you’re heading to Marigold Maison for a dish of saag paneer, or you’re thinking about making paneer at home, we hope this guide has been fun, helpful, and enlightening – and given you a new perspective on this popular Indian dairy product.