Homemade Paneer Cheese
If you love cheese, learning to make it at home can open a whole new world of culinary adventure. While some cheese requires special ingredients and tools, many cheeses can be made with equipment you probably already have in your kitchen.
Basically, making cheese requires heating milk to a certain temperature, using some kind of acid or enzyme to curdle it, and then adding flavorings or bacteria to the curds. Depending on what kind of cheese you are making, the process can be remarkably fast and simple (as with paneer or queso fresco) or long and complex (as for cheddar).
My own home cheesemaking experiences started on a sour note (pun intended). I found a recipe online for homemade mozzarella that was reputed to be easy and a good cheese for beginners. I tried it twice, and both attempts ended as miserable failures. I just couldn’t seem to get the milk to curdle properly.
I decided perhaps I wasn’t cut out to be a cheesemaker. Even so, I kept thinking it would be fun to customize cheese flavors to my personal tastes..
Then, here on Lummi Island, our Grange recently developed a new series of “country living” classes. Friends and neighbors are teaching each other how to bake bread, grow grains, make compost, can foods, and–most exciting to me–make cheese! Last Saturday Mary Stack showed a group of us how to make paneer, queso fresco, and feta cheeses. It was a revelation!
Making these cheeses truly is simple, but there are a few basic principles which need to be done correctly. First, the pan and utensils used for heating the milk need to be nonreactive. A stainless steel pot with a heavy bottom is best. A pan lined with enamel (no chips) works well, too. A wooden spoon is perfect for stirring the milk as it warms.
Secondly, the temperature of the milk has to be right before you add the acid to curdle it. I think that’s where my previous attempts went wrong. I had tried to use a meat thermometer which didn’t show enough detail to be accurate at cheesemaking temperatures. A candy thermometer works much better, and usually comes with a clip to hold it in place on the pot.
Finally, you have to use the right kind of milk. Some cheeses, for example, specifically require cows’ milk or goats’ milk. Either is fine for the paneer recipe below..
Thanks to Mary’s expertise and guidance, I finally can make cheese. I hope you’ll enter the cheesemaking adventure, too, by trying the basic Paneer recipe below.
Note: To keep this cheese completely local, use apple cider vinegar from BelleWood Acres instead of lemon juice. For my first effort, I followed the directions exactly as I received them. However, I’ve since learned that apple cider vinegar will work just as well. You can purchase BelleWood vinegar at the Community Food Co-op stores in Bellingham.
- ½ gallon whole milk (Edaleen Dairy, Lynden)
- 3-4 Tbsp lemon juice (or vinegar)
- 1 tsp salt, or to taste
- (Optional) 1 clove garlic, minced (Rabbit Fields Farm, Everson)
- (Optional) 2 tsp dried basil (Half Acre Farm u-pick, Ferndale)
- Prepare a large colander or strainer for draining the cheese curds later by lining it with four layers of cheese cloth or a clean linen dishtowel. The cloth should be large enough to hang over all sides of the bowl. Put the colander into a larger bowl to catch the liquid (whey). Set the bowl with the colander into your sink.
- Put lemon juice and a tablespoon measure next to your stove.
- Pour milk into a pot made from a non-reactive material, such as stainless steel or enamel with no chips. A pot with a heavy bottom will help prevent scorching.
- Using a candy thermometer to measure the temperature, heat the milk over medium or medium high heat until it reaches 180 degrees F. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon to ensure the milk doesn't scorch on the bottom.
- When the milk reaches temperature, turn off the heat and add lemon juice one tablespoon at a time, stirring the milk gently after each addition until curds begin to form. Continue to add lemon juice gradually until the curds have separated enough that you can also see the watery, slightly green colored whey between the curds. If curds are forming but you don't see the whey, you may need to reheat the milk back to 180 degrees F. to finish the curdling process.
- Pour the curds and whey into the lined colander and allow to drain for 15-20 minutes. You may need to pour off the whey from the bowl after about 10 minutes.
- Twist the top of the cheesecloth or towel to squeeze out additional water by hand. Place the curds in a bowl and add salt to taste and other desired seasonings, if desired.
- Then place the curds back in the cheesecloth, twist the cloth again to squeeze the curds together, then wrap the cheesecloth tightly around the curds. Put in a wide pan or bowl in your sink. Set something heavy on top, such as a milk jug full of water or a bowl containing a clean rock or brick, to press out more water. Let stand for an hour or so, depending on how firm you want your paneer.
Put finished paneer into an airtight container and store in the refrigerator. Cut into cubes for use in recipes, or don’t drain as long and use the softer cheese as a spread.
The Islander, across from the ferry dock, Lummi Island