Curd Cheese, Paneer
Paneer is to India’s millions of vegetarians what tofu is to a similar number of Orientals. It is a versatile protein food from a country that explores milk products perhaps more than any other. Panir has been eaten on the subcontinent for millenia, and is mentioned in India’s ancient sanskrit text the Bhagavata-purana.
Panir is the simplest kind of unripened cheese. Whole milk is heated, an acid reagent is introduced, and milk proteins coagulates to form a soft curd of casein. When drained of whey and compacted, it has a texture and delicious creamy flavour reminiscent of a combination of fresh mozzarella, farmers cheese and baked ricotta.
There are hundreds of ways to use panir cheese; eaten fresh with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt and fresh herbs is my favourite. It can also be crumbled, sliced or cubed, pan-fried, baked, grilled or deep-fried in main dishes, fried in crispy batter, stuffed into breads, added to salads, kneaded and mixed with fresh herbs, made into dips, added to soups or transformed into myriad confectionery items. Scrambled panir cheese (see photo above) is a great breakfast dish with wholewheat toast or Indian puffed fried breads (poories).
Panir is sold throughout India in bazaar cheese shops and grocery stores. It is also available in Latin American countries under the name queso blanco – ‘white cheese’, and throughout Eastern Europe, Russia and the Balkan countries, all under various local names.
Fortunately, it is quick and easy to make at home. Over the past 30 years I have made batches of panir cheese all around the world, and no two batches are ever exactly alike. Farm fresh whole milk, especially Jersey, Guernsey cows yields the very best panir, and is superior to the cheese made from supermarket homogenised milk.
I have even experimented with the milk from other animals. Not long ago I presented a class in Southern Victoria and made an exquisite batch of panir from buffalo’s milk, provided by the manager of Shaw River Buffalo Milk products. Buffalo milk yields over 40% more cheese per litre than cows milk, by the way – one of the reasons why it is preferred by cheese-makers in India. Whereas cows milk panir is an off-white colour due to the presence of carotene in the milk, the milk from buffalos, sheep and goats is a stark white colour due to the absence of the carotene.
There is a choice of acid reagents: strained fresh lemon or lime juice, a citric acid solution, white vinegar, yogurt, cultured buttermilk, or a naturally soured panir whey from a previous batch. The whey dripping from a batch of hung yogurt cheese makes an excellent reagent. Each type of reagent gives different body, texture and subtle flavour to the fresh curd.
Making each batch of cheese is different. You may find that your cheese forms before the entire curdling agent is added. If this happens, do not add the remaining curdling agent, because it would harden and toughen the delicate cheese curds. You may sometimes find that once the entire amount of curdling agent is added, the cheese curds will still have not sufficiently formed and the whey will still be milky. To finish the job, simply add a little more of the curdling agent until solid lumps of cheese separate from the whey.
A sour, acid or lemony flavour in your cheese means that too much curdling agent was added, or that the cheese was not sufficiently washed before draining and compressing.
Yeasty or unclean flavours in your cheese indicate that the milk was soured or stale before being turned into cheese.
Tough or crumbly-textured cheese frequently results from using milk with a low fat content, or from allowing the cheese to remain too long over the heat once it has formed and separated from the whey, or from allowing the cheese to soak in the whey before washing.
Subtle differences in the texture of the soft cheese curds also depend on the heat of the milk when the curdling agent was added, the type of heat used (electric, gas, wood fire, etc), the volume of milk in the pot, and the thickness of the pot’s walls. The fresh cheese curds should be soft and moist, not soggy and wet. As a general rule, the longer the cheese remains over heat, the firmer the texture becomes. Happy curdling!
Making Homemade Curd Cheese (Panir)
You need little by way of equipment to make curd cheese: a 2 – 6 litre pan, or larger (depending on the quantity of milk), a stirring paddle or wooden spoon, a colander, and some new cheesecloth. You will need the following ingredients for an easily manageable home batch of panir.
4 litres fresh milk
3-4 cups yogurt, or 4-6 tablespoons lemon juice or white vinegar, or 2 teaspoons citric acid dissolved in ¾ cup water
Pour the milk into a heavy-bottomed pan that allows plenty of room for boiling.
Set it over high heat and bring the milk to a full foaming boil, stirring often to prevent scorching and sticking.
Reduce the heat to low, and, before the foam subsides, drizzle in the lemon juice, vinegar, citric acid solution, or spoon in the yogurt. Very gently and slowly move the spoon through the milk in one direction. After 10 or 15 seconds, remove the pan from the heat and continue to gently agitate the milk until large lumps of soft curd form. If the cheese has not formed after 1 minute place the pan over the heat momentarily until the casein (milk protein) coagulates and leaves pale yellow-greenish whey. If necessary, add a little more acid agent. The greenish colour of the whey is due to the presence of whey-soluble proteins Riboflavin and Lactoglobulin.
As soon as the cheese has formed, remove the pan from the heat, cover it and set it aside for 10 minutes. If you want a very soft cheese, gently pour in 1 or 2 cups of hot water. When the cheese has settled under the surface of the whey
it is ready to drain.
Line a colander with 2 or 3 thicknesses of cheesecloth or some clean white cloth that has been dipped in water and wrung dry. Drape the corners and edges of the cloth over the sides of the colander. If you want to collect the whey, set the colander over another pan; otherwise place it in a sink. Many sweet-makers in Bengal use this soured whey to make further batches of cheese, but you need a significant amount more than lemon juice to do the job – you need one part whey to four parts milk.
Remove the large lumps of cheese with a slotted spoon and place them in a colander. Gently pour the smaller pieces and remaining whey into the colander.
Gather up the corners of the cloth and twist it around. Hold the bag of cheese under a gentle stream of cold running water for 5 to 10 seconds. Gently twist the cloth to squeeze out the excess whey.
Drain the whey slowly, allowing the curd to compact under its own weight, by hanging the bag over a bowl to drain. Otherwise, for a quicker result, you can place the bag of cheese under a weight until firm.
Unwrap the cheese and use as directed, or wrap in paper-towel-lined plastic wrap, zip-lock bags or plastic containers and refrigerate for up to 4 days.