A typical Dutch lunch: sandwiches with cheese, Dutch cheese, a yellowish firm cheese, that can be sliced easily. This type of cheese is pretty elaborate to make and requires weeks, if not months, of ripening to get its firmness and flavour. However, there are a lot of other types of cheeses, some of which are actually pretty simple to make at home!
In India for instance, paneer is a common cheese. It’s not eaten sliced (don’t even try with a cheese slicer!), but used in cubes in a lot of different dishes. Paneer isn’t yellow, it’s white and a lot softer than Dutch cheese. And, it can be made at home within a few hours (most of which are waiting)!
There are two basic ways of making cheese, one it by using an enzyme (rennet). I used this to make a fresh herb cheese. The other is by using an acid, which is the method used for make paneer. So today: cheese science!
A little note, you will see queso fresco in the title of this post and might be wondering what that his to do with paneer. Well, the science and ways of making these two cheeses are actually very similar, the main difference seems to be whether they contain salt or not. So what you will learn below can also be applied on queso fresco.
Despite all the different cheeses in this world most of them are made using similar processes. Cheese starts with milk and for making this into cheese the milk should be curdled. Curdling is nothing more than protein clusters in the milk coming together and forming these curds. The so-called casein proteins play an important role in this step.
The curds that form during curdling will eventually form the final cheese. For reading more on the details of making cheese, have a look at the post dedicated to the science of cheese making, walking you through all the processes that take place in the different steps.
Using an acid for curdling milk
In order to curdle milk several techniques can be used, one of these is the addition of an acid. The other common method is the addition of an enzyme in a mixture called rennet.
Proteins are very complex molecules and their structure and functionality often depend on the pH of their environment, in other words, the acidity. In this case a low pH (thus acidic environment) causes the casein proteins to reorganize, initiating curdling.
Making paneer – the science
Using an acid is the method used for making paneer. This is also what makes paneer such an accessible cheese to make at home. Just about everyone will have acids at home. Think of lemon juice, lime juice or vinegar for instance. One of these and milk is all that’s needed to make paneer.
When making paneer the milk will first be brought to the boil before the acid is added to initiate curdling. A reason for this in the older days might have been to kill bacteria in the milk and thus make the cheese safer to eat. Similar to one of the reasons for scalding milk. Nowadays, with the use of pasteurized milks that is not a reason anymore.
The most important reason for heating the milk first is to speed up the process. The addition of an acid to milk is an example of a chemical reaction taking place. This chemical reaction is sped up by increased temperatures. So, adding the acid to warm milk greatly increases the rate of curdling of milk. It will probably curdle within a few minutes (as opposed to milk curdled using rennet, which often takes at least an hour).
A paneer recipe
I used a recipe from vegrecipesofindia.com to make my first paneer. From there I’ve experimented a little. What’s important for making paneer is that you practice it a few times. Different acids before differently, and not all lemon or lime juices behave the same. When your lemon is more sour, you probably need less since it’s more effective.This paneer recipe only uses lemon juice to curdle the milk and make the curds.
- 1 liter milk
- 2 tbsp lemon juice / lime juice / vinegar (use a little less vinegar, maybe start with 1,5 tbsp, it's a little stronger) - using too much acid will still make paneer, however, it might also start tasting sour
- Bring the milk to the boil.
- Take it off the heat but do not let it cool down.
- Add the acid and mix through well. The milk should start curdling pretty much right away. You will see white curds forming and the liquid becoming more transparant/yellow. If the liquid stays white you have to add some additional acid. Add it in steps of 1 tsp to prevent from overdosing. I never need more than 3 tbp.
- Once the liquid (also called whey) has become clear, pour of the liquid and keep the curds. It's easiest to use a cheese cloth or a clean towel for this.
- Fold the curds in a cheese cloth and place below a heavy pan or stone to press out the remainder of moisture.
- Wait at least 30 minutes before using, you can easily leave it up to two hours, it will become somewhat firmer.
- Once the paneer is ready it can be stored in the fridge for only a few days before being used. Slice it in cubes (or whatever the recipe calls for). It's often best to first fry the paneer and get a nice crunchy brown outside.
Enjoying paneer and cheese
Paneer has widely different application than the traditional Dutch cheese. But that’s the fun of cheeses, a Brie is different than a Roquefort which is again different to paneer and Dutch cheese. Despite them all using the same basic process, they can turn out vastly different.
Paneer works very well in savoury dished when fried a nice golder brown my favorite is one with spinach.