2.8.10 Curds & Whey

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photo by george billard
This little Miss Muffett definitely enjoys eating freshly made curds. And so will you, when you make your own paneer (also spelled panir). This is that soft white cheese used in Indian cuisine. You probably know it from saag paneer, the Indian cousin of creamed spinach. Making paneer is quite similar to making ricotta, if you've ever done that. Even easier. It's just a simple coagulation of milk through the use of acid; lemon juice, in this case. The milk "breaks," separating into fluffy white curds and cloudy liquid whey. You gather the curds up into a clean cloth (cotton towel or cheesecloth) and hang it so that liquid drains away. If you leave it fairly soft—with a bit more liquid—it's known as chenna; taken to a firmer stage, it becomes paneer. It's delicious in rich curries, fritters, or simply cooked with vegetables like peas, chiles or greens.
Paneer1 790 xxx
a blank slate
If you prefer not to make your own paneer—basically boiling milk, adding vinegar or lemon juice, and letting the whey drain away from the separated curds, as above—look for it at the market, sometimes found frozen (and more common than you might think). But give it a whirl. It's an ancient technique, and a simple one, with very satisfying results. Save the whey to make pickles or add beneficial probiotics to smoothies, soups, etc. I was first inspired to make paneer in an attempt to recreate an incredibly ethereal smoky tomato curry I had when I was on my honeymoon in Rajasthan. Food is so essential to recapturing memories, and creating new ones...

Paneer (Fresh Cheese)

makes 1 scant pound
  • — 1 gallon (16 cups) whole milk
  • — 7-8 tablespoons lemon juice

Heat milk in a large pot over medium-high flame, stirring occasionally. (If you rinse the pot with cold water first, it helps prevent sticking.) Just before the boiling point (milk will start to steam), turn off the heat. One tablespoon at a time, stir in the lemon juice. Keep slowly stirring for several minutes as the curds separate from the whey and bob to the surface.

Place a large colander in the sink and line it with a double layer of cheesecloth or a large, clean gauzy dish towel (like a flour sacking towel). Pour the separated milk into the colander, letting the whey drain into a bowl so you can use it for something else. Rinse the curds with cold water to remove the taste of lemon. Let it rest in the sink for a few minutes to drain out liquid, then gather the edges of the cheesecloth and create a compact bundle, pressing the curds into a ball. I like to tie a piece of kitchen twine around the neck of this and hang it over the sink to drain out as much liquid as possible (see above). Place a bowl underneath so you can save the whey. If this sink arrangement isn't convenient for you, you can suspend it anywhere over a bowl.

After 3-4 hours of hanging/drainage, take the curds out and divide them into two balls. Flatten and mold these into two 4"x4" squares with your hands and wrap them separately in cheesecloth. Stack them on top of each other on a baking sheet and find a heavy pot lid or can to weight them down. Let them drain for another 3-4 hours, pouring off (and saving) any whey that drains onto the baking sheet. At this point, the paneer will be a firm, dry cake that is ready to eat. You can also wrap it in saran and refrigerate for up to a week.

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