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Paneer – or Ricotta. Whatever!

So I’m cruising through the blogosphere and come across instructions for making ricotta cheese at home. I’m looking at this and lo and behold – it’s basically unpressed paneer. Technically, ricotta cheese is made from whey leftover after making a cheese that uses rennet. I don’t know about you, but I don’t do much cheese making using rennet. Using whole milk makes an acceptable substitute, plus I already know how to do this – it’s just paneer without the pressing!

Basically all paneer/ricotta cheese is is heated milk with acid added to separate the curds and whey, and then strained. Paneer is either kneaded or pressed, ricotta cheese is only drained.

The acid used could be lemon juice, lime juice, or distilled white vinegar. The acid most often called for in paneer recipes in the states is lemon juice. However using lemon juice requires that the paneer be washed or soaked in cold clear water for a couple of hours to remove the strong lemony flavor that leaves.

While I found the Serious Eats recipe interesting (for one thing I’d like to try the microwave method next time I make paneer), it calls for an inordinately high amount of acid – 1 T per cup of milk, which would be a full cup of acid for a gallon of milk. That’s about 4 times more acid than I’ve ever needed to make paneer!

I usually don’t need to use even the full amount of acid normally called for to make paneer, because I have found that I can often get the curds and whey to separate just using organic plain yoghurt. If that doesn’t completely separate the curds out, just 1 T of lemon or lime juice, or distilled white vinegar will usually complete the job. I’ve found that distilled white vinegar doesn’t leave a noticeable aftertaste when used in this small amount, and just 1 T of lemon juice leaves only a very slight lemony taste, not enough to be unpleasant if it’s noticeable at all. This cuts out the whole soaking/rinsing step altogether and produces a smooth paneer with a neutral flavor.

One other thing I do to make paneer that I don’t think most other people do (actually I’ve never known anyone who does this but me) is to use powdered milk to increase yield. This will make the curds denser and less ummm, fluffy? Not sure how to put it, but it gives it a consistency that is fine when you’re planning to press it anyway, but not really what you want for desert paneer or ricotta cheese. You want desert paneer to be nice and smooth and creamy. For ricotta cheese, the additional milk solids increase the risk of ending up with curds that are too dense or even rubbery. The addition of powdered milk to grocery store 3.5% milk is optional for paneer intended for main courses, and should definitely be left out for any other use.

Finally, I do not find the addition of salt to be either necessary or desirable. YMMV.

WHAT YOU WILL NEED:

1 gallon whole milk, or, better yet if you can find it, raw Jersey milk.
1 c powdered milk (optional for paneer for main dish)
1/4 c organic plain yoghurt (you need LIVE culture)
1 to 2 T distilled white vinegar or lemon or lime juice, if the yoghurt doesn’t fully separate the curds and whey

A colander
A large stainless steel or enameled pan or stock pot
A milk jug filled with water or other weight (not needed for ricotta or desert paneer)

Flour sack cloth or clean muslin intended for cheesemaking. Don’t try to use typical cheesecloth – the stuff that looks like gauze. The weave is too loose. You want a lint free cotton muslin or linen towel, or flour sack cloth. You used to be able to get good flour sack cloth towels at Walmart but the ones they carry now are a much looser weave. The old ones were lots better, but the new ones will do. Or you could try these:

Flour Sack Cloth Towels

I can’t tell from the pictures how tight the weave is but they’re at least no looser weave than what you can get in Walmart, if you can find them there.

DIRECTIONS

Add the powdered milk if you are using it and stir well.

Heat the milk to just barely simmering. DO NOT LET IT BOIL! Mostly because you greatly increase the chances of making a mess, and also it just doesn’t need to be that hot.

When you see the first few bubbles, add the yoghurt and stir. The curds should separate quickly. If the whey still looks milky, add the vinegar or lemon juice one T at a time until the whey is a thin yellowish-green color. It almost never takes more than 1 T. Remove from heat immediately.

Line a colander with your muslin or sack cloth. If you want to reserve the whey, suspend the colander over a large pan to catch the whey – you can use it to make soups and curries, to make chapati or puri, or just google “uses for whey”.

After the whey has drained off, twist the towel to make a sort of a bag and suspend it over the sink or a pan to finish draining. (One way to do this is to tie this makeshift bag to a spoon laid across the top of a large stock pot).

FOR RICOTTA CHEESE:
Let the curds hang for about 15 minutes. Do not press. Unwrap it and you’re done. The sooner you use it the better.

FOR INDIAN DESERTS such as Ras Gullah:
For desert use, you will not press the curds, you will instead leave it hanging until the curds are cool enough to handle and you will knead the curds.

FOR MAIN DISHES such as Mattar Paneer:
Fold the straining cloth over the drained curds, remove from the colander, set on a plate or inside a pan and put a heavy weight on top to press the curds. I usually put the paneer wrapped in the muslin in the bottom of a large pan and set a plate on top of it, then put a milk jug full of water on top. I let that sit in the fridge overnight. Take it out the next day – there will be additional whey pressed out – unwrap it, cube it, and you’re good to go.

That’s all there is to it.

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