You know what’s a mostly stupid way to spend a day? Making tofu. Man, what a drag.
At its easiest, it involves careful boiling, and then even more careful, precise cooling, and then the careful and time-sensitive dissolving of a special coagulant, and then the careful mixing of the dissolved coagulant into the carefully cooled soy milk within a fairly precise temperature range, then eventually transferring the coagulated curds into a lined vessel, and lots of waiting and timing and bullshit. I can put up with a lot of kitchen bullshit, but it had better be in service of something spectacular.
And that’s just it: what you wind up with, after all your careful tofu-making, is, you know, tofu. Just tofu. Not, like, tofu that you celebrate for being unlike all the other tofu, but the opposite—tofu that you celebrate for being exactly like the other tofu. Yes, fresh and soft tofu is often preferable, but fresh and soft tofu is still just fresh and soft tofu. If you could go buy fresh and soft tofu, there would be no reason to ever make tofu. And, at least in my general neck of the woods, it is not hard at all to find good international grocers who make big buckets of fresh and soft tofu on site.
Then there’s this: if you are making tofu in order to have the freshest tofu, that means you are making it and then eating it, and that means the couple hours spent making it are added to the cook time of the final preparation. So, instead of devoting a couple hours to making something you’ll use for a week’s worth of food, you’re spending multiple hours actively cooking today’s meal. And, friends, there is just no way in hell your homemade tofu is good enough to warrant all of that. I once spent the first half of a day making tofu all the way from scratch—soaked dry soy beans and everything—and wound up with enough homemade tofu for exactly one bowl of soup. That was a dark, deeply introspective day, let me tell you.
I’ve got a better cooking project for you, one that is vastly easier, and vastly more rewarding, and will leave you with a solid store of something that will serve the same basic meat-replacement needs met by many of your various desperate tofu preparations, only a thousand times better: paneer. You should make paneer. God, paneer is so good.
Paneer is cheese, a special cheese popular in Indian cuisine. But unlike, say, manchego, paneer requires no aging. And like, say, queso fresco, paneer will soften but not melt, which gives it a kind of versatility not common to most cheeses. And unlike, say, tofu, paneer requires no coagulant. And unlike, say, almost every other cheese, paneer requires no rennet. In fact, paneer requires almost nothing. There’s a fair chance you have all of everything you’ll need to make paneer in your kitchen right now. There’s also a fair chance making paneer is the only realistic way you’re going to get paneer in your house. It’s nowhere near as ubiquitous as tofu. Why is that? Because America is the land of suckers? Also maybe because it’s easy enough to make at home that buying it might be kinda silly? Perhaps.
That’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna spend a little time doing science to the simplest ingredients and turning them into something chewy and fatty and cheesy and delicious, so that you can hoover it down noisily in your kitchen or use it to impress your in-laws. You made cheese??? they will ask, emphasizing the “you” and the “cheese” in a way that implies that you seem broadly incapable of doing anything more complicated than tying your shoes. Assholes! Also, this really isn’t more complicated than tying your shoes. Tell no one!
You don’t need much, here: you need some whole milk, a couple of lemons, some cheesecloth, and a colander. You’ll also need a big pot for heating the milk.
There’s no need to be especially cute with the milk. If you are the sort of person who thinks organic or otherwise earth- or cow-friendly milk is preferable, for one reason or another, that’s fine (you are going to want to stay away from raw milk, unless you can be certain that the handling of the milk has been meticulous—we’re going to heat the milk, but not nearly long enough or hot enough to achieve pasteurization, and there can be scary stuff lurking in your raw milk). I am the sort of person who genuinely prefers low-fat or even skim milk, so, for me, any kind of whole milk is outrageously, almost overwhelmingly rich. But! Whatever your feelings about fat content in milk used for drinking or floating sugary cereal, you must use whole milk for this recipe. There will be no healthing this shit up, this time.
Here’s why [puts on dork glasses and dork lab coat, like a fucking dork]: the specific thing we are doing, in order to make cheese, is curdling milk, so that all the milk solids will congeal and separate from the whey. You see [goes to chalkboard like huge fucking irredeemable dork], proteins and fats and other science things are distributed evenly and suspended throughout your glass of milk, giving it its creamy texture and rich dairy flavor. But this is a relatively unstable condition—minor adjustments to the pH of the solution will cause these science things to attract one another and form clumps. Once clumped, this mixture of science things—called casein—will not unclump. Long ago, some dipshit idiot screwed up the pH of the family milk in just this way, but managed to redeem himself by improvising a new use for all this clumped science: cheese.
But not all clumps of milk science are created equal! They are all made up of proteins, but cheese—like steaks and pork chops and good tuna—gets most of its flavor from fat. That’s what we’re after, here: a good and tasty science clump, rich with butterfat. Low-fat cheese will be less flavorful than fatty cheese, unless you want to get into aging and all that. Which, hell no. Also, importantly, all that captured butterfat will greatly increase the yield from your cheesemaking, so that you are not using a gallon of milk for a tiny portion of clumped milk science, and rueing the time you sacrificed for a dry-ass meager handful of bland-ass cheese.
So! Empowered by your new understanding of food science, grab yourself a half-gallon of whole milk at the store. We are going to use all of it, so if you were looking forward to a giant glass of whole milk, or several obscenely huge midnight bowls of cereal, maybe go for a whole gallon.
Before you do anything with the milk, cut a lemon in half and squeeze the juice into a measuring cup or a cup or bowl or whatever. You probably will not need more than one lemon for this—we are looking for right around a quarter cup of juice—but it’s good to have extras on hand.
Haul out whatever big, heavy bottom pot you’ve got. This is not a huge volume of milk we’re using, and though it will expand a little when heated, it will not expand so much that you will need to destroy it with fire before it goes on a killing rampage a la The Blob. Prioritize a heavy bottom, here, is what I’m saying—milk is delicate enough that it can do a lot of unwanted things when heated clumsily, the most annoying of which is to stick to the bottom of the vessel and burn and give your finished product an unpleasant, acrid taste. You see [once again with the lab coat and glasses, like the Dork King], a heavy-bottom pan will take longer to heat, allowing the whole vessel to heat relatively evenly, whereas that piece of shit pasta pot you’ve been lugging around for 13 goddamn years will have a red-hot bottom before the walls are even warm, and that will ruin everything.
Now, dump your half-gallon of milk into your big, heavy-bottom pot, and get the pot over medium heat. You’ll want to be patient in your application of heat here, for dork science reasons having to do with burning milk and milk skin and such. Keep the heat medium or even medium-low, get out a wooden spoon or rubber spatula or whatever your best stirring implement is, and wait. Every few minutes, stir the milk, remembering to stir along the bottom of the pot as much as possible. This will circulate the milk and prevent a layer of super-heated milk from settling along the bottom, where it will burn and mark you as a buster for all eternity.
Getting the milk up to a gentle boil will take a little while, but what else are you doing? You’re not chopping, you’re not measuring, you’re not even doing a whole lot of stirring. Maybe quit your damn bitching for a change, you know? Here’s one thing you can do: grab your colander and line it with a layer or two of cheesecloth, then set it in your sink. You’re gonna need this in a few minutes.
Once the milk has reached a low boil, stir in your lemon juice. Science stuff should start happening right away: you will probably notice little fleeting greenish puddles right in the area where you dumped the lemon juice, if not an immediate and complete curdling of the whole volume of milk. If the milk begins to curdle right away, use your stirring implement to gently push the solids together in one half of the pot. No need to be especially exacting, here, just spend 30 seconds very gently herding the solids towards each other. If the milk doesn’t want to curdle right away, go ahead and squeeze a little more lemon juice in there. Still not curdling? Bump up the heat a tad. Still not curdling? I’m sorry, you are a failure, this is an easy cooking project, anyone can do it, etc. Possibly the intensity of your self-loathing will curdle hot milk? I guess we’ll find out.
Very quickly, some combination of acid, heat, and gentle stirring will separate your milk solids from the whey, such that there is a distinct layer of vaguely-grody-looking white blobs floating in a roiling lake of also-vaguely-grody-looking greenish liquid. Appetizing! Haul the pot off the heat, and slowly and carefully pour its contents into and through the cheesecloth-lined colander. What goes down the drain is the whey, and what stays in the cheesecloth is the cheese. Right now, as you stand there, you—you, of all people—have successfully made cheese. Run a little cool water through your cheese, to knock off some of the leftover lemon juice.
In order for your cheese to become paneer, you are going to need to convert its loose, wet form into a stable, mostly dry solid, like a brick. Grab up the corners of the cheesecloth, lift the cheese from the colander, and use the cloth to squeeze moisture from the cheese, like you would a wet rag. The liquid is hot, you big dummy—be careful! Keep twisting and bundling and twisting until the cheese is mostly wrapped in the cheesecloth, something like a Tootsie Roll.
Here’s a cool trick: Loosely tie together the ends of your cheese Tootsie Roll and then hang it from your kitchen faucet, over your sink, so that gravity can do the draining that your puny, atrophied nerd muscles could not. Let it hang there for a while to drain and cool while you catch your breath, Hercules.
After a few minutes of this, you are ready for the final step: Lay your cheese bundle on a flat plate, with the knot resting to one side, and lay another flat plate on top of it. We’re going to use weight to flatten this damn thing a little, so that it has mostly uniform thickness and can be used predictably in varied preparations. Slide the plate into the fridge, and maybe rest a can of beans or something on the top plate, for a little added pressure. This will also squeeze out the last of the extra liquid. And it’s fully passive—just close the fridge and walk away. You’re done! There’s cheese in there, becoming paneer! Check you out: big-time cheesemaker in the house. Not only did you make cheese, you converted the formless cheese to a specific kind of cheese. Truly you are ready to conquer the restaurant world, my friend.
Okay. At some point you are gonna want to taste your fresh paneer. Haul it out of the fridge, open the bundle, and take a look. What you’ve got there is a disc-like mass of fresh, homemade cheese. Cut yourself a hunk and fire it down. Oh, damn, that’s good. Creamy and rich and chewy, with the telltale subtle squeakiness of fresh curds, and a certain heft and structure that distinguishes it from most other cheese by being almost meat-like. Also, hey, that’s so much more satisfying a thing to eat than jiggly ol’ tofu!
In fact, that description up there hints at the very best uses for paneer: it will hold up amazingly well as the textural centerpiece of a lot of different compositions. Dice it up and add it to spicy curries for an exceptionally decadent-seeming chew; or slice it and season it and grill it over a hot fire, as you would, say, halloumi; or cube it and coat it in a light batter and deep fry it; or cube it and pan fry it and then mix it in with some sautéed vegetables. Or, you know, just stand there in front of the open fridge and eat hunks of paneer you pinch off the disc with your grubby fingers. That’s fine, too.
Point is, now that you’ve got the paneer, you’ve got a whole new range of options and recipes to explore, and a screamingly fresh hunk of firm and filling cheese to spread around. As easy as it was to make, making it was the hard part. Paneer is cheese! It won’t take a lot of ingenuity to figure out ways of using it! It’s good to eat, and substantial, and versatile, and delicious. And you made it, in your own kitchen. Nice job.
Chris Thompson lives in Virginia, hate-loves and writes about the Wizards, and spends too much of his meager income on meals out. He’s also written for Gawker,Vice Sports, and The Classical, and can be found on Twitter @MadBastardsAll. Check the Foodspin archive here.