With two quarts of raw whole milk in the fridge and a pot, a stove, and some lemon juice at the ready, I took the plunge into the wondrous world of cheesemaking last night. I decided to start with paneer, a fresh Indian cheese that’s quick and easy to make. Fresh pea season is upon us here in Vermont, and I planned to use the peas bulging in their pods outside to make mutter paneer, which combines peas and paneer in a savory north Indian curry spiked with ginger, garlic, and an array of spices.
To make the paneer, I poured my 2 Mason jars full of milk (about 8 cups) into a large pot and heated it over a gentle flame. Make sure to cover the pot most of the way as you heat it so a skin doesn’t form on the surface of the milk, and watch the milk closely as it simmers so it doesn’t boil over.
In the meantime, line a colander with a double layer of cheesecloth and put it inside a large bowl. You will use this to strain the cheese curds from the whey while retaining the whey for another recipe, like biscuits, scones, or (for the truly adventurous) a Scandinavian whey cheese called brunost or gjetost that comes out caramel-colored and spreadable. If you don’t feel up to dealing with whey yet, you can just strain the curds over the sink.
When the milk reaches a boil, add 1/4 cup of fresh-squeezed lemon juice mixed with 1/2 cup water to the milk, stirring constantly. The milk will begin to curdle almost instantly. Keep stirring over the flame for another 1-2 minutes, until the milk solids have formed into curds. It looks like snow drifts forming, or marshmallows melting away into hot milk.
When the liquid around the curds (that’s the whey) begins to look thin and somewhat transparent, pour the pot’s contents through the cheesecloth/colander contraption you have set up. Then lift the cheese in its cheesecloth bag and rinse it under a stream of cool water. Knead the cheese lightly as you do this. This process helps rinse out any remaining lemon flavor from the curds and cools them off, making them easier to work with.
Form the curds into a flattened disk or rectangle about 1/2 inch – 1 inch high. Wrap it back up in the cheesecloth, place it on a hard surface and weigh it down with a heavy pan or dish to press excess liquid out. Leave the cheese under the press for about 1 hour. At that point it will be ready to use right away, or it can be refrigerated until ready for cooking. (Try to use it within a week.) Store it covered in water or its own whey, changing the liquid every 2 days, or wrap it in waxed paper.
Cut the paneer into cubes and fry them only when you are ready to use it in a dish. I fried mine in plain vegetable oil for the mutter paneer, but next time I will add garlic and cumin seeds to the oil along with the cheese. I used the leftover whey to soak the cheese in the fridge overnight, more to make the mutter paneer the next day, and another cup or so in the strawberry-rhubarb muffins Worrill baked that evening. Both strawberries and rhubarb are in season in Vermont right now. No need to go to the store–all we had to do was run outside with scissors and a bowl to harvest them!