Paneer is a fresh cheese made by coagulating hot milk with lemon juice or vinegar. The whey is then drained from the curds and gathered in a cheesecloth or muslin bag before being pressed into blocks for ease of use. This versatile cheese does not melt and so may be prepared many different ways. I'm going to do a brief overview of four ways that paneer is commonly prepared in South Asian cooking: crumbled, simply cubed, cubed and fried, and a possibly "never before seen on the internet" exclusive- Kashmiri style "tsaman."
Three methods of preparing paneer:
1) Crumbled- Paneer can be crumbled and used a a garnish atop dishes or pan fried with spices to make a "bhurji." I don't really care for using paneer this way so I don't have a photo for you.
2) Simply cut into cubes- Just slice the paneer into cubes. The paneer can then simply be stirred into a sauce or gravy. Cubes of paneer can also marinated before skewering and broiling like a kebab for tandoori paneer or paneer tikka.
|Plain, cubed yummy paneer.|
3) Cubed and fried- For a bit of extra flavor and texture cubed paneer can be shallow fried to a create a delicate golden brown crust. This can also be useful if your paneer is particularly crumbly and or falling apart. Be sure to heat the oil for 7-9 minutes before you fry the paneer or the cubes will stick to the pan. A teaspoon of salt sprinkled into the hot oil will help prevent the paneer cubes from sticking also and give the paneer a bit of a flavor boost by forming a salty crust.
|Get that oil really, really hot and add a teaspoonful of salt before you start to fry the paneer cubes. If you don't get the oil hot enough the paneer cubes will stick and you'll have bhurji!|
|Lovely golden brown shallow fried paneer cubes. Well, at least some are cubes anyway.|
3) Kashmiri style paneer or "tsaman"- I have never seen this technique shown online and only once in a cookbook. "Tsaman" is the Kashmiri word for paneer. Kashmir is too high in altitude for water buffaloes so the cheese is made from cow's milk and can be a bit rubbery or crumbly in it's plain state due to the lower butterfat content. Kashmiris prefer a spongy, soft texture in their paneer. To get this texture the tsaman is boiled with a bit of turmeric then drained. The cheese contracts and melds together when boiled which results in this unique texture. The turmeric in the water renders the outside of the tsaman a brilliant yellow hue. Then the tsaman is shallow fried in salted oil to give it a bit of a crispy salt crust on the outside. The delicately crisp crust contrasts beautifully with the soft, sponge-like inside. This is where a lot of restaurants and recipes get Kashmiri tsaman dishes wrong, they don't boil the paneer first to get the authentic texture. Kashmiris also cut their tsaman in rectangular blocks rather than cubes, almost resulting in a "paneer cutlet" of sorts.
|Slice the paneer into rectangles about 2 inches long by 1&1/2 inches wide by 3/4 inch thick.|
|Drop the tsaman into water in a large stock pot with 1/2 teaspoon turmeric. Make sure the tsaman is covered by at least 2 inches of water. Heat until water just begins to boil.|
|Shallow fry the tsaman in hot, salted oil to a golden brown.|
|Your tsaman is ready!|
As you can see the tsaman turned a beautiful bright yellow hue from being boiled with the turmeric. The shallow frying gives it a delicately crisp browned crust. Inside, the tsaman is quite soft and spongy from being boiled. If you look closely you can see the tiny holes where the butterfat has melted together with the whey, that's what causes the textural change. Yes, this is a tedious extra step. We usually buy a kilo of paneer about once a month. I cut it all up, then boil and fry the entire kilo at once. I store the prepared tsaman in an airtight, sealed container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Whenever I want to make a dish, I simply take out as many tsaman pieces as I'd like to make dishes such as tamatar tsaman, or haak tsaman.
That concludes my brief survey on preparing paneer. If you have any questions about the above techniques please feel free to ask in the comments below.