Paneer Hindi: पनीर panīr, from Persian پنير panir) is the most common South Asian cheese. It is an unaged, acid-set, non-melting farmer cheese made by curdling heated milk with lemon juice or other food acid. The process is similar to queso blanco, except that paneer does not have salt added. The texture of paneer is very similar to that of Farmer cheese or Turkish Beyaz peynir which is also strained and squeezed the same way.
Most varieties of paneer are simply pressed into a cube and then sliced or chopped, although the Eastern Indian variety is beaten or kneaded like mozzarella, and crumbles more easily than the North Indian variant of paneer. Paneer is one of the few types of cheese indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, and is widely used in Indian cuisine and even some Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian cuisine. Unlike most cheeses in the world, the making of paneer does not involve rennet (which is traditionally derived from calf stomachs, but today may come from genetically modified microbes or fungi) as the coagulation agent. Paneer is completely lacto-vegetarian. Paneer is a source of protein for Hindu vegetarians.
Paneer is commonly served chopped into cubes and fried with spinach and many other ingredients such as garlic and onions.
Firm tofu has a similar texture and consistency so it can be used in place of paneer as a non-dairy substitute.
Paneer is a protein-rich food. To prepare paneer, food acid (usually lemon juice, vinegar, citric acid or yogurt) is added to hot milk to separate the curds from the whey. The curds are then drained in a muslin cloth or cheesecloth and excess water is pressed out. The resulting paneer is dipped in chilled water for 2–3 hours to give it a good texture and appearance.
From this point, the preparation of paneer diverges based on its use. In most of the Indian cuisine, the paneer, wrapped in cloth, is put under a heavy weight, such as a stone slab, for 2–3 hours, and is then cut into cubes for use in curries. Pressing for a shorter time (approximately 20 minutes), results in a softer, fluffier cheese. Oriya cuisine and Arabic cuisine require a paneer dough beaten or kneaded by hand into a dough-like consistency.
Another popular dish is Chili Paneer, made with spicy chilies, onions and green peppers, usually served dry and garnished with spring onions.
The Surti Paneer, made in the region around Surat in Gujarat, is a variant of paneer made by draining the curd and ripening them in whey for 12 to 36 hours.
A part of Indian cuisine since ancient India, Paneer is the only type of cheese traditionally used in Indian cuisine. The use of paneer is more common in northern India due to the prominence of milk in their cuisine. Since paneer dishes are more expensive than other vegetarian dishes in many parts of India, paneer is an aspirational food, and defines sumptuousness in vegetarian feasts. It is very popular when wrapped in dough and deep-fried or served with either spinach (palak paneer) or peas (matar paneer). In eastern India, two kinds of cheese are commonly found: ponir (a hard paneer) and chhana or chhena (a soft paneer). Ponir is a salty semi-hard cheese made in villages across Bangladesh, and Orissa and West Bengal in India. Its sharp flavor and high salt content contrasts with the softer, milder chhana/chhena. Ponir is typically eaten in slices at teatime with biscuits or bread, or deep-fried in a light batter.
While cuisine in the northern states of India features paneer in spicy curry dishes, the use of chhana in Oriya cuisine or Bengali cuisine is mostly restricted to sweets, for which this region is renowned. Most Oriya and Bengali sweets feature chhana beaten by hand into dough-like consistency and then used in crafting the sweetmeat. The rasgulla is the classical sweet made by this method. It features plain chhana beaten by hand into the right consistency, then shaped into balls which are soaked in syrup.
The chhana or chhena used in such cases is manufactured by a slightly different procedure from Mughlai paneer; it is drained but not pressed, so that some moisture is retained, which makes for a soft, malleable consistency. It may, however, be pressed slightly into small cubes and curried to form a dalna in Oriya and Bengali cuisines.
Queso blanco or queso fresco are often recommended as substitutes in the Americas, as unlike paneer, they are commercially available in many American markets. Both are generally salted, unlike paneer.
The farmer cheese sold in Western countries, and dry curd cottage cheese, are similar except that they are made from cultured milk and often salted.
Anari is very similar in taste and texture to fresh Indian Paneer. Anari is a fresh mild whey cheese produced in Cyprus.
Beyaz peynir is a similar Turkish cheese.