A great place to begin your cheese making journey is with simple acid- and heat-coagulated cheeses. These types of cheese go by many names throughout the world, including queso blanco (“white cheese”) from Mexico; whole milk or sweet ricotta from the United States and Italy; vinegar or lemon cheese from the United States; sheep’s and goat’s milk brousse in France; mizithra from Greece; and paneer or panir from India and the Middle East. The curd can be drained for a soft, crumbly cheese or lightly pressed for a firm slicing and grilling cheese. By changing the cream content of the milk, the type of acid and the draining method, you can make a wide variety of cheeses. With only slight variation, the same recipe can be used to make Italian-style mascarpone (see instructions below).
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Quick and Easy Paneer Recipe
1 gallon whole or part-skim milk
About ¾ cup lemon juice or vinegar
(white or cider)
¼ teaspoon salt, or to taste
1. Make sure all equipment is clean and sanitized and that your cheesemaking space is clean.
2. Pour milk in pot and, using direct heat and stirring constantly, bring to 195 to 200 degrees. TIP: When using direct heat, it is very easy to scorch the milk. Use a heavy-bottomed pot, and stir constantly but gently. The milk may foam and look as if it is ready to boil. As the temperature nears the goal, the rate of increase will slow.
3. Remove pot from heat and cool to 190 degrees. Stir to help milk cool more quickly.
4. Add lemon juice or vinegar 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring after each addition until curd separates, leaving clearish whey. Let set uncovered for 5 to 20 minutes. TIP: Curd should float to the top and consolidate.
5. Ladle curds into cheesecloth-lined colander. You can rinse curd with cool water to assist cooling, but this is not mandatory. Allow curd to drain in colander for 20 minutes if you are proceeding to pressing. If not, drain for 60 minutes or more until you like the texture. TIP: If a lot of curd remains in the pot after you have ladled the floating portion, carefully pour the remaining hot whey through a sieve and place the collected curd in the lined colander. Don’t pour the entire mass through the cloth, as the curd can block the flow of the hot whey and splash back and burn you.
6. Using a spoon, gently stir and work curd until it is smooth and even in texture. Then stir in ¼ teaspoon salt, or to taste. If cheese is to be used soft, your work is done. Simply eat the cheese or transfer it to a lidded container, and store in the fridge for up to a week. If it is being used as a slicing or grilling cheese, proceed to the next step.
7. Pressed variation: With the curd still in the cheesecloth, push and form the mass into the center of the cloth. Then close the cloth by gathering the corners together and gently twisting them to form the curd into a compressed mass. Place the cloth-wrapped ball on a smooth surface, and press down gently to form a disc about 1 1⁄2 inches thick and as even in circumference as possible. Open the cloth, and pat the curd a bit to smooth the top. Then fold the cloth one corner at a time over the curd, making it as smooth as possible. Wrap any excess so it is tucked under the mass, forming a tightly closed packet.
8. Place the packet on an inverted plate in a larger bowl or container. Place an upside-down plate on top of the packet, and set a bowl or pan on top of it all. I like to use a heavy cast iron skillet. The total weight at this point should be about 3 pounds. After 10 minutes add 3 more pounds of weight. Press for a total of about an hour.
9. After an hour or more of pressing, the curd packet should feel firm. If you press on it and it gives or whey leaks out, press longer. When your goal texture is reached, the cheese can be used or wrapped tightly and chilled for use later. Keep for up to one week in the refrigerator. The texture of the cheese will become smoother and more sliceable after it chills for a day or more. But it is ready to use immediately and will hold its shape fried, grilled or even in stews. Super versatile!
Variation: Mascarpone-Type Cheese
1. Use heavy or light cream in place of the milk. Don’t use ultrapasteurized cream, which is very common in grocery stores. Also look for brands with the least number of additives; avoid, for example, carrageenan (a thickener) and dextrose (a sugar). If you have access to farm-fresh cream, all the better.
2. In a double boiler, heat cream to 185 degrees, stirring continuously.
3. For each quart of cream, dissolve ¼ teaspoon tartaric acid in 1 to 2 tablespoons cool water. Turn off heat, and stir solution into cream. The curd will be very fine and soft—not like the whole-milk variation, which is clumpy and coarse.
4. Let set for 5 to 10 minutes, then pour into a colander lined with a double layer of cheesecloth. You will need to allow it more time to drain, usually about 12 hours. It is normally not salted. Mascarpone is traditionally used for desserts such as the classic Italian treat tiramisu.