Paneer is featured prominently in Indian culture and many recipes revolve around this cheese. Its popularity has reached the other side of the world, making its way into many international recipes as well, but it’s not always easy to find paneer in stores.
Other types of cheese can work as paneer substitutes, although none can perfectly replace it. Each substitute works well in certain recipes but not in others and if you don’t want to compromise, you can make your own paneer at home.
The best paneer substitutes
Paneer is an Indian fresh cheese, meaning it doesn’t require aging or culturing and can be eaten as soon as it’s ready. It is made from milk mixed with a vegetable or fruit acid (usually vinegar or lemon juice can do).
The peculiarity of this cheese is that unlike other types of cheese like mozzarella or cheddar, paneer doesn’t melt so it will keep its shape and texture no matter the use you make of it. That’s why paneer is perfect for a large variety of recipes.
Since paneer is so easy and inexpensive to make, it’s no wonder it became one of the most used ingredients in Indian culture and it slowly made its way out of its origin country and into many international dishes.
Paneer can be mixed in your recipe or eaten alone, put in a sandwich, consumed as a quick snack, or even served for breakfast. There is little you cannot do with this wonderful cheese.
Paneer can bring several benefits to our health:
– Helps strengthen bone’s health through its calcium content.
– Keeps the heart in good shape by regulating the salt intake through potassium.
– Helps weight loss because it’s packed with proteins that make you feel fuller, especially the one made with cow milk.
– Aids digestion and excretion thanks to its phosphorus content.
– Helps strengthen the immune system.
– Helps maintain good blood sugar levels thanks to its magnesium content.
– Helps the development of the fetus during pregnancy thanks to folate.
Another quality that makes paneer so popular is that this cheese is completely vegetarian. Not many people know that some types of cheese have an added ingredient, an enzyme called animal rennet, which is the lining of the stomach of calves or goats.
This ingredient is taken by slaughtered animals and added to some cheese like parmesan and gorgonzola. Paneer, along with cottage cheese and a few others, doesn’t include animal rennet, so it’s safe to eat for vegetarians.
You can find paneer in the average grocery store, but if you want to save some money, buy it from your local Indian store, which usually has different varieties at a cheaper price. As an alternative, you can also buy paneer online.
When you don’t have paneer and you’re in a pinch, or when you just want to experiment with new flavors and texture, you can try one of the following substitutes for paneer cheese.
1. Halloumi cheese
Halloumi is a type of cheese made from a mix of sheep’s and goat’s milk, but usually from just one of the two. It is a good source of proteins, vitamins, magnesium, calcium, and has quite an amount of fats as well.
This white, layered cheese very similar to mozzarella is perfect as a paneer substitute for grilling because it keeps its shape and becomes crispy and savory.
Rennet is used to make Halloumi, so not all varieties of Halloumi are vegetarian. However, sometimes vegetarian rennet is used instead of the traditional one. Vegetarian rennet is made from a type of mold (though of course, the final product doesn’t contain any mold) which makes the cheese vegetarian-friendly.
Halloumi can also be pan-fried or sliced thin and added to salads. It can be eaten raw, but it might be a little salty. It gives its best when cooked because the cooking process brings out its deliciousness.
2. Panela cheese
Panela (or queso panela) is a Mexican cheese that, traditionally, used to be molded in a basket, that’s why it is also called queso canasta (“basket cheese”). This cottage cheese is made from pasteurized cow’s milk and it’s a fresh cheese like paneer.
Its texture is soft and creamy and it has a delicious fresh milk flavor. Panela makes a good substitute for paneer because it doesn’t lose its shape when cooked. In fact, it will not melt, only soften.
This type of cheese absorbs the flavor from the other ingredients it’s cooked with, and sometimes it’s sold directly covered with pepper paste or garlic.
Panela can be baked and pan-fried and it’s particularly savory when served as a fried dish, however, it’s most popular as an appetizer.
3. Feta cheese
Feta has been made in Greece for thousands of years and today this creamy cheese is a PDO product, which means the only “official” feta cheese is the one that originates from Greece and no other feta-like cheese can be labeled as such.
However, this hasn’t prevented other countries from making “unofficial” feta, and that’s how different varieties of feta were born, each one with slightly different characteristics, usually depending on the type of milk used.
Feta is traditionally a sheep’s milk kind of cheese that has aged for four-to-six weeks. It tastes sharp and salty and has a crumbly texture. One of the best qualities of this cheese is that it can last up to several months if well-preserved.
Feta makes a great paneer alternative in salads, appetizers, and side dishes, but the uses for this cheese do not end here. There are many recipes revolving around feta and of course, this cheese is a must when preparing Greek dishes.
4. Well-drained ricotta
This Italian cheese is particularly versatile as it can be used as a stuffing ingredient as well as in desserts. When used to stuff pasta (ravioli) it is often mixed with vegetables like spinach to balance the flavor and make it savory.
Rather than cheese, ricotta is a byproduct of cheese because it is made by heating the leftover whey from the production process of other types of cheese. In fact, the Italian name ricotta can be literally translated as “re-cooked”.
Ricotta has a soft and grainy texture and it’s rich in calcium while being lower in sodium in comparison to other kinds of cheese like cottage cheese.
Ricotta makes a good paneer replacement in paneer-centered recipes. However, it doesn’t last long in the fridge, so it should be consumed within a few days. When ricotta starts turning from white to yellow, it means it is past its prime and slowly going bad.
Do not use ricotta in soups and curries.
5. Mozzarella cheese
Fresh mozzarella is one of those types of cheese that can be eaten immediately after being made as it doesn’t need aging. In fact, the sooner you eat mozzarella the best it tastes.
Mozzarella is another Italian cheese and one of the healthiest cheeses you can have. It is full of nutrients while being low in fats and sodium.
Unlike other paneer cheese substitutes that keep their shape and texture when cooked, mozzarella melts when heated, which is why it is often the main topping for pizza.
Mozzarella has a mild flavor and it can be eaten alone, but it’s best when eaten as a side dish. Its flavor and its versatility made mozzarella one of the most popular cheeses in the world.
Use it sliced thin in salads (especially Caprese salad) or sandwiches as a substitution for paneer cheese.
6. Mexican Queso Blanco
Like paneer, Mexican Queso Blanco can be easily made at home because it only requires milk and an acidic ingredient like vinegar or lemon juice. It is often confused with Queso fresco, but the two are slightly different. For example, Queso Blanco is vegetarian-friendly, unlike Queso fresco.
It is usually made from cow’s milk, but a mix of cow’s and goat’s milk may also be used in the production of this cheese. It has a firm and crumbly texture, which softens when cooked but doesn’t melt.
Because of its texture, you can crumble Queso Blanco in salads or over other dishes, but it can also be served as a fresh cheese with a bowl of fresh fruits.
Queso Blanco and paneer can be made at home using almost the same recipe. That’s why they’re also interchangeable in recipes.
7. Extra-firm tofu
Extra-firm tofu is the most compact type of tofu. It has the chewiest texture out of all the tofu varieties, which fits heartier dishes best. But it is very versatile as it can be pan-fried, baked, boiled, deep-fried, glazed, stir-fried, crusted, and can also work as a vegetarian meat substitute.
Tofu is a popular vegan alternative to paneer in Indian recipes, especially curry and soups. Upon opening your package of tofu you will also find a liquid called nigari, which helps give tofu it’s texture and it’s packed with minerals. Some varieties of tofu have extra-vitamins and minerals added.
Tofu is made from soybeans, which are sometimes contaminated with pesticides and fertilizers. That’s why the recommended tofu would be organic tofu, although it may be more expensive depending on where you buy it.
8. Cottage cheese
Cottage cheese is a protein-packed, low-fat cheese that used to be really popular a few decades ago when it was promoted as a healthier alternative to meat.
Cottage cheese is a fresh cheese that is very similar to paneer and therefore makes a wonderful substitute for paneer.
It can be made at home, and it is recommended to do so because homemade cottage cheese is creamier and has a richer flavor and texture.
There are many different types of cottage cheese, whether low-fat, non-fat, lactose-free, sodium-free, low-sodium, etc. so it’s a cheese that can be enjoyed by many, alone or as an ingredient in recipes.
Use cottage cheese in a recipe like you would use paneer, but be mindful that cottage cheese contains salt while paneer doesn’t, so adjust the amount of salt in your recipe accordingly.
9. Homemade paneer
Homemade paneer is creamier and has a crumbler texture than store-bought paneer. It is better than the latter in every way, except maybe for grilling, because store-bought paneer tends to remain firmer and withstand the heat better.
Making your own homemade paneer ensures that you can never run out of it and never have to settle for a substitute. However, keep in mind that fresh paneer should be consumed within a few days, so only prepare it if you know you will use it within the week.
There are many recipes on how to make homemade paneer online, and they’re all easy step-by-step guides you can try your hand at even if you’re not an expert.
How to choose a paneer substitute.
Despite being a very simple cheese, paneer is also hard to replace with satisfying results because its characteristics make it quite a unique cheese.
In order to choose a paneer substitute, you should consider the following qualities:
– The most similar: if you value flavor and similarity over everything, then you should consider making your own paneer at home. That’s the easiest and safest way to make sure you will have something that is exactly like paneer. Otherwise, you can also try cottage cheese and Queso Blanco.
– The most versatile: you want to substitute paneer, but which substitute will be better for your recipe? When in doubt, go for highly versatile replacements like mozzarella and extra-firm tofu. The only exception would be grilling recipes because for those you can safely pick halloumi cheese.
– The vegetarian/vegan alternative: choosing a vegetarian or vegan-friendly cheese may not be as easy as it seems, because some cheeses can be made with or without animal rennet, so you should get informed beforehand or check the ingredients of the specific brand, where available. In this case, too, making paneer at home would be one of the solutions, because paneer in itself is vegetarian-friendly. Queso Blanco and cottage cheese are other vegetarian paneer alternatives, while tofu is also vegan-friendly.
These are some of the best paneer substitutes you can try, but there are so many types of cheese out there that no one can dictate what works best for you, so follow your taste and unleash your creativity!