I made my first batch of curds and whey by accident. I was enjoying a cup of tea with milk, and decided to add a squeeze of lemon. Immediately, my cup filled with cheese curds. I guess I’m no Little Miss Muffet, because I made another cup of tea rather than sip my way through that lumpy mess.
Curds and whey are what milk becomes when you heat it to a boil and add acid. This causes the milk to separate into coagulated chunks of curd surrounded by watery liquid known as whey. The splitting of milk into curds and whey is the first step in cheesemaking, and a point of departure to many wonderful places.
And for paneer makers, it’s nearly the finish line. Simply strain the curds through cheesecloth, let them hang for a few minutes to drain, then let it sit for a few hours under a heavy object to press out the last of the whey. Voilà, you have made cheese.
In the making of most well-known cheeses, curds and whey is just the beginning, regardless of whether it’s going to end up aged, moldy or full of holes. But if you are aiming for the simpler end of the spectrum, like cottage cheese or Indian-style paneer, you’re almost done. And these easy cheeses can be just as satisfying as their fancier peers. Simply strain the curds, perhaps give them a squeeze, and enjoy your cheese.
The acid you choose to curdle the milk will impact the flavor. I have used fresh tangerine juice, and both curds and whey came out tasting like creamsicles. I could totally understand Little Miss Muffet wanting to eat this, because I quickly slurped down my first bowl of tangerine curds and whey. It doesn’t need sugar, but can handle sweetness if you want to add it. Meyer lemon, which is sweeter than regular lemon, makes a sweet lemony curd and a deliciously drinkable whey.
Citrus or yogurt wheys are great for adding to either hot oatmeal or “overnight”-style oats. You can also add it to pancake batter, smoothies, or drink it straight.
Vinegar makes a sharp, clean tasting paneer, but the whey is not as drinkable. Yogurt makes the mildest, creamiest paneer.
Once the curds are properly drained and pressed, they need nothing else. Salted and slipped into the kids’ salads, the curds went down like faux feta.
Last week I had some old milk in my fridge that was stressing me out. At any moment the kids would reject it. Before that happened I had to use it.
I found my answer at the winter farmer’s market, thanks to a bag of new spinach. The idea crystalized, or curdled, as it were, around a meal of saag paneer, the Indian dish of spinach and cheese.
The plan was to go home and make paneer from my old milk. I would cut the cheese into cubes, pan-fry them, and add these browned creamy cubic nuggets to a pan of liquified, seasoned spinach. I also grabbed a bag of winter-market arugula, as a proper saag paneer contains mustard leaves of some sort.
As planned, the combination of earthy, spicy veggies and meaty chunks of creamy cheese made a satisfying and complete meal. Once you know how to make easy cheese, there will never be an excuse to let milk go sour ever again. Miss Muffet would be proud.
1 gallon whole milk
1 cup of yogurt or 6 tablespoons citrus or white vinegar
2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons olive oil or ghee
1 onion, minced
2 serrano or jalapeño peppers, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped ginger root
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons coriander
1 teaspoons mustard seed
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 pound fresh spinach
Pour the milk into a thick-bottomed pot. Heat on medium, frequently scouring the bottom, ideally with a rubber spatula, to prevent buildup. When foaming and about to boil — about 20 minutes — turn off the heat and allow to sit for a minute while you ready your acid.
Let it cool to room temperature. It will separate as it cools.
Lay two pieces of cheesecloth over a colander, crossed at the bottom to make a plus sign. Set the colander over a pot or bowl. Ladle yourself a cup of curds and whey, and see what you think.
Mix your acid with the two cups of water. When the water starts to foam, turn it off. Wait 10 minutes. Then, while gently stirring the milk, slowly add the acid water. Then leave the milk alone for a while and let it separate.
Carefully pour it through the cheesecloth, filtering the curds and catching the whey below. Pull the corners together and hang the curds by the corners.
If your acid is yogurt or citrus, set the whey aside for oatmeal or other uses. It’s full of protein and tastes really good. If it’s vinegar, the taste is more acquired but you can still drink it.
After an hour, unhang the curds. Pull the cheesecloth tight and shape the cheese into a puck-shaped disk. Put weight on the cheese; I put it in a deep bowl with a gallon jug of vinegar on top.
After about two hours, unwrap your cheese and cut the disc into cubes. Fry the cubes in a thick-bottomed pan and a tablespoon of olive oil or ghee, turning occasionally until brown on a couple sides.
In a dry, heavy-bottomed pan, toast the mustard, cumin and coriander seeds on medium heat for about four minutes. Add three tablespoons of olive oil or ghee and the garam masala, onions, garlic, ginger and serranos. Cook until the onions are translucent, then turn off the heat.
When the water boils, blanch the spinach and arugula for three minutes. Transfer spinach immediately to a bowl of ice water. When cold, drain the leaves and squeeze out the water. Put the leaves in a blender, along with the onion mixture, and liquify. Season with salt, add water if it’s too thick, and blend again.
To put it all together, add the spinach mixture to the pan of browned cheese. Heat to a simmer. Serve with rice, and Indian-style condiments.