Answer: No. Vegans cannot eat paneer because it is a fresh cheese made from milk.
Is Paneer Vegan?
Paneer is a type of Indian cheese that is fresh and made from cow or buffalo milk. Because it is almost 100% made of animal products, vegans cannot eat paneer. However, some great vegan alternatives to paneer can be used in curries and other Indian dishes.
Vegans can not eat paneer; it is an animal product. Paneer is made from cow or buffalo milk, cooked in something acidic. You can easily substitute firm tofu for paneer if you’re in a hurry. There are a wide variety of paneer dishes that easily switch to vegan food. Making a vegan paneer substitute at home is not difficult, and there are many options.
What Is Paneer?
Paneer is a fresh Indian cheese popular in the Northern regions as a meat substitute. A large portion of the population there is vegetarian, so ingredients like paneer are a way to add protein and rich flavor to many dishes. Paneer doesn’t melt easily, so adding it to slow-cooked curries leaves chunks of milky, sweet cheese that complement many of the intense or spicy flavors used in Indian cuisine.
The ingredients for traditional paneer are:
- Whole milk
- Lemon juice
That’s all. Even better, you can handle this at home without fancy kitchen equipment or cheese-making supplies. Some paneers use other acidic liquids for cooking the whey, like vinegar. A few quick rinses will remove the vinegar smell if you choose to use that.
Many people make their own paneer since it has few ingredients and is a simple process. You will need a cheesecloth, a new, thin bandana, a clean piece of cloth, a large pot, and a strainer or colander.
Because paneer is a fresh cheese, there is no aging or curing process like in many kinds of hard cheese.
You can make a batch in the morning, dry it, and set it throughout the day. Then, you’ll have fresh paneer for dinner. The way to make paneer at home is to boil full-fat milk in an acidic liquid, which is normally lemon juice in Indian cuisine. This is important because the process can be used to make a vegan version.
Popular dishes that traditionally include paneer are plentiful; they can serve as the main protein in almost any Indian dish. You are only limited by your imagination here.
Paneer and paneer substitutes are incredibly versatile. You can spice them up and skewer them next to acidic foods like tomatoes, or keep them with other subtle tastes like peppers and focus on the condiments. Mint relish is a typical Indian addition and pairs well with roasted paneer or a substitute. The center of the cubes will stay soft while the outer layer crisps up nicely.
Curry will break down the paneer if you stir it in too early. But a great way to bolster a curry with more protein and soft texture is to toss in some towards the end once everything is simmered to perfection. A lot of curry styles benefit from paneer, like the spinach-based saag.
Vindaloo is usually one of the hottest curries that most Indian restaurants keep in stock. It is influenced by Portuguese traders who introduced spicy chilies to Indian cuisine in the 1500s. Vindaloo’s base is made of tomatoes, chilies, and cumin. The silky smoothness of paneer offsets the bold spices, and the soft, mild chunks will give you a moment to gather yourself in between blasts of heat.
Chicken tikka masala is a British dish based on Indian tikka, boneless chicken, masala, tomatoes, onions, and various spices. You can easily switch to a vegan alternative for paneer to serve as the main protein. This also works for the most popular Indian dish overseas: butter chicken. Of course, butter is not vegan, but coconut cream can provide a rich, creamy base.
Another classic Indian dish, biryani, is a slow-cooked rice dish full of herbs and spices. It started as a simple meat-and-rice dish in the Middle East, but in India, it flourished. Layering aromatic rice, protein, vegetables, and a thick sauce is an excellent use of paneer substitutes. Use something that will hold itself together after simmering hours, or add your paneer near the end like a curry.
These little deep-fried pastries are as essential to Indian cuisine as curry. While every region has its own spin on the potato-filled triangles, the Punjab region has paneer as a key ingredient. The paneer makes the filling creamier and pairs well with spicier dipping sauce. Samosas are a classic companion for teatime and chatting with friends and are seen across India. They are easily made vegan and are filling and healthy, so they can serve as a meal instead of a snack if you’re a big fan.
Top Vegan Alternatives for Paneer
Firm tofu is the simplest swap for paneer when you’re short on time. Tofu is the same consistency as paneer and can be crumbled or kept cubed for curries, stir-frys, and skewers. Tofu also works as a filling for samosas or naan bread, though it won’t mold the space it is filling. Adding a small dash of lemon juice can guide tofu in the right direction to tasting more like authentic paneer.
Tempeh or Seitan
Distinct from tofu by being much denser and packed with protein and calories, tempeh and seitan can also be used as proteins in many Indian dishes. Tempeh is soy-based, like tofu but is solid and coarser. Seitan is not soy and is made from wheat products. This makes seitan much lower in fat and calories than tofu and tempeh, but it is higher in sodium and carbs. If you need a quick vegan protein for something (and are sick of tofu), either seitan or tempeh will work. Neither will be as soft as paneer, but if you are roasting it or making a stir-fry or curry, they will boost the protein content.
Vegan alternatives for other types of cheeses are much more common than paneer. Mozzarella is one of the most popular cheeses in the world and is integral to Italian cuisine. As Indian food grows in popularity globally, proper dairy-free paneer products may enter the scene. But for now, you can always mix up a batch. The similarity between mozzarella and paneer is clear; both are soft, fresh cheeses with a mild flavor. Adding citrus juice to paneer make it crumble instead of melt is crucial.
Many people have had success recreating mozzarella with vegan ingredients at home, and pizza is always worth the effort. Some vegan mozzarellas use softened nuts, yeast, or tapioca starch to bind everything together. Modify these recipes to try making your own vegan paneer.
DIY Vegan Paneer
Remember how easy fresh paneer at home was to make? Well, the fresh vegan paneer alternative uses the same simple steps. You can replace the full-fat cow or buffalo milk with fat-filled soy milk. Boiled that in lemon juice and drain and strained it. After drying it out for a few hours, you’ll have soft, crumbly tofu with a mild, slightly acidic flavor like paneer. Toss this in a curry or on some naan bread, and you’re set.
Many people get tired of tofu for every meal, and some have come up with their own creative workarounds for making vegan paneer. Instead of soy milk, you could try cashew milk, peanut milk, or almond milk to experiment with the subtle changes. It doesn’t seem like anyone has tried oat milk yet, but that is one of the creamiest milk substitutes and might work well.
Premade Vegan Paneer
Be careful with store-bought paneer that markets itself as “dairy-free.” Often, these binding agents are gelatin, which is collagen derived from animal parts. If a cheese alternative isn’t labeled vegan-friendly, you’ll want to check the ingredients carefully. Other types of cheese may work for some of these recipes, but most vegan cheese is heavily flavored to cover the ingredients up. Those flavors might overpower the rest of your meal and throw off the delicate balance that most Indian cuisine contains.
While paneer is not suitable for a vegan diet, you can easily substitute ingredients in many otherwise vegan-friendly recipes. Learning what vegan alternative you prefer can open up a new region of delicious options. And with the vegan options being so common and easy to make, these Indian dishes make great weeknight meals or large portions quickly scaled up for big groups. Everyone should be able to find a vegan alternative for paneer that meets their needs.