Paneer is an absolute love for me, and I wanted to give some perspective from an Indian cook as I see many blog posts on this from people who are not familiar with Indian cooking, which leads to misleading information and advice.
Particularly, I’d like to note the types of recipes in which paneer substitutes can be used in a pinch.
I always say there is no absolute perfect substitute for any ingredient, but I think we can get close to one for paneer for when you are in a pinch and looking for a quick alternative.
Other substitute ideas for Indian cooking that may be handy in a pinch include:
Paneer is very easy to make. Homemade paneer can even be made in an Instant Pot!
All you need is whole milk and vinegar or lemon juice. It is made using cow’s milk.
What makes a good paneer substitute?
A good paneer substitute includes many or most of the characteristics of paneer:
- Not aged
- Does not melt
- Vegetarian (Paneer is animal rennet free)
- Hold its shape (Paneer is pressed into a block)
Below are some additional notes on paneer:
Mild Flavor: Paneer has a mild and slightly milky flavor, making it versatile for various recipes as it easily absorbs other flavors.
Creamy Texture: Paneer has a creamy and slightly crumbly texture. It’s not as dense as some other cheeses, like cheddar or mozzarella.
Absorbs Flavors: Paneer readily absorbs the flavors of the spices and sauces it’s cooked with, making it an excellent ingredient in curries and stir-fries.
Texture Variations: Depending on how it’s made and handled, paneer’s texture can vary from very soft and crumbly to slightly firmer and more solid.
Savory Indian dishes most often require paneer to hold its shape.
Note, Indian sweet recipes usually use a soft, moist, crumbly paneer.
Paneer is a very versatile ingredient used for both sweet and savory dishes in Indian cooking.
Additionally, paneer can be:
- Fried / pan-fried
- Heated (soft paneer crumbles) to make Indian sweets
Best Substitute For Paneer
The best paneer substitutes in a ratio of 1:1 are queso panela, queso blanco, and firm or extra-firm tofu (for a vegan option). Ricotta cheese works very well as a substitute for paneer in some Indian desserts, such as Ricotta Cheese Kalakand.
If you have whole milk and lemon juice or vinegar, making your own paneer is very easy.
Above I have made Matar Paneer (right picture) and Matar Panela (left picture) using panela cheese.
Making Your Own Paneer
You can easily make paneer at home with just milk and either vinegar or lemon juice, along with a little time.
Here’s a simple step-by-step process:
- Bring the milk to a boil and add 1 teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice.
- Allow the mixture to curdle, separating the whey from the milk solids.
- Strain the milk solids using a cloth and a strainer.
- Squeeze out all the liquid, resulting in soft, crumbly paneer.
- To make it firmer, place a weight on the paneer and let it drain for 2-3 hours. This will give you paneer that holds its shape well.
Alternatives to Paneer
It is important to note, I only used animal rennet free versions of the cheeses below to test. A cheese with animal rennet may produce slightly different results.
All the types of cheese I bought from stores have salt. Paneer is not usually made with salt.
Account for that in the dish you make.
|#||Type of cheese||Made from||Notes||Consistency/Texture|
|–||Paneer||Cow’s Milk||Whole milk||Firm, will not melt, can be crumbled|
|1||Queso Panela Cheese||Cow’s milk||Made from low-fat or skim milk||Made from low-fat or skim milk|
|2||Farmer’s Cheese||Cow’s milk||Whole milk||Soft (not pressed)|
|3||Halloumi Cheese||Sheep, goat, or cow’s milk||Can be made from a mix of sheep and goat milk||Semi-hard, firm, can be cubed and crumbled. High melting point.|
|4||Tofu||N/A – Vegan paneer substitute from soy||Best for Indian savory dishes||Firm or extra firm is the best paneer substitute, can be crumbled|
|5||Ricotta||*Made from leftover way after cow, sheep, or goat cheese is made||Leftover whey (not from milk)||Soft texture, grainy and creamy|
|6||Queso Fresco||Cow’s milk||Whole milk||Soft, crumbly|
|7||Queso Blanco||Cow’s milk or goat’s||Whole milk||Often served as a dip, but Tropical brand makes a block that can be cubed and crumbled|
|8||Twaróg||Cow’s milk||Whole milk||Semi firm|
|9||Mozzarella||Cow’s milk and or buffalo (can be mixed)||Whole milk or part-skim (a variety available)||Smooth, soft cheese. Can be cubed, but melts easily.|
|10||Feta||Sheep’s milk only or sheep’s with some goat’s milk||Whole milk||The crumbly, grainy texture|
|11||Cottage Cheese||Pasteurized cow’s milk||Various||Loose, creamy, soupy grains|
|12, 13, 14, 15||Manchego Cheese, Gouda, Camembert, Brie||Various||Various||Various|
1. Queso Panela
Mexican queso panela is a semi-soft cheese made from cow’s milk. Panela is basically paneer with salt.
It tastes the most like paneer and is an excellent option for a substitute.
It is known as a basket cheese.
A key difference I noticed is that it doesn’t seem to be pressed to form as firm a block as paneer, but it is very close.
Similar to paneer, panela can be baked, fried, or grilled. A great paneer substitute.
2. Farmer’s Cheese
Farmer’s cheese is a non-aged, mild cheese. It is made of cow’s milk and similar to paneer, is made using only milk and vinegar (or lemon juice).
This is just a fresh (non-aged) slightly firm cheese
A key difference is that farmer’s cheese is not pressed like paneer. This results in a softer cheese.
I found the one I tried (brand: Friendship) had a consistency almost like whipped cream cheese.
Its consistency would not hold in savory Indian dishes which require cubes, it would melt.
I have often heard of halloumi commonly referred to as a paneer replacement. I think it can work, but the taste is not as close to paneer as queso panela.
Halloumi is made from sheep’s milk or goats’ milk which gives it a distinct taste. Paneer is usually made from cow’s milk.
It is traditionally made with mint which I didn’t find too strong of taste to be a negative
Most often it is made with animal rennet, however, I did find an animal rennet-free brand at Whole Foods – Aphrodite.
Paneer and halloumi are not interchangeable, although they can make good substitutes for each other in a pinch.
The main difference is that paneer is a high-acid cheese and halloumi is unique for having almost no acid in it at all.
Either end of the acidity spectrum (high or low) helps to prevent cheeses from melting. Halloumi has a high melting point, allowing it to be used for frying, grilling, etc.
This is the paneer alternative I grew up using most often. It helps to make many dishes a little healthier, still provides protein, absorbs flavor well, holds up to cooking/grilling, and can be crumbled.
I use it most often to make Palak Tofu or Matar Tofu instead of Palak Paneer/Matar Paneer.
While it offers a great vegan paneer replacement, but of course does not taste exactly like paneer.
Make sure you press the tofu well to drain it of water before using. Firm or extra firm tofu works best as a great substitute for paneer.
5. Ricotta Cheese
On the surface, ricotta cheese is not like paneer. It has a wet, crumbly texture and can’t be used in any popular savory Indian dishes.
6. Queso Fresco
Queso fresco means fresh cheese. It is a cheese made from cow’s milk used in Mexican and other Latin American dishes. It is a mild, soft cheese that crumbles easily.
It usually has a rennet which adds to its crumbliness. However, I did find an animal rennet-free version.
It also has salt, which paneer does not.
Since it is so crumbly, I think it is only a good substitute for paneer when making something like Paneer Bhurji. But, watch out for the salt in your recipe.
7. Queso Blanco
Queso Blanco means white cheese and is a creamy, fresh, non-aged cheese. It is made from milk and an acid (vinegar or lemon juice) just like paneer.
Mexican queso Blanco can work as a substitute for paneer cheese, although it is not a perfect match.
Twarog is a soft white cheese. It is made through a process of culturing resulting in a semi-firm block.
Some twaróg are firm but usually nowhere near as firm as homemade paneer. The taste is also unique and different from paneer.
It is also hard to find in grocery stores.
Mozzarella is an Italian cheese with a mild flavor. Mozzarella and paneer are not interchangeable. The taste and consistency are different.
They can both be formed as blocks but the structure of paneer is slightly crumbly and mozzarella forms strings or strands.
I do think using mozzarella in the place of paneer in palak paneer would be delicious, however, it would not exhibit the same qualities as paneer. It won’t absorb flavor and it can melt.
It could be tossed into the spinach gravy and heated lightly at the end. Again, I just think it would be delicious but not a good substitute normally.
When I think of feta I think salty and crumbly. It is made of sheep’s milk or sheep’s milk with goat’s milk.
While I don’t think this is a perfect substitute for paneer, I think it works well for a very popular Saag Feta recipe on Bon Appetit.
Feta is much sharper and saltier than paneer. It does hold its shape when added to dishes.
This comes down to personal preference, but I would not recommend it as it does not work in all Indian dishes.
11. Cottage Cheese
Although I often see paneer referred to as “Indian cottage cheese,” actual cottage cheese is not a good substitute for paneer.
The texture and consistency of cottage cheese are too loose and watery, so it does not make a good alternative to paneer.
12. , 13., 14., and 15. Manchego Cheese, Gouda, Camembert, Brie
Ok, don’t be mad I lumped all these together. But if you know paneer, can you believe these are even on the list? I had to include them as I saw them on other posts.
I am all for experimenting (I love Indian Fusion Food), but I these are not good substitutes for paneer in terms of taste or texture.
In summary, the best substitutes for paneer I have found are queso panela, queso Blanco, tofu (vegan substitute), or ricotta (only for some Indian sweets).
- 1 Bowl
- 1 serving queso panela OR
- 1 serving queso blanco OR
- 1 serving firm or extra firm tofu OR
- 1 serving ricotta cheese for SOME Indian sweets only
- Substitute your choice of ingredient to use 1:1 in the place of paneer when you are in a pinch.