I bought, tried, and tested paneer substitutes at home, so you don’t have to! See pictures of all the substitutes I tried, including brand names, and details on what makes the best paneer substitute.
Paneer is a traditional Indian cheese, here are some quick important points about it:
- Made from cow’s milk (whole milk)
- Known for its firm and crumbly texture
- Mild flavor, absorb flavors well
- Versatile can cooked in a number of ways
- Fresh cheese, not aged
- Does not melt when cooked, and holds its shape
- It is also vegetarian, which is key.
I cook with paneer often (and love it!), and I wanted to give some perspective from an Indian cook.
I see many blog posts on this from people who are not familiar with Indian cooking, which leads to misleading information and advice (Spoiler: cottage cheese and feta are not good paneer substitutes!).
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.
- About Paneer
- Factors For A Good Substitute
- BEST Paneer Substitutes
- Paneer Buying Guide
- Tips on Using Store Bought Paneer
About Paneer – It’s Easy To Make At Home
I’ll talk about substitutes, but you should first know it is super easy to make paneer at home with basic ingredients. 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.
Step-by-step stovetop paneer:
- Boil milk and add acid: Bring the whole milk to a boil and add 1 teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice.
- Separate curds and whey: Allow the mixture to curdle, separating the whey from the milk solids.
- Strain: Strain the milk solids using a cloth and a strainer.
- Rinse: Rinse the curds under cold water to remove any trace of lemon juice or vinegar and to stop further curdling.
- Press and Shape: 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.
- Chill and Use: Once pressed, unwrap the paneer and cut it into cubes or slices as desired. You can use it immediately or refrigerate it for later use.
And that’s it! You’ve made your own homemade paneer.
What makes a good paneer substitute?
A good paneer substitute includes many or most of the characteristics of paneer:
- Texture: The substitute should have a similar texture to paneer. Paneer is firm and slightly crumbly texture. It’s not as dense as some other cheeses, like cheddar or mozzarella.
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.
- Mild Flavor: Paneer has a mild and slightly milky flavor, making it versatile for various recipes as it easily absorbs other flavors.
- Absorption: Paneer readily absorbs the flavors of the spices and sauces it’s cooked with, making it an excellent ingredient in curries and stir-fries.
- Cooking Method: The substitute should be versatile enough to be used in various cooking methods such as frying, grilling, or simmering in sauces.
- Vegetarian: Paneer is vegetarian and free from animal rennet.
Paneer is a very versatile ingredient used for both sweet and savory dishes in Indian cooking. Because of its texture, you can cook it in a number of ways.
- Grilled: Paneer cubes or slices can be marinated and grilled on a barbecue or grill pan for a smoky flavor.
- Fried: Pieces can be shallow or deep-fried until golden brown and crispy.
- Stir-Fried: Can be quickly stir-fried with vegetables and sauces in a wok or frying pan.
- Baked: Cubes or slices can be baked in the oven with marinades or toppings until golden and slightly crispy.
- Sauteed: Can be sautéed with onions, tomatoes, and spices in a skillet until golden and flavorful.
- Steamed: Can be incorporated into dumplings or steamed dishes for a softer texture.
- Pan-Seared: Cubes can be seared in a hot pan with oil until golden and slightly crispy on the outside.
- Boiled: Paneer can be briefly boiled in water to soften it or incorporated into soups and stews.
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 (as outlined above).
Above I have made Matar Paneer (right picture) and Matar Panela (left picture) using panela cheese.
Alternatives to Paneer (Table and Details)
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
|Good paneer substitute?
|Firm, will not melt, can be crumbled
|Made from whole milk
|Queso Panela Cheese
|Semi-firm, will not melt
|Made from low-fat or skim milk
|Like paneer, but with salt. Excellent substitute.
|Won’t hold shape
|Semi-hard, firm, chewy, salty
|Can be cubed and crumbled. High melting point.
|In a pinch it can work. High salt content, may be too chewy for some palates. Taste is distinctly different from paneer.
|Soft, firm, silken
|Watery – Press tofu to remove excess water
|Firm or extra firm are the best paneer substitutes. Great option. Vegan friendly.
|Soft texture, grainy and creamy
|Works for some Indian sweets in place of paneer like Kalakand. Does not work in savory dishes.
|Crumbly, slightly salty
|Not a good substitute
|Often served as a dip, but Tropical brand sold in US makes a block that can be cubed and crumbled
|Can work in a pinch if you can source a block.
|Too soft for most Indian dishes
|Smooth, soft cheese. Can be cubed, but melts easily.
|Melts too easily to work as a suitable substitute
|Sheep’s milk only or sheep’s with some goat’s milk
|The crumbly, grainy texture
|Loose, creamy, almost soupy grains
|Texture is not compatible for Indian recipes
|Not a good paneer substitute
|12, 13, 14, 15
|Manchego Cheese, Gouda, Camembert, Brie
|Not good substitutes! Including as I’ve seen on other sites.
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 the 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 that require cubes; it would melt.
I have often heard of halloumi, commonly called 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, giving 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 a 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.
Below, you can see I used it to make peas tofu or matar tofu in place of paneer.
I often use it to make Palak Tofu or Matar Tofu instead of Palak Paneer/Matar Paneer.
While it offers a great vegan paneer replacement, it 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 unlike paneer. It has a wet, crumbly texture and can’t be used in any popular savory Indian dishes but it can be used in Indian sweets.
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. (The 365 Whole Foods brand if you are based in the US.)
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 think using mozzarella instead 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).
Paneer Buying Guide
The brands I like to use are Nanak and Gopi. The brand Gopi is found very often in American grocery stores like Whole Foods and Wegmans. You may also see the brand Sach Foods.
- Grocery Stores: Most grocery stores, especially those with a diverse selection of international or dairy products, carry paneer. Check the dairy or cheese section of your local supermarket.
- Specialty Indian Stores: Indian grocery stores often have various paneer brands and types available. These stores are particularly useful if you’re looking for specific types of paneer or larger quantities.
- Online Retailers: Many online retailers offer paneer for purchase, which can be convenient if you have limited access to local stores or prefer the convenience of home delivery.
Tips on Using Store-Bought Paneer
- Soak in Warm Water: Store-bought paneer can sometimes be too firm. To soften it up, soak the paneer cubes in warm water for 15-20 minutes before using them in your dish. This helps to make the paneer more tender and easier to cook with.
- Handle Gently: Paneer is delicate and can crumble easily if handled roughly. When cutting or stirring paneer in your dish, be gentle to avoid breaking it into small pieces. Use a sharp knife to cut it into cubes and carefully add them to your dish.
- Add Towards the End: Paneer tends to become rubbery if overcooked. Add paneer towards the end of cooking your dish to maintain its soft and creamy texture. This allows the paneer to heat through without becoming tough or chewy, ensuring it retains its flavor and texture.
- Refrigerate Promptly: As soon as you bring store-bought paneer home, refrigerate it promptly. Paneer is a dairy product and should be kept refrigerated to prevent spoilage.
- Keep in an Airtight Container: Transfer the paneer to an airtight container or wrap it tightly in plastic wrap to prevent exposure to air and moisture. This helps retain its freshness and prevents it from drying out.
- Store Away from Strong Odors: Paneer easily absorbs odors from other foods, so store it away from strong-smelling items in the refrigerator. Consider placing it in a separate compartment or drawer if available.