If we want to find the best substitutes for paneer, you have to understand exactly what we’re trying to replace.
Indian cooking is absolutely one of the most delicious on the planet but some of the much needed ingredients are not that easy to find in every corner of the world.
Whether we’re talking vegan, vegetarian or meat dishes, Indian cuisine has some of the most delicious foods for absolutely every taste. For now, let’s focus on one particular ingredient.
Paneer cheese is called Indian cottage cheese. It is made from curdled milk and fruit or vegetable acid (lemon juice or vinegar usually).
Paneer has a milky, fresh, and very mild taste. It is a fresh, crumbly cheese and it totally shows in its mild taste.
If you’re interested in pairing different cheeses with ham, check out my article on what cheese goes with prosciutto.
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10 Best Substitutes for Paneer: Vegetarian & Vegan Options
It will be delightful to discover the best substitutes for paneer so that you can still make the delicious dish you have your eyes set on. One ingredient that you can’t find shouldn’t stop your cooking experiences.
1. Feta cheese
I absolutely love this feta. It’s certainly a top pick as one of the best paneer substitutes and I wanted to recommend it first for various reasons.
It’s that tangy, rich, and slightly salty flavor that just works so well in some dishes. It certainly works very well as a substitute for other cheeses.
Moreover, I’d reckon that it’s also a bit easier to find than many other cheeses.
Another thing that makes feta good for cooking is that the more aged it is, the harder its texture. It won’t come apart.
It is mostly made with sheep’s milk so it will have a more rich flavor. Some might not find the stronger flavor all that pleasant but I certainly welcome it.
The one I’m not crazy about is feta made from goat’s milk.
All in all, feta cheese can work as one of the best substitutes for paneer because it has a firm texture, it’s easy to find around the globe, and it has a very good flavor that will work well in many dishes.
Another thing that feta and paneer have in common is that they’re both high acid cheeses.
The high acid in both these cheeses from different cuisines prevents them from melting, even if they’re crumbled. They merely soften and becomes creamy. That’s why they can be used interchangeably if you don’t have access to either.
The major difference between halloumi and paneer is the type of animal milk that’s used for making them.
Halloumi is made from sheep’s milk and preserved in brine.
Nevertheless, it can also be made from cow or goat’s milk, depending what you can find to buy where you live.
In this case, my favorite is the one made from sheep’s milk. The one made from goat’s milk is a bit too strong for me.
What I absolutely love about halloumi is the texture.
It has a harder, denser texture than other fresh cheeses. That happens because the curd has been kneaded.
Moreover, the brine is preserved in gives halloumi a salty tang.
It’s so good in so many dishes and it can serve as one of the best substitutes for paneer.
Although, fried or grilled halloumi is just as good on its own. That’s another thing these two cheeses from two different continents have in common.
3. Cottage cheese
Since I mentioned that paneer is also called Indian cottage cheese, it’s only logical to recommend cottage cheese as one of the best substitutes for paneer.
Cottage cheese is pretty much easy to find wherever you live. Based on where I reside, I can also tell you that it’s one of the most affordable options here.
It’s also absolutely delicious.
You can also very easily make it at home if you have any experience or if you’d like to try making your own cheese at home.
The absolute main difference between cottage cheese and paneer is the texture.
Paneer has a firm, cohesive and spongy body. Cottage cheese is a cheese curd product, the texture is curds. Even though the texture is different, it can still be used to make all kinds of dishes. Just keep in mind the different texture and decide if it will work or not for your particular recipe.
Another fresh cheese that’s very easy to find around the world is mozzarella. It’s not exactly cheap if you’re cooking for a large crowd but I wouldn’t call it expensive, either. I consider it pretty reasonably priced.
Some would say that mozzarella doesn’t have much of a flavor at all. I would disagree, for me it always tastes like the sweetest cheese that goes so well in savory dishes.
I would say that this is one of the best substitutes for paneer for those who don’t like the taste of cheese all that much. Even picky eaters can learn to love a good quality mozzarella.
Cow mozzarella is cheaper but it has a springier texture, although it still retains a sweet, mild taste and it holds up better to cooking. Buffalo mozzarella is harder to find, pricier, and more succulent and lacy in texture.
If you’re cooking with it, get cow mozzarella, there’s no need to get something more expensive.
Mozzarella and paneer share this important fact in common: they can be made either from cow or buffalo milk.
If you’re living in Mexico or anywhere else where panela cheese is sold, then this can certainly be a delicious paneer substitute.
It is made from cow’s skim milk. Based on that, I guess it can also be included in the diet of those who are trying to lose weight. It’s just a guess but I wouldn’t know for sure since the only diet I put myself through is when I’m only in the mood for vegan foods. And even those vegan dishes can turn out to be rich and not at all slimming.
Panera is a semi-soft cheese that doesn’t melt when it’s cooked. That makes it perfect. That firm and flexible texture can be exactly what you need for your dish.
6. Queso blanco
Another cheese with its origins in Mexican cuisine is queso blanco, which simply translates to white cheese.
It is made from cow’s milk and it softens when it’s heated but it doesn’t melt.
Queso blanco has a milky, mild flavor so it will serve well as a paneer cheese substitute.
I don’t exactly consider ricotta to be one of the best substitutes for paneer.
The thing is the texture. Ricotta is a soft, moist, fragile whey cheese. The flavor can also be a bit too sweet for some.
I guess it depends on the dish you’re cooking. However, I’m willing to bet that not many of you are going to end up using ricotta as a replacement.
I do love ricotta desserts so you can consider it for sweet dishes rather than for savory dishes. After all, paneer is also used for desserts.
Another famous Italian cheese that is used for desserts is mascarpone. It’s more like a cream than a cheese. It’s actually a fresh cream cheese. Mascarpone is unlike any of the above best substitutes for paneer.
However, if you’re looking for a substitute for sweet dishes, mascarpone can be a pretty good option that’s more easily found in supermarkets around the globe.
Best Vegan Paneer Substitutes
When we’re talking about the best substitutes for paneer, we have two choices we can make: whether we’re looking for a vegan (non-dairy, plant-based sources) or a vegetarian substitute (made from animal milks).
We’ve covered all the substitutes made from animal milk. Now, let’s focus on the best vegan paneer substitutes.
Obviously, they’re going to be plant based. Plus, some vegan options are much easier to find than the actual paneer itself.
You could also try making your own vegan paneer at home. It will require almonds, raw cashews, nondairy yogurt or Rejuvelac, salt, yeast, lemon juice, oil, cornstarch or other starch, and water.
9. Firm tofu
This is one of the easiest to find best substitutes for paneer if you’re looking for something vegan.
It can absolutely be used in the same quantity as the recipe calls for.
The texture is firm so if you need to cut it into big cubes for your dish, the shape will hold up during cooking.
Firm tofu is great for Indian dishes and it’s not that pricey. This is my favorite choice if I want to cook entirely vegan.
10. Chickpea tofu
This is another option if you’re looking for vegan substitutes for cheeses made from animal milk. However, it might not be as easy to find as firm tofu.
Chickpea tofu has a rather neutral flavor, just like regular tofu. For some, it will taste a bit egg-like.
The texture is also wonderful, lusciously creamy and silky.
You can make this type of tofu at home from chickpea flour, salt, a bit of Garam Masala, garlic powder, turmeric (optional), and water.
What Is Paneer Cheese?
To give a small indication, paneer is also known as ponir or Indian cottage cheese. Just from this little information, you can already know which type of cheese would be a fantastic paneer substitute.
Paneer is an Indian cheese made from curdled milk and fruit or vegetable acid, like lemon juice, vinegar or citric acid.
Yogurt can also be used and it will help you make a soft yet firm paneer.
Vinegar is the acid that curdles milk faster than yogurt or lemon juice but make sure not to alter that flavor of the cheese by adding too much vinegar.
Cow or buffalo milk is used, which can remind us of cow or buffalo mozzarella.
Just like mozzarella or cottage cheese, paneer is also a non-aged cheese. They’re fresh cheeses and I love them.
When it comes to eating fresh cheese, I only need some olive oil and some ripe San Marzano tomatoes.
If you want a simple, fresh dish, I recommend making a paneer insalata caprese. Your taste buds will be delighted.
Paneer is also used in curries, rice dishes, snacks, appetizers, salads, grilled, pan-fried, barbecued, and in some desserts.
Paneer has a milky, fresh, and very mild taste.
That certainly reminds many of us of mozzarella or cottage cheese.
Once a cheese is aged, like parmesan or cheddar or even halloumi, the taste changes, it becomes more intense and it certainly cannot be characterized as being a milky, fresh, and very mild taste.
Thus, when you’re choosing your desired substitute to suit your tastes, keep in mind whether you prefer a more mild or a stronger, aged flavor.
Paneer is also marble white in appearance, with a firm, cohesive and spongy body.
Last but not least, before ending this article on the best substitutes for paneer, I also want to remind you that you can also make this Indian cheese at home.
I found a good recipe here and you should check it out if you want to read in detail about the whole process. I’ll just offer the abridged version.
- 6 cups full fat milk (1 ½ liters)
- 2-3 tablespoons vinegar or the same quantity of lemon juice or ¼ cup yogurt
In terms of equipment, you need a strainer/colander, a cheesecloth, a large bowl, and some weight to press down the cheese (a pan with 3-4 bags of rice/flour in it works).
Place the cheesecloth over the strainer and place the strainer over the bowl to collect the whey.
Use a heavy bottom pot to bring to a gentle boil on medium heat. Stir from time to time.
When the milk comes to a boil, turn the heat off and add the 2 tablespoons of vinegar/lemon juice. Or the ¼ cup yogurt.
Stir them together for 1-2 minutes until all the milk curdles. The whey should become completely clear, not milky. That’s how you know that it’s done correctly. If that doesn’t happen, add another 1 tablespoon of vinegar and turn on the stove. Boil it on medium heat until the entire milk curdles.
Pour the paneer with the whey in the strainer. Rinse the paneer cheese under cold water to remove the taste of vinegar.
Wring the cheesecloth and make a round shape. Squeeze until there’s no more excess liquid.
Place the paneer as it is in the cheesecloth on a wooden board, place the weight over it. After 3-4 hours, it should be done. You can remove the cloth.
Together with this recipe and my recommendations for the best substitutes for paneer, you are ready to make whatever dish you want, whether it’s vegetarian or vegan.
Popular Paneer Cheese Recipes
Let’s go over some of the most popular recipes with paneer cheese so that we understand for sure where we might expect to use those substitutes that we’ve talked about above.
Paneer Butter Masala
It’s a delicious vegetarian curry but it can also be made vegan by using firm tofu instead of paneer and you can also use vegan butter.
And you can use firm tofu even if you want to keep it vegetarian by making it with cream and butter because firm tofu is awesome in curries.
The best vegetarian substitutes for paneer that can be used to make Paneer Butter Masala are feta cheese and halloumi.
Just as with the recipe above, the best substitutes are firm tofu, feta and halloumi.
In general, if a recipe calls for large paneer cubes, your go-to substitutes should be either one of these three first.
Curries and biryani are two world-famous recipes where cubes of paneer are used.
I recommend using cottage cheese as a substitute for paneer, you won’t feel the difference because the koftas (balls) made made of potato and paneer are deep fried and served with a creamy and spiced tomato based curry.
Cottage cheese won’t make a difference.
Paneer cubes are fried in a sweet and spicy chili sauce. Once again, the best substitutes are firm tofu, feta and halloumi. Halloumi would be my favorite in this case.
Make it as spicy as you can and you won’t find a more wonderful appetizer.
Chunks of paneer marinated in spices and grilled in a tandoor or in the oven or on the grill.
Cut large chunks of tofu or halloumi and it will be perfect.
If you want to make Paneer 65 (deep fried cheese), tofu, feta or halloumi will work really well as substitutes.
You can use cottage cheese instead. Or grate tofu or any other cheese that you’d like to make this North Indian flatbread.
This is the perfect occasion to use mozzarella.
You can just stick to the classics as the best paneer substitutes for sandwiches: American cheese, cheddar, Brie.
A dessert where ricotta cheese works really well as a substitute.
I gave you this few examples of popular recipes with this Indian cheese because I wanted you to understand exactly how some of the best substitutes for paneer work.