Soft Cheese; Hard Wok: Experimenting with Fromage

I’ve made cheese here before. You may recall my happy forays into mascarpone and ricotta a few months back.  As well, over on my other blog, the non-foodie one, I delved briefly into goat milk paneer when I went home last summer.  It was creamy and gorgeous and fantastically goaty.

Alas, I have no access to goats here. Also, one of the key ingredients that I had been using for all my previous soft cheeses- lemon juice- seems to be out of season right now in Shanghai. There are a few over priced limes in a few shops but no lemons. I wanted to make paneer again, just to see if it could be done in a wok with irradiated, non-organic, non-goaty Chinese milk and rice wine vinegar.

It can.

I’m starting to wonder if there’s anything that can’t be done with a wok and rice wine vinegar. Seriously. I think I may need to include them in my Take Over The World tool kit. And maybe a goat, too. To make a nice wheel of herbed chèvre to spread on crackers when I’m taking a break from ruling said world.

Help! Help! I'm being kidnapped! Geddit? KID napped! I'm a goat! Hahaha!


I was on a bit of a culinary bender yesterday, from which I’m still recovering. One of the things that emerged from this frenzy is a great big slab of fresh, white cheese marbled with a chili-garlic paste, made from mashing up the solids in my  jar of roasted garlic oil.  I’m on my second jar, by the way. It’s useful in so many ways.

That slab of cheese, now somewhat diminished from being used in last night’s dinner, is now resting in the fridge in a brine made of kosher salt and potable water. I’m trying to pretend it’s a hunk of sharp Turkish Ezine beyaz peynir that I can crumble onto future salads. We shall see how that turns out.

Here is a very simple recipe for making a brick of fresh white cheese in China, with just a few boxes of nuclear milk, some rice wine vinegar, some porous clean cloth and extra flavourings of your choice.

Melamine milk, kosher salt, rice vinegar, roasted garlic in oil.

I used 2 liters of milk and 1/4 cup of vinegar. It really reduces in size when it drains, so to get a reasonably sized brick in the end, I’d recommend going with the 2 liters although it sounds like a lot.

Pour the 2 liters of milk into the wok, and heat it over a low flame. You don’t want the milk to curdle or boil. Slow and steady, stirring all the while. This will take a while. Be patient.

This takes a long time. I recommend an iPod and perhaps some isometric exercises to kill time.

After about 10 minutes, more or less, it will start to steam and you’ll sense some rumblings under the surface. If you poke a tentative finger under the surface it will be hot. Before the milk erupts into a full volcanic boil, turn off the heat and dump in the vinegar.

This is what it looks like when the vinegar is added to the nearly boiled milk

Let the milk and vinegar curdle together for about 10-15 minutes in the wok. Go off, read a book, drink some tea, call your mother.

Get a colander and line it with a clean, porous cloth. I have a length of cheese cloth that was purchased specifically for cheese making but I’ve been told that clean cloth grocery bags work well, as do thin-weave tea towels.

If you don't have cheese cloth, use a plain, clean tea towel or cloth grocery bag

If you want to add any special flavouring to the cheese (herbs, garlic, black pepper, mashed up tangy berries), now is the time to get that sorted out. I used the roasted garlic from my jar of roasted garlic oil, mashed up with a bullet chili and a teaspoon of kosher salt. To be honest, I could have easily doubled the amount. Fresh white cheese is pretty mild on its own and could use a little prodding.

Mashed up heaping spoonful of roasted garlic, salt and a bullet chili pepper
This is what it looks like when you drain the curds and gently stir in the garlic-salt-chili paste
This is the cheese after an hour of draining in the sink

If you just leave it to drain for about half an hour, you’ve got a fine ricotta that can be used in, say, lasagne or ravioli. If you leave it longer, it drains more and gets firmer. I let mine go an hour.

One thing that is useful when draining is to place the colander over a big soup pot to catch the whey. Two liters of milk makes a lot of whey and oh, whey is useful. It makes lovely, soft dough- all the protein in the whey does wonders to a chapati. It’s also good for making soup or dhal or stew. I saved my whey in little take-away containers stacked in the freezer.

After an hour or so of draining (you can let it go for two- it doesn’t really matter), take the cloth wrapped bundle of cheese and form it into a brick with your hands.

Bundle it up tight like a swaddled flat, rectangular baby. Sing "She's a Brick House" by the Commodores to yourself as you do it.

Once you have a brick of cheese formed, put something flat and heavy on top of the still-wrapped bundle. A cutting board will work, held down by, say, a bottle of water.

I used our sugar jar. I probably should have put a cutting board on top of the cheese to keep it flat, so there wouldn’t be a jar-shaped indentation on the cheese. It adds character, I suppose.

Add a weight to the top of the cheese to help squeeze out the extra liquid

After an hour or so of being pressed like a torture victim from the Spanish Inquisition, you’ll have cheese. It won’t be like cheddar or mozzarella or even parmesan- those cheeses need rennet to set and carefully controlled conditions in which to age and ripen. This is a soft, fresh cheese that is creamy, mild and has the same shelf life as the milk you used (unless you used that tetra-pak nuclear long-life milk, which never dies).

What can you do with it?

So many things!

I’ve used it in curries. It does well in place of meat in a vindaloo or jalfrezi. Get some spinach going and add it to make a nifty palak paneer. I’ve also spread it on crackers, with a few turns of freshly cracked black pepper on top.  It’s lovely crumbled up in mashed potatoes. It makes a nice substitute for Oaxacan farmer’s cheese on tacos.

This time, I used some of it for cheese sticks. I did these in the oven because the wok was being used for other things, but if you fancy a fine fried cheese, I recommend going whole-hog and pan frying them. They aren’t exactly mozzarella sticks but they’re gorgeous in their own right.

For the paneer sticks you need:

  1. 1/2 cup very fine bread crumbs
  2. salt and pepper to taste
  3. 1 beaten egg

Cut the cheese into short sticks (mine were about 4 cm by 1.5 cm) and dredge them one by one in the beaten egg then roll them around in the crumbs. Place them carefully in a lightly oiled baking pan. Preheat the toaster oven to about 160-170C while you’re doing this.

Cheese sticks!
Here are the adorable little cheese bricks before they go in the oven
And here they are 20 minutes later! Eat them while they're hot and melty. Dip them in something garlicky or spicy, if you have anything at hand.

I made the cheese sticks with just trimmings from the perimeter of the brick, trying to make it straighter and more even. The rest is currently in the fridge, bathing in brine, awaiting its next task.

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  1. Martin says:

    Hm… the networks usually hyperactive coments & sharing army seems to be pretty much off-duty this week!?

    Anyway: A nice wok cheese you’ve done there! Fresh Indian-style Pamir, homemade in China? I really like that, also because it’s rather fast to make compared (i.e.) with the Ricotta I’ve tried a few months ago from a few liters of pure whey. Actually, that one resulted in nothing too special, and since fresh cheese and similar dairy products are quite cheap here (subsidized like hell), the next time I’d rather go for something you can’t buy easily on the next corner. So, a selfmade mild paneer without sugar, gelatin or other additives might be a good thing to try 🙂

    And if it’s mild if you take neither goat nor sheep milk, I imagine it would i.e. a good base for a tasty Tzatziki derivate or so. For that, Paneer may be much better for than the rather fat curd cheese (and you should try it with fresh garlic but slightly braised cucumber plus a splash of syrup 🙂

    PS: Is there a huge difference in taste if you use vinegar instead of lemmon juice? And did you use extra fat milk?

    PPS: Do you have a new camera? It seems your recent blog pictures are somehow brighter, more vivid and sharper than those before. 🙂

    1. MaryAnne says:

      The comment-sharing army is usually pretty quiet for this blog, compared to my other one. I was hoping more China laowai would be craving cheese and thus visiting this post but no… Oh well.

      I used regular milk, neither extra fat nor reduced fat. I have no idea what the percentages are, as it’s not noted on the carton– or at least not in a way I can read. The vinegar didn’t make any difference to the flavour, which was surprising. I thought it would be more acidic but it wasn’t. I’ve made it before with fresh garlic, but never with cucumber. I may do it next time. We’ve been storing it in brine (well, kosher salt and water) in the fridge, which has had a nice feta-effect on the flavour. It’s still fairly mild and creamy (and slightly garlicky-spicy due to the paste I added) but not the outside is just a bit saltier, which is nice. It goes really well, spread on the wok chapatis.

      And yes, new camera. Actually, it’s Doug’s. Lovely, isn’t it? I’m trying to not get flour or oil all over it. My old Canon is about 5 years old and has been through all sorts of camera-destroying environments (deserts, humidity, dust, being dropped, being covered in dough…) and the quality has be getting increasingly worse. I don’t want to buy a camera here as they’re overpriced and you never know if they’re real, so I’m waiting til I go home in summer to replace it. I can’t wait. I’m so tired of my grainy pictures. I think the lens must be scratched or coated with invisible crud…

  2. mjskit says:

    Thanks for adding this link to your comment on my site! Pretty ingenious making cheese in a wok I’d say. You do make it look easy. While I was reading this I was kicking myself for not picking more of the discounted milk ($.99/half gallon) at the co-op yesterday! Might have to go back because I’ve always wanted to try making paneer and your method with discounted milk would be pretty darn cheap! All it would take is time. With so very many uses I’m sure we could eat this up in no time! Great post!!!
    mjskit recently posted..Spicy Bean SaladMy Profile

    1. MaryAnne says:

      Oh, you should definitely take advantage of large quantities of cheap milk to make this! So many uses! Today I made tacos, and spread some of the fresh cheese on the tortillas (like cream cheese, but not so thickly) before adding the chicken and salsas and it was lovely! We’ve nearly gone through the whole brick already…

  3. Jane says:

    Your cheese is gorgeous! I have gotten into cheese making the last few years, and it is so fun! I love your little cheese sticks! One of the reasons I wanted to start making my own cheese is because you can flavor it however you want, however, I have yet to step outside my comfort zone on that! I am definitely going to try this!
    Jane recently posted..Coconut Banana BreadMy Profile

    1. MaryAnne says:

      It is gorgeous, isn’t it, in its own special cheesy way, all lumpy and crumbling. I don’t know if you saw the follow-up post where I made focaccia, but I also used the cheese there, crumbled on top, and it was amazing. We’ve also used it smeared on the inside of a soft tortilla, as a creamy base when making tacos- it gives the creaminess of sour cream but with a very different depth of flavour.

      If I may ask, how do you flavour your cheeses?

      1. Jane says:

        I use a lot of herbs – especially dill – I love that in cheese! I also have used some culinary lavender and honey – so good! I love making cheese, it is so fun!
        Jane recently posted..Cheesemaking: Derby CheeseMy Profile

        1. MaryAnne says:

          We don’t have many options here for herbs, unless you grow them yourself, unfortunately. Honey would be lovely though. I’m thinking of trying mashed up yangmei (wax fruit/yum berry in English, I think) when its brief season rolls around in May/June. It’s like a raspberry/blackberry/strawberry/citrus fruit rolled up into a little juicy ball- I think it would be fabulous streaked in a block of fresh cheese!

  4. Steve says:

    Finally got around to copying your recipe today. It’s not solid enough to be used for my Butter Paneer craving, but the sourness will make it perfect for burritos or possibly enchiladas tomorrow.
    Steve recently posted..Black Dragon Pool, Lijiang, YunnanMy Profile

    1. MaryAnne says:

      Aye, it’s not as rubbery as the proper Indian ones. Not sure what they do differently, as I’ve sourced dozens of Indian cooking blogs for the recipes. Maybe it’s Chinese milk? Anyway, it makes a great substitute for a soft goat cheese, and goes fabulously on tortillas.

  5. Tracyann0312 says:

    Cheese is one of my favorite filling in bread because it is delicious and nutritious. There are a lot of nutrients you can get from cheese such as calcium ad zinc. Thanks for sharing the procedure in making soft cheese I think it is delicious.
    Tracyann0312 recently posted..נטורופתיהMy Profile

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