I’ve personally taste-tested a variety of paneer substitutes to find the best one for every cooking occasion. Whether you’re on the hunt for the closest flavor match, in need of a last-minute pantry swap, or want a substitute that fits your diet, I’ve got the answers.
Queso fresco and halloumi are the best ready-made substitutes for paneer. But if you have the time to spare, nothing beats making paneer from scratch. You only need four ingredients! Tofu is a good vegan substitute, or you can make homemade paneer with cashews.
I made a big batch of spinach curry sauce to test different paneer substitutes.
Paneer is a fresh cheese made by curdling buffalo’s or cow’s milk with lemon juice. It has a creamy but (very) mild flavor and has a firm, dense texture. And unlike other kinds of cheese, paneer doesn’t melt.
You can easily slice, dice, grill, fry, or simmer the paneer without it breaking down or losing its shape. It’s a staple ingredient in Indian cuisine, and commonly used for vegetarian curries, stews, kebabs, and side dishes.
I was looking for substitutes that could withstand cooking as well as paneer. Here are the substitutes I tested and my verdicts:
|Made with cashews
|Or baked ricotta
When in doubt, why not make it yourself? Believe it or not, making paneer at home is easier than you might think. As previously mentioned, you only need four ingredients to make paneer: full-fat milk, salt, water, and lemon – all staples in most kitchen pantries.
The only additional item you’ll need is a muslin or cheesecloth, which is essential for straining the cheese curds. Chef Kunal Kapur explains the process in the video above, but here’s a quick breakdown.
- Combine all the ingredients and heat them until the milk curdles.
- Once curdled, strain, rinse, and shape the cheese with the help of your cheesecloth.
- Apply weight to help solidify its shape.
- Chill the homemade paneer in the fridge for about 1-2 hours. Don’t skip this – it further firms up the cheese to make slicing easier.
This isn’t an instant solution, but once you know how to make your own paneer, you’ll never be caught short again.
My tip: make more paneer than you’ll think you need because you get a surprisingly small yield.
How to substitute: Replace store-bought paneer with an equal volume of the homemade version.
Originating from Cyprus, halloumi is a cheese made from a blend of goat’s and sheep’s milk. It has the same firm, squeaky texture as paneer, but the biggest difference is that it’s curdled with rennet instead of lemon juice.
This usually means halloumi should melt, but there’s an extra step of poaching the cheese in whey or water that gives it the same non-melting property as paneer.
When it comes to flavor, my halloumi was a lot saltier than paneer. I made sure not to add any extra salt to my spinach curry, but the end result was still saltier than I would have liked. Another downside to halloumi is the price point… it can get expensive.
How to substitute: Replace paneer with an equal volume of halloumi.
Queso fresco could also be called Mexican paneer. It’s made from the same core ingredients – milk, salt, water, and lemon, giving it the same mild, creamy flavor as paneer along with a slight tanginess.
It has a firm texture like paneer but tends to be more crumbly because it isn’t as dense. I learned this the hard way when I accidentally pressed down on my block of queso fresco with too much force. My advice is to handle the cheese with care and don’t stir too vigorously!
You can get salty and non-salty versions of queso fresco. In this case, you want the non-salty option. And don’t add it too early on in the cooking process because it can release quite a bit of liquid if it’s heated for too long (although it won’t melt).
How to substitute: Replace paneer with an equal volume of queso fresco.
Queso panela is another Mexican cheese you can use in place of paneer. It’s very similar to queso fresco but it’s made with skimmed milk instead of whole milk. This gives it a softer, sliceable texture and it can hold its shape better (i.e it’s not as crumbly).
The commercially produced stuff will ‘squeak’ when you bite into it, similar to halloumi. In terms of flavor, it’s mild and slightly salty – not much different from paneer.
Psst… panela cheese browns beautifully, so is great for frying or grilling.
How to substitute: Replace paneer with an equal volume of queso panela.
Dairy-free, paleo paneer
For those avoiding dairy, you’re not left without options. You can make your own version of paneer using raw cashews, water, lemon, cream of tartar, and gelatin (note the gelatin means this isn’t vegetarian).
I was pleasantly surprised by how well this recipe captured paneer’s milky flavor. But heads up! Gelatin melts at high heat, so you’ll need to add this paneer to whatever dish you’re cooking near the end. This was fine for my spinach curry.
Agar agar is often used as a vegetarian substitute for gelatin, and doesn’t melt at high heat so could work well. But neither I nor the recipe creator have tried it – let me know how it goes if you decide to try it!
How to substitute: Replace paneer with an equal volume of your homemade dairy-free paneer.
No time to whip up dairy-free paneer? Use tofu. Tofu is made from soybeans, making it a great vegan and dairy-free substitute for paneer, especially in curries and stews.
Not all kinds of tofu will work though. I highly recommend sticking with firm or extra-firm tofu. It has the same soft, springy texture as paneer, making it an ideal swap. And make sure you press the tofu before using it, otherwise, it can make your dish watery.
In terms of flavor, tofu is very neutral so will take on the flavor of whatever you cook it in. It soaked up the flavors of my curry wonderfully! And you can make the tofu even tastier by blanching it in salt water or browning it in butter before cooking with it.
How to substitute: Replace paneer with an equal volume of firm or extra firm tofu.
Ricotta cheese, in its standard form, is too wet to be a paneer substitute. But its relative, ricotta salata, can step up to the plate. This ricotta variant undergoes some additional processing steps including pressing, salting, and aging, which gives it a firm texture similar to paneer.
This process also gives the ricotta a lightly salted flavor, so hold off adding any extra salt until you’ve tasted the dish. (although it’s not as salty as halloumi).
I found this in my neighborhood Walmart, but the only downside? It’s pricier than paneer and most of the other substitutes on the list.
Psst… If you can only get regular ricotta, then bake the block at a low temperature (300ºF/150ºC) for around an hour to firm it up. Let it cool and then you’ll be able to slice it up and cook with it. Alternatively, you can drain the ricotta overnight to get rid of the excess moisture.
How to substitute: Replace paneer with an equal volume of ricotta salata.
This is a staple cheese in Mediterranean cuisine that can work as a paneer substitute in certain situations. The first thing to note is that feta has a much bolder flavor than paneer, it’s tangy, rich, and salty.
But if you don’t mind the change in flavor, it has a firm texture you can cube and it won’t melt (although it will crumble).
Psst… I’ve made a great recipe for saag feta from Bon Appetit before. It’s DELICIOUS… just make sure you use Greek feta and not another variety
How to substitute: Replace paneer with an equal volume of feta.
Other substitutes to consider
The list above features my top paneer substitutes, but here are more options that are worth a shot for specific dishes.
- Fresh mozzarella: This isn’t my favorite substitute because it’s a fair bit softer and creamier than paneer. But it will work in a pinch.
- Farmer’s cheese: You might also see this called twarog. It’s a form of cottage cheese that’s drained and pressed, just like paneer. But it’s not shaped into a block like paneer, so the curds are crumbled. This substitute only works for dishes that call for paneer to be grated or crumbled, like paneer paratha.
- Chenna: This is an Indian cheese with a similar base to paneer but with more moisture. Like farmer’s cheese, this substitute only works for dishes where you need grated or crumbled paneer.
Substitutes to avoid
There were loads of suggestions for paneer cheese substitutes, but not all of them proved to be good options.
In general, it’s best to avoid well-melting or soft cheese varieties like:
- Low-moisture mozzarella
- And so on!
Most of these cheeses also have different prominent flavor profiles that are a far cry from the mild, almost bland taste of paneer.
Best Paneer Substitutes + 1 To Avoid
- 1 liter full fat milk
- generous pinch of salt
- 1 big lemon, juiced
- Bring the milk to a boil. While waiting, squeeze the lemon in a bowl and mix it with a splash of water. Then, slowly add the lemon to your boiling milk. The milk should begin to split and curdle.
- Strain the milk curds with a muslin cloth. Dip the cheese curds encased in muslin cloth in cold water to remove the lemon flavor. Place cheese curds under something heavy for 10 minutes.
- Remove the paneer from the cloth and transfer to a covered container. Refrigerate for about 1-2 hours before cutting and using.