Paneer masala is a popular vegetarian dish in Indian cuisine. It is prepared with paneer, a kind of cheese made from strained milk curdled in vinegar or lemon juice, originating in India and Bangladesh and most common in South Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine. Also called chhana or chhena, this non-aged, non-melting cheese is a protein-rich alternative to meat in masala dishes, like in the (arguably Westernized, but highly popular) Indian dish, chicken tikka masala.
In this guide, we’ll teach you how to make paneer masala yourself, including which ingredients you need (and handy alternatives) and how to start cooking. For some general pointers, check out this course on easy Indian food cooking. You can also consult this guide for more vegetarian Indian dishes.
Paneer Masala Ingredients
For this recipe, you’ll need a large skillet or non-stick frying pan. You will also need a large pot for boiling water, blanching the tomatoes, and a colander for draining them. Finally, you’ll need a food processor or a strong blender. If you don’t have these appliances, you can replace the fresh onions, ginger, garlic, and cashews with onion paste, ginger paste, garlic paste, and pre-ground cashews, and use an 8 ounce can of tomato sauce instead of the fresh tomatoes.
Even though the recipe calls for paneer (obviously, you’re trying to make paneer masala!) you can use tofu instead, if for some reason you can’t find paneer. The cream is also optional. If you want to make this dish vegan, you can use tofu instead of paneer and omit the cream and butter. For the milk, you can use coconut milk instead. Learn more vegan and vegetarian cooking tips and recipes with this course. Finally, if you don’t like a spicy dish, you can alter the ingredients such as the green chili and chili powder to keep it mild.
- 230 to 250 grams of paneer (about half a pound)
- 7 or 8 cashew nuts
- 3 to 5 cloves of garlic (according to preference)
- 3 medium tomatoes
- 2 medium sized yellow onions
- 1 green chili (optional)
Herbs and Spices
- 2 teaspoons dried fenugreek leaves (kasuri methi)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tablespoon dried coriander (or coriander powder)
- 1 teaspoon red chili powder (according to preference)
- 1 and 1/2 teaspoons ginger paste, or fresh chopped ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon garam masala mix
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
- pinch of salt
Want to know more about spices, and how to use them? Check out this introductory cooking course on healing foods, with a section specifically on herbs and spices, or this handy guide to Middle Eastern spices.
Oil and Dairy
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons milk cream (optional)
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup milk (substitute with coconut milk if preferred)
Finally, you can choose to serve the paneer masala with naan or rice. Learn how to make naan with this vegetarian Indian cooking course, or learn some nutrition and preparation tips for basmati rice with this guide.
Before you begin, there are a few things you need to do to prepare. Start by setting a pot of water on the stove to boil, then put the cashews in a bowl of water, and let them soak for about fifteen minutes. While they’re soaking, finely chop up the onions, then put them in a food processor along with the fresh ginger and garlic. Set the onion paste aside.
Next, drop the tomatoes in the boiling water and cover, letting them boil for about 10 minutes. In the meantime, clean out the processor and grind the cashew nuts along with 2 tablespoons of water until it turns into a paste. Set the cashew paste aside and clean the processor out. Then, chop the paneer into 1/2 or 1 inch cubes and set aside.
Once the tomatoes have boiled for 10 minutes, drain them and quickly rinse cold water over them. Carefully peel the skin off and blend the tomatoes in the processor into a puree.
This can all be avoided if you use garlic paste, onion paste, ginger paste, ground cashews, and tomato sauce instead, but making it all by hand tastes a lot fresher. Stuck on where to find the best ingredients, and how to prepare them without too much hassle? Take a look at this cooking guide for beginners for some pointers. After everything is prepared, it’s time to start cooking. This should take about 30 minutes total.
Step by Step Cooking Guide
1. Over a medium flame, heat up the oil and butter in the pan or skillet. Dump in the paneer cubes, and fry them (stirring frequently) for about 5 minutes. You can skip this step if you don’t want to fry the paneer, but if you add it in to the dish raw it may come out mushy. Once the paneer is fried, set aside on a plate lined with paper towels, to absorb the extra oil.
2. In the same pan, stir in the onion, garlic, and ginger paste with a bay leaf and let the mixture saute for five minutes, until it begins to brown. Once this happens, stir in the chili (whole and powder) with the cashew paste, and continue stirring for about 1-2 minutes.
3. Stir in the tomato sauce or the tomato puree, depending on which one you went with, and combine evenly for about 3-5 minutes.
4. Mix in the garam masala, coriander, and fried fenugreek.
5. Add the milk and salt and continue stirring for 5 minutes. Add no more than 1/2 cup of water if the mixture is too thick for your preferences.
6. Drop in the fried (or raw) paneer cubes and continue cooking for about 1 to 3 minutes until the paneer is heated up. Once you’ve cooked to the right consistency, remove from heat.
Pour the cream over the top of the mixture and mix thoroughly. Serve with naan or rice.
Interested in Indian culture as well as its cuisine? Here’s a course on the history of India that you might find interesting. If you want to stick with cooking, try these four North Indiana vegetarian recipes, or learn how to make lamb saag with this guide.