Palak Paneer (Easy, Authentic)
Palak Paneer, or Saag Paneer, is a restaurant-famous spinach and paneer curry. This recipe is crowd-pleasing with complex yet balanced, authentic flavor. It’s also easy-to-follow, requires one pan if you skip pan-searing the paneer, and takes 50 minutes from start to finish! Tested to perfection!
Palak Paneer is an obsession of mine.
First, there’s the paneer, which possesses a mild, pleasant flavor and soft yet sturdy texture so befitting in curries. Then there’s the spinach, which is spiced and creamed in such a way that makes me doubt there’s a better way to consume spinach. Even kids with an aversion to the mere idea of vegetables will happily devour the palak in Palak Paneer.
And the way both these elements – the creamy spinach and tender paneer – mingle to create a dish that’s so wholesome and layered and textured. It’s magical.
I love Palak Paneer in almost every iteration. One could even argue that I’m an unreliable recipe tester. But developing this recipe gave me the opportunity to create my ideal version – with traditional, nuanced flavor and a good amount of practicality and ease.
To develop and perfect this Palak Paneer recipe, I:
- Perused 10 different cookbooks to study the key elements of a classic recipe.
- Tried it at several restaurants (not an easy feat around my meat-loving Pakistani family).
- Tested it countless times with different forms of spinach, variations in method, spices, ratios of cream to spinach to paneer, etc.
- Consulted expert cooks & restaurant owners.
- Had it tested by 3 different recipe testers.
- How to get the Classic, Restaurant-style flavor of Palak Paneer
- How to Make Palak Paneer
- Serving and Modifications
How To Get the Classic, Restaurant-Style Flavor of Palak Paneer
I quickly discovered that much like home cooks, restaurants don’t always make their recipes in the same way. But most restaurants have a few commonalities:
- Cream: Always an essential for restaurant-style flavor and mouthfeel.
- Kasuri Methi (dried fenugreek leaves): You’ll often find this dried herb alongside spinach in curries (ex. Sarson Ka Saag or Aloo Palak). Many restaurants use it, especially those that are rooted in Punjabi cuisine. It’s also an essential in curries like Butter Chicken, Mixed Vegetables, or Daal Makhni.
- Ghee: Though not every restaurant uses it, butter or ghee elevates homemade Palak Paneer to restaurant-level.
Shortcuts – What I Skip
Here are a few steps I’ve seen in many recipes and why I choose to skip them:
- Blanching the spinach: Around half the cookbooks I studied suggested blanching the spinach, which softens the spinach and gives it that bright green color and puréed texture. I skip this step because as long as you cook the spinach well to get the rawness or kachapan out, I don’t find it essential to actually build flavor. Lastly, restaurants also usually skip this step, often indicated by their darker green color & textured spinach.
- Making paneer: I’ve used and recommend RecipeTin Eats Paneer recipe to make paneer. It does take Palak Paneer to a different, homemade satisfaction sphere. But it also turns this 50-minute (minus washing spinach) recipe into a 2-day project, and most restaurants and home cooks certainly don’t make their own. I also noticed that homemade paneer is softer, more delicate, which Nik Sharma says can be firmed up with food-grade calcium chloride.
Palak Paneer vs. Saag Paneer
Though this has been reiterated many times, I thought I’d share my perspective.
- Palak = Spinach
- Saag = Greens
Saag is used to describe any curry of stewed or puréed vegetable greens. Any type of greens can be used in Saag, but mustard greens (Sarson) are the most common in Pakistan and India. (See: Sarson Ka Saag)
Restaurant Saag Paneer usually does not include mustard greens, only spinach. So even though it may be labeled Saag Paneer on their menu, technically it may be Palak Paneer. In fact, around Houston, I’ve only found two restaurants with Saag Paneer that actually has mustard greens in it.
Here’s what you’ll need:
I’ve tried using all three of these forms of spinach in this recipe. Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Regular/Mature Spinach (best): Easily the best, taste-wise. Sometimes you’ll find it in bags, washed, but I usually find it in bunches. The pro is that it simply tastes the best in Palak Paneer, but it does take some patience to wash since it’s fresh from the earth.
- Frozen Spinach (2nd best): I don’t need to tell you the benefit of using frozen spinach – it’s much too convenient. But in terms of flavor, frozen spinach tends to diminish the good, earthy-sweet flavor of spinach while bringing out its drier, minerally elements. But there are 2 ways to combat this:
- Opt for whole-leaf or cut-leaf spinach instead of chopped spinach, which diminishes the integrity of the leaf.
- Use less (in weight) frozen spinach than fresh. So 10-12 oz frozen would replace 1 lb of regular spinach.
- Baby Spinach (3rd best): Baby spinach doesn’t add the robust, full-bodied flavor of fully grown spinach. I think more discerning palates may notice this, but most won’t. If that’s all you have, I wouldn’t let this deter you from making this.
Made from curdled and strained cow’s milk, paneer is categorically a cheese but not cheesy in taste. It’s now available at many supermarkets. I usually keep the blocks in the fridge if I’m using it that same week, otherwise I store in the freezer. Thaw the block in the fridge the night before you plan to use it.
- Substitutes: Though I haven’t tried any myself, I’ve seen options to replace the Paneer with everything from Tofu (made from soy) to Queso Fresco (similar to Paneer in preparation). Halloumi would also be an excellent, albeit saltier option.
Notes on other Key Ingredients:
- Onion: I’ve used yellow but red also works. Use the pulse function of a food processor to chop, but not too finely or it’ll release water and become harder to brown.
- Garlic and ginger: I use a food processor to chop these up as well. You’ll be needing it to process the spinach, so I suggest putting it to use. You can also use a mortar & pestle to crush the garlic & ginger.
- Green chili pepper: I use a Serrano or Thai Chili pepper. See FAQ for more info on green chili peppers.
- Vine or Roma tomato: Good tomatoes enhance the flavor. Whichever you use, try to ensure your tomato is ripe and tasty.
- Heavy whipping cream: Or double cream for those in the UK. May also use half and half and omit milk.
- Whole milk: I really love the lusciousness of cream, but I don’t want to add too much to make it heavy. Milk adds creaminess without heaviness. If you’d rather skip, you can just adjust the amount of cream and water to get your preferred consistency and creaminess.
- Dried fenugreek leaves (Kasuri Methi): Not as readily available as the other ingredients, but worth finding. If you cannot find it, feel free to omit.
How to make Palak Paneer
You’ll find the full recipe below on the recipe card, but here are some tips along the way:
- Washing spinach is oddly tricky if you’re trying not to waste too much water. I place the spinach leaves in an extra large bowl, then fill it with water. Swirl it around, using your hands to clear any dirt in the crevices, then drain the water and repeat. The bottom of the bowl will catch the remaining debris. I like to give it a final, quick rinse over a colander. Drain while you prepare the recipe. You can also do this in advance and keep it in the fridge.
- Sauté the chopped onions along with cumin seeds to form the base (or masala) of the curry. You want to sauté until golden, but not fully brown, because they’ll deepen even more in color once you add the garlic and ginger. If at any point the onions start to stick to the pan or brown unevenly, deglaze with 1-2 tablespoons water.
- Add garlic, ginger, and green chili pepper: Adding the garlic and ginger at this stage cooks out the raw flavor and allows them to become fragrant. The green chili infuses the curry with a subtle warmth. It would be more fiery if added later in cooking.
- Add the tomatoes, ground spices, and salt and continue to sauté until reduced and you can see the oil lining the masala.
- Wilt the spinach. When it comes to cooking spinach, you want to cook with minimal water, as it releases so much of its own moisture. If it starts to stick (likely if using frozen), add ¼ cup water.
- Cover to cook. This step is imperative to extract any raw elements out of the spinach while allowing it to absorb the flavors of the curry.
Pan-Fry Paneer (Optional)
- While your spinach is cooking, pan-fry the paneer. This step is optional and I would go as far as to say I don’t fry it most of the time. That said, it does give it a luxurious finish.
- Tips for pan-frying paneer:
- Use a non-stick pan, which prevents paneer from sticking.
- To prevent paneer from popping during pan-frying, reduce the heat and keep turning. It may also help to pat with a paper towel to dry excess water before using.
- To keep pan-fried paneer soft, don’t let it sit too long after pan-frying, as it gets tougher as it cools down. If frying earlier than called for in the recipe, I’ve found that placing it in a bowl of water keeps it soft. Squeeze gently between paper towels before adding to the recipe.
- Transfer your cooked spinach to a food processor (a blender works too).
- Blend: Ultimately, it’s up to you how silky smooth or chunky you prefer it. I like some texture – no leaves, but not a soup either.
- Transfer back: Once you add it back to the pan, fry it in butter or ghee to give that extra, restaurant oomph. Here you’ll thin it out with water and let it meld into the curry.
- Simmer paneer: A lot of recipes simply fold in fresh paneer in before serving, but I love to give it some time to soften and take on the flavors of the curry. The key is to allow it to gently simmer on medium heat until the initially tough and chewy paneer softens and eases into the curry. Cooking it for too long will lead to its surface disintegrating.
- Add milk and cream: Remember that you can adjust these quantities depending on how rich you’d like it to be.
- Cover and cook again to meld all the flavors together.
- Garnish: Dried Methi, lemon, and garam masala give it a nice finish.
Serving and Modifications
How to Serve & What to Serve it With
- How to serve: For presentation purposes, save a few pieces of pan-fried golden paneer for topping. You can also drizzle with more cream.
- What to serve it with: Palak Paneer goes with everything: Roti, rice, naan, paratha. For a spread, in my home it was served alongside Butter Chicken and Seekh Kebab.
How to Store and Reheat
- Store: Palak Paneer keeps in the fridge for 2-3 days, before the paneer starts turning to mush. You can also freeze it, then thaw overnight in the fridge before reheating.
- Reheat: I just microwave it, but you can also reheat over the stovetop with water to thin it out.
This recipe has a solid base which makes it easy to experiment with.
- Several recipes use yogurt in place of the cream to offer creaminess and tang.
- I’ve also seen restaurants and home cooks use sour cream, which seems to do the the job of tomatoes/yogurt and cream.
- Dairy-free: As suggested by Anupy Singla in her cookbook, Indian for Everyone, replace the ghee/butter with oil, the cream and milk with cashew cream, and paneer with tofu. If you try it dairy-free, I’d love for you to share so others can benefit!
Tried this recipe? If you have a minute, please consider leaving a comment telling me how it was! If you’re on Instagram, please tag me so I can see your creations. I truly love hearing from you. Thank you!
Palak Paneer (Easy, Authentic)
- 1/4 cup neutral oil, such as grapeseed or avocado oil
- 1 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 (~230 g) medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 5 (~22 g peeled) garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1- inch (~19 g peeled) ginger, finely chopped
- 1-2 small (~7 g) Serrano or Thai green chili peppers, finely chopped
- 2 ripe (~250 g) Vine or Roma tomatoes, puréed in food processor
- 1 1/2 tsp coriander powder
- 1 tsp cumin powder
- 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
- 1/2-3/4 tsp red chili powder or cayenne
- 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 lb (3 bunches ~500 g after stems removed) fresh spinach, thoroughly washed & stems removed (thin stems are fine) – See Note 1 for substitutions
- 2 tbsp ghee or butter (salted/unsalted both fine)
- 1/3-1/2 cup water
- 8 oz (226 g) store-bought paneer, I use Gopi brand, cut into ~1/2 inch cubes – see Note 2 on how to cut paneer cubes
- 1/4 cup + 2 tbsp heavy whipping cream (double cream), See Note 3 for using half & half
- 1/4 cup + 2 tbsp whole milk
- 1/2 tbsp dried fenugreek leaves, methi
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- 1/4 tsp garam masala, optional
- Food Processor
- Large pan with lid
- Heat oil in a large, wide-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Add the cumin seeds (they’ll immediately sizzle) and the chopped onion and sauté for about 10 minutes, until golden brown. Deglaze with 2 tbsp of water to encourage the onions to brown evenly.
- Add garlic, ginger, and green chili and cook for 2 minutes, until aromatic. The onions will have deepened even more in color. If the mixture starts to stick, deglaze with another 2 tbsp water.
- Add the tomatoes, ground spices, and salt and continue to sauté for 3-4 minutes, until the oil starts to separate. If needed, deglaze again with 2 tbsp water.
- Increase the heat to high and add the spinach, a handful at a time, and cook until wilted, about 5 minutes.
- Reduce the heat to medium, cover, and cook for another 10 minutes (~15 minutes if using frozen spinach), stirring once in between. The spinach will release its own moisture, but if it starts to stick (likely if using frozen), add ¼ cup water. If your fresh spinach is still moist from washing, you may not need any water. The spinach will turn darker and start sticking to the pan.
- Optional – Meanwhile, if you’re pan-searing the paneer, do so now. Heat 1 1/2 tbsp neutral oil in a large nonstick pan over medium heat. Place the paneer cubes in a single layer and cook, turning constantly, until lightly golden on all sides, ~6-8 min in total. If it starts to pop, reduce the heat and keep turning. Transfer the paneer from the pan to a paper towel-lined plate. Set aside.
- Uncover the spinach and stir to mix. Turn off the heat and allow the mixture to cool for a few minutes before transferring it to a food processor. Pulse to chop (~20 times) or blend on low into a rough texture. You don’t want a completely smooth paste.
- Place the pan back over medium-high heat and add the ghee or butter. Once it melts, pour in the roughly puréed spinach. Sauté for a minute to fry the mixture. Then add 1/3-1/2 cup water and stir to mix, letting it meld into the curry.
- Stir in the paneer and then the heavy whipping cream and milk. Reduce the heat to low-medium, cover, and cook for 7-10 minutes, until the paneer has softened and soaked up the masala. All excess water will have evaporated by now and the oil will start to separate and on the sides.
- Crush the dried fenugreek leaves between the palms of your hands and sprinkle it in. Taste and adjust salt, if needed. Squeeze in the lemon juice and give it a stir. Sprinkle with garam masala, if using. Serve with roti, naan, paratha, or basmati rice.
- Frozen Spinach (2nd best): Use 10-12 oz in place of 1 lb of fresh. If you can, opt for whole leaf or cut leaf frozen spinach instead of pre-chopped. Once you add the frozen spinach, sauté for 5 minutes as indicated in the recipe. You’ll also need the 1/4-1/2 cup water before covering to cook.
- Baby Spinach (3rd best): Use the amount indicated in the recipe (16 oz).