Indian cooking is one of my favorite cuisines when I want to impress dinner guests. The combination of spices, vegetables, meat, and sauce create a symphony of flavors that dance on your palate. Often, we associate Indian food with super-hot spices that leave us gasping for water. But that’s not always the case. Indian cooking is wide-ranging, and I’m sure there’s a dish to please anyone.
Two Indian meals that cause some confusion are saag paneer and palak paneer. Many chefs will use the terms interchangeably, but there is a difference. We’ll look at the differences between saag and palak in this article as well as provide some recipes that’ll get you whipping up delicious Indian curry in no time.
What’s the difference between saag paneer and palak paneer?
Although both refer to green curries, saag is a broad term for green leafy vegetable curries; palak is a specific type of saag which uses spinach leaves.
Comparison of palak and saag
|Saag Paneer||Palak Paneer|
|Translated||Curry made from green leafy vegetables and Indian fresh cheese.||Curry made from spinach and Indian fresh cheese.|
|Color||Intense green||Intense green|
|Flavors||Although there are variations, saag will generally contain a mix of spices known as garam masala and garlic.||Palak curry often is made using chili, cumin, cilantro and fennel. Garlic is less commonly used.|
|Creaminess||Saag often incorporates heavy cream resulting in a creamy, rich profile.||More tang thanks to the addition of yogurt rather than cream.|
What is paneer and how do I make it?
The next question that you’re probably wondering is what is paneer? It’s a popular ingredient used in Indian cooking thanks to its unassuming, almost bland flavor. Usually, this may not sound appealing, but it’s brilliant at balancing out the flavor profile in many Indian curries. The creamy cheese provides relief from the flavor-packed, often spicy curry.
Paneer is a fresh (un-aged) cheese made by curdling milk with a vegetable acid such as lemon juice. It is a fundamental ingredient in numerous Indian dishes, especially curries.
Paneer making instructions
What you’ll need
- 4 cups full fat milk
- 2 Tbsp white vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 1 Tbsp cornflour
- Bring milk to boil then remove from the heat and let it cool for 5 minutes.
- Mix white vinegar with water together then slowly stir into milk.
- The milk will curdle – the bigger the lumps, the smoother the paneer.
- Once the milk is completely cooled, strain through a muslin cloth. Don’t squeeze the mix tightly; just let it drain on its own. It’s best to tie up the cloth and hang it over the bowl for an hour so that the liquid completely drips out.
- Once drained, add the paneer ball to a cloth and massage it lightly so that the remaining liquid absorbs into it.
- Sprinkle cornflour over the paneer and massage it until combined. This cornflour will help the paneer stick together rather than falling apart.
- Place the paneer in the center of a cloth and fold the cloth over it so that it is the size that you require the paneer slab to be. Then place a weight such as a heavy platter over the cloth and push down so that the paneer is a nice flat, even shape. Leave the weight on the paneer for five minutes then remove the cloth, place on a plate, and pop it in the fridge for 30 minutes to set.
- Remove from the fridge and cut into cubes.
How to make saag paneer
- 2 Tbsp vegetable oil + 1 Tbsp
- 1 ½ cups paneer, cubed
- 1 small onion, diced finely
- 2″ ginger, sliced finely
- 2 ½ cloves garlic
- 2 chili peppers, sliced
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp cumin powder
- 1 handful of chopped fresh spinach
- Kosher salt to taste
- 3 Tbsp water
- Heat oil in a skillet then add paneer and sear each side, then set aside.
- Add extra oil to the pan and saute onion, ginger, garlic, and chili until browned (about 5 minutes).
- Reduce heat to low and add garam masala and cumin. Briefly stir (about a ½ minute) then toss in spinach leaves.
- Sprinkle with salt then cool for 10 minutes.
- Add the cooked mixture to a blender and process with water until a sauce forms. If necessary, add more water. You can keep blending to make a smooth curry sauce or stop after a few seconds to leave in some chunks for texture.
- Add the sauce back to the pan and mix in the paneer. Serve hot.
9 tips to improve homemade curries
1. Don’t rush the cooking time
If you’re in a rush to prepare dinner after a long day, then curry may not be the best option. Give your ingredients time to cook thoroughly so that you maximize the flavor.
2. Use ghee instead of butter or oil
Ghee is a type of clarified butter which is a better option when cooking curries. It adds an element of richness that other fats don’t provide. You can also use lard as a backup.
3. Add freshness
A few sprigs of cilantro or parsley used as a garnish will add color and vibrancy to the dish. Home cooks often overlook this step, but it’s simple and well worth the effort.
4. Add dried spices at the end
Dried spices lose their flavor intensity when cooked for too long. Your best option is to add them towards the end of the cook.
5. Taste test frequently
Professional chefs add seasoning at every stage of the cooking process rather than at the end. Regularly season and check how the flavors develop to ensure a balance of flavor. Too salty? Adding a hint of sugar, and the acidity of lemon juice will help. Add them in minute quantities and re-test before adding more.
6. Add some crunch
Curries are notoriously soft, mushy, and delicious. However, including a crunchy element such as some toasted sesame seeds or a scattering of pomegranates will help lift the dish.
7. Use fresh seasonings
Although a curry made from dried spice is perfectly acceptable, using fresh spices is a better choice if you have the time. Heat cloves, cardamom, and any other spices of your choice in a shallow pan to release their flavors.
8. Choose the right rice
There are many varieties of rice on the supermarket shelf that you can use for that next spinach paneer. Some are more suitable than others. Light, fluffy basmati rice is a good option for eating with curries. Want to learn more about rice? We’ve created an article on the differences between basmati and jasmine rice, which you really should check out.
9. Invest in a grinder
For a fresher, punchier flavor buy whole spices and grind them in a spice grinder or use a mortar and pestle. If you have time, make a large batch and freeze the leftovers for next time.
The difference between saag paneer and palak paneer is minimal. Palak paneer is a pureed spinach curry with cubes of paneer (fresh cheese). Saag paneer is a curry that incorporates any leafy green: fenugreek, spinach, mustard or any other green.
If you’re new to cooking Indian food then keep cooking times in mind. Most curries require time to develop their flavor so don’t leave dinner until the last minute if you have guests.
You’ll take your food to another level by grinding your own spices. Use a special grinder or a mortar and pestle to break up seasoning like cloves and cardamom. The aromas in the kitchen will have your neighbors tapping on the door (in a good way).
After you’ve cooked a paneer, why not try cooking butter chicken or chicken tikka masala? Both lovely mild curries that even the fussiest eater won’t be able to resist.
What’s your favorite Indian dish? Leave a comment below!