The Wide World of Yogurt
These days fermentation is all the rage—kombucha can be bought in corner stores, pickles are hipper than they have ever been, and yogurt has taken over the dairy case. We recently spoke with food writer Cheryl Sternman Rule, author of a new book, Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World’s Creamiest, Healthiest Food, about how the ancient dairy food of nomads is winning us over with new flavors, health benefits, and DIY allure.
You’ve just published a book devoted entirely to yogurt. Why yogurt and why now?
I’ve not only been a yogurt eater all my life, but I also got in the habit of making my own yogurt during the two years I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Eritrea (in East Africa). Plus, I had been seeing all these articles in the media on the “yogurt wars.” Yogurt really has taken over the diary case—you can hardly find the milk sometimes, there is so much yogurt. It’s a very healthful food, but it’s also portable and convenient. Yogurt meets the needs of so many people: children, athletes, office workers. It’s a quick nutrition source with so much to recommend it.
Your book looks at yogurt around the world. What did you discover about how other countries use and consume yogurt?
I interviewed home cooks and experts from 10 different world cultures to really educate myself about this food. In Persian cuisine, for example, yogurt is generally not sweet—it’s a souring agent. You would never combine yogurt with berries. In Lebanon it’s part of the mezze platter—you drizzle it with olive oil, you salt it, you eat it with savory spices. In India yogurt features daily, sometimes salty sometimes sweet (in sweet lassis, for example). But until very recently, America has really been stuck on sweet yogurt.
It’s changing in the U.S.—we’re finally learning to accept stronger flavors. I think we’re getting more adventurous. I go to events and meet people who have grown up elsewhere and they have this look on their face that says, ‘Finally, someone understands that yogurt can be used as an ingredient!’ It’s not just something to be bought in a singleserve cup, eaten, and thrown away.
Greek yogurt has become very popular, what exactly is it?
What we know as Greek yogurt in this country is simply yogurt that has been strained of its whey, resulting in a smoother, thicker consistency and higher proportion of protein (due to the greater concentration of milk solids that remain). By adding a bit of salt and straining it even longer, you can create what’s known as labneh in the Middle East and sometimes also referred to as “yogurt cheese.”
It seems like we may be coming back to an appreciation of full-fat dairy. Is this true of yogurt?
The industry is evolving at a very rapid pace—companies that have sold low-fat or non-fat yogurts almost exclusively are now coming out with full-fat yogurts as they respond to new dietary research and changes in public opinion. People are so grateful when you tell them they can eat full fat-dairy, they just want to hug you.
It seems like more people are interested in making their own yogurt these days. There’s a trend now in making your own everything, which is great for those who have the time and interest. Making yogurt is not at all difficult, and the volume you get and the ability to create a flavor profile you like are great. I make yogurt, and I also buy yogurt. (All recipes in the book work with homemade or commercial yogurts.)
I tend to make a gallon at a time—this makes 14 cups, which is a lot. Half of it I put in a jar to use as a loose-style yogurt. The other half I strain overnight into Greek yogurt, using a cheesecloth set over a big bowl. Then I whisk the yogurt for 20 seconds, which gives it a beautiful body, really creamy. I use the whey in cardamom pancakes (recipe is in the book), or in baking. I also use it in smoothies—it’s fermented, and it’s pretty much a free food. Some chefs use it to brine meat. It’s a tenderizer.
Many people are drawn to yogurt due to health properties such as probiotics. What are your thoughts about that?
There is a lot of exciting research now about gut health and the human biome and the connection between the gut and the brain, and yogurt features strongly in these conversations. There are studies connecting brain health and mood; research is ongoing.
Yogurt has many different health properties— probiotics is just one of them. Probiotics, by definition, confer health benefits. Some of them have been studied well, others have not. I always tell people to do some research about what they’re looking for; I don’t necessarily buy the yogurt with the longest list of probiotics. Yogurt is a healthful food overall, but folks should eat it because they love it and because it tastes great. That it’s so versatile and healthful are added bonuses.
Recipe adapted from Yogurt Culture by Cheryl Sternman Rule. Copyright 2015. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Reprinted with permission.