It’s a new year, and after all that celebratory feasting and imbibing, it’s time to explore the health merits of one of the oldest food traditions in human history: yogurt.
Unlike in the United States, where yogurt is mostly eaten as a sweet breakfast or midafternoon snack, the fermented milk product is a staple part of people’s diets in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and more countries—as a savory food.
Yogurt is rich in nutrients like protein and calcium and probiotics that keep the digestive system healthy. But large manufacturers tend to smother their yogurts in sugary jams, cream, and preservatives, offsetting those health benefits.
Luckily for us in New York state, there is a growing number of local small-batch companies that are making fresh yogurt without those additives.
The yogurt company Sohha, for example, makes only plain yogurts flavored with sea salt. Co-founder John Fout said the recipe came from his wife’s family, who are Lebanese. It’s a family tradition to make labneh, a Middle Eastern thick strained yogurt, typically eaten with pita bread and olive oil. “It would never occur to them to put fruit on their yogurt,” Fout said.
In keeping with the savory approach, Fout and his wife created topping mixes to go with their yogurts, which they bottle and sell by the jar. One topping is za’atar, a classic Middle Eastern spice blend of wild thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac, a berry with a citrusy taste.
“Sumac has a nice brightness that matches well with a slightly sour yogurt,” Fout said.
He says yogurt also makes a great marinade for meats. “It breaks down the protein, because it’s acidic, but it doesn’t cook the meat the way citrus does,” he said.
Yogurt on Every Table
In Iran, where Homa Dashtaki, was born, yogurt is a condiment on every kitchen table, to be added to the meal. “You’ll add salt to it, and it has a nice, lemony tang. You have it with rice, bread, as a midnight snack before you go to bed. It’s also a drink, what we call doogh [typically flavored with mint], which helps you digest food,” Dashtaki said.
As co-owner of White Moustache, a small batch yogurt company, Dashtaki makes strained yogurts according to her family recipe, passed down from her grandmother. Their fruit topped yogurts are still their best-selling products, but Dashtaki hopes more people can embrace savory yogurts, in the same way she associates that tangy kick with delicious comfort.
“[Growing up,] every time you had a tummy ache, you would have plain rice and yogurt. I’ve had that so many times. Even now, when I have it, I feel like everything’s going to be okay. It’s like the way people think of chicken soup,” she said.
Yogurt, it is said, goes back to the ancient Greeks, who first discovered the straining method when they let yogurt sit in unglazed clay pots and saw how the liquid whey seeped out naturally, said Aki Suzuki, the manager of Greecologies, a Greek yogurt shop in SoHo.
Greecologies makes two types of yogurt, strained and unstrained, using milk from grass-fed cows at a small farm in Middletown, N.Y.
“The strained yogurt is more robust and compatible with different toppings. It’s like when you choose a hearty bread to make a sandwich. From a nutritional standpoint, the strained yogurt has more protein as well,” Suzuki said, because the straining process concentrates the nutrients.
The strained yogurt is served with either a mix of olives, cucumbers, and tomatoes, or sun-dried tomatoes, strained tomatoes, and mint leaves.
Gino Ammirati, owner of Culture: An American Yogurt Company, has lots of ideas for how to incorporate yogurt into everyday foods.
During the winter, Culture sells soups at its retail stores with a dollop of yogurt, to add more tang and substance. At home, Ammirati adds yogurt to chili, spreads it over bagels, and generally substitutes it for any dish that uses sour cream, milk, or mayonnaise.
Yogurt not only contains more protein per ounce than milk and lots of probiotics, it’s also substantial enough to make you feel full.
Now that I’ve extolled the virtues of eating yogurt as a savory food, try making your own yogurt at home, with a recipe from chef Maria Loi.
Once you’ve made your batch of yogurt, add some South Indian pizzazz to it with chef Madhur Jaffrey’s super-easy recipe.
And click here for our selection of the best small-batch, made-in-New-York yogurts.