Friday, July 25, 2008

Don't anger the food gods!!!

So, some of you may be aware that, in addition to being both a food and computer geek, I am also a dancer. At my last class, our teacher gave us her Lebanese husband's recipe for a cucumber and yogurt salad, and mentioned that it can be made with fat-free yogurt. As I did in class, I would like to set the record straight:

Fat-free yogurt is a sin in the eyes of the food gods.

Seriously. I'm very much against one-size-fits-all dietary advice; if a low-fat diet is a good choice for you, then go for it. However, most reduced-fat foods (not to be confused with foods that are naturally low in fat) make the food gods cry, and fat-free yogurt is possibly the worst offender.

Full-fat yogurt, especially the yummy strained kind ("greek style", "labneh", etc.), is a beautiful thing. It's thick, rich, creamy, and twice as tasty as sour cream. Low-fat yogurt is to full fat as wonder bread is to a fresh, crusty, home-made loaf. Fat-free is the equivalent of taking a big bite of flour and yeast.

If you're watching your fat intake, you'd do much better to buy full-fat yogurt, and eat a smaller portion, savoring it slowly. The better the yogurt, the less it'll take to satisfy you.

That said, getting good yogurt isn't always easy. Fage Total is becoming more widely available (it recently moved from the "specialty" section to the regular yogurt case at my Star Market), but it is expensive.

So what do you dowhen you're faced with the choice between sublime yogurt at five dollars per pint and nasty fake yogurt full of corn syrup and fillers? Make your own!

Now, I know that is going to scare a lot of you off, but stay with me, you can do this...

(it's not that hard, really!)

Tip: quality ingredients make a big difference here, so be sure to read the notes below each ingredient!


- 1 quart whole milk

Choose the most flavorful, full-fat milk you can get your hands on. I usually use Jersey cow milk from a local dairy (Shaw Farm, which is available in several shops around the Boston area, including The Dairy Bar, an offshoot of Kickass Cupcakes in Somerville). When that's not available/convenient, I'll buy whatever organic brand the supermarket carries.

- 1/4 cup of plain yogurt

This is your starter culture that "innoculates" the milk with the bacteria that will turn the milk into yogurt for you. (Don't let the thought of bacteria gross you out - these little guys, also known as "bioflora" help keep you healthy by setting up shop in your digestive tract, crowding out bad bacteria that can make you sick.) This yogurt MUST be fresh to ensure that there are enough bacteria still alive in there, so choose yogurt whose expiration date is at least a week away. For future batches of yogurt, you can just save the last bit from your last batch, but you'll get the best results if you make it within 5 days of the last batch.

Choose a yogurt that you like for the starter: the specific strain of the bacteria will affect the final flavor of the yogurt. I use Fage, since that's what I'm trying to duplicate. I'm told other people have gotten good results with Stonyfield Farm.

- a saucepan that can contain at least 1 qt. of milk
- a yogurt maker OR a 1 qt glass jar with lid (I'm told the big applesauce jars work really well)
- a spoon for stirring
- a big bath towel (if not using a yogurt maker)
- thermometer (optional)
- a pen and paper for notes


- wash your hands and the glass jar and lid (or the tub and lid that came with your yogurt maker).

- heat the milk in the saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until you can only just keep your finger in it for a count of three. If you're using a thermometer, that should be about 170 degrees F.
DO NOT LET IT BOIL, and be sure to stir it often enough to prevent a skin from forming on top. If the skin does form, skim it off before proceeding.

- take the milk off the heat, and let it cool until you can keep your finger in it for a count of ten, but it still feels very warm, like a nice bath. If you're using a thermometer, that's about 110 degrees F.
IMPORTANT: the milk is a yummy growth medium for the helpful yogurt bacteria, but other bacteria would flourish in there too. Be sure to wash your hands before testing the yogurt, particularly if you have touched anything in the meantime, such your nose/mouth/face, money, dirty dishes, or raw meat.

- place the starter yogurt in your jar or the yogurt maker's tub. Add a small splash of the warm milk, and mix well. Add the rest of the milk, a little at a time, until completely mixed.

- If using a yogurt maker, cover the tub, place it in the yogurt maker and turn it on (follow the manufacturer's instructions). If you're not using a yogurt maker, cover the glass jar, wrap it up snugly in the towel, and place it somewhere away from drafts.

- Let your yogurt incubate until it reaches the desired tartness and is just a little runnier than you had in mind. For me, that's usually 8 hours, although you could do as little as 4 if you like it very runny, or up to 12 if you like your yogurt really tart.

- Put it in the fridge to chill and thicken a little further.

You can enjoy your yogurt as-is, stir in some fruit or jam, or move on to the following steps to make thick, rich, strained yogurt.

HOW TO MAKE STRAINED YOGURT (aka "Greek-Style" or "labneh")


- a large sieve (1 qt capacity)

- 2 large coffee filters (the big ones used for coffee urns and office coffee makers)

- tin foil


- a yogurt strainer


- If using the sieve method, place the two coffee filters (in a double layer) in the sieve. Otherwise, assemble the yogurt strainer according to the manufacturer's instructions (i.e., put the strainer part in the basin).

- Dump the yogurt into the filters or the strainer section

- Cover, and leave in the fridge to strain for 4-8 hours or until it reaches the desired thickness.

- Pour out the whey (or save it to make something else, like gjestost or whey ricotta)

- Place the strained yogurt into a storage container, and enjoy!

Coming soon: some recipes for using all that yummy yogurt!