Educate yourself about yogurt

July 7, 2014
Red, white and blue parfait is made with vanilla yogurt, strawberry compote and blueberries. BY JACK CLEMONS

If you’ve glanced around your grocer’s dairy aisle lately, you’ve likely noticed yogurt seems to be taking over the shelves. Sour cream and cottage cheese are squeezed into small corners, while yogurt dominates the prime center space. And what is all the fuss about Greek yogurt?

First, the basics. The name for yogurt comes from the Turkish word for curdle or thicken. Yogurt (also spelled yoghurt) is milk that has been fermented with friendly bacteria. The action of beneficial bacteria on the milk sugar (lactose) produces lactic acid. This in turn causes the milk protein (casein) to clump together and create the creamy texture and familiar tang we associate with yogurt.

Food writers since Roman times have penned accounts of the transformation of milk into the slightly acidic, tart cream. Food historians credit nomadic Balkan tribes as the originators of milk preservation thousands of years ago. Perhaps discovered by accident and then deliberately produced more by saving a bit of the fermented milk to add to the next batch.

In the early 1900s, Russian scientists identified the specific bacteria found in yogurt: lactobacillus bulgaricus. Because of its health benefits, yogurt became a popular food throughout Europe, and in a few years industrialized production began in Spain under the name Danone. You may recognize this as the predecessor of the American brand, Dannon.

Yogurt is typically made from cow’s milk, although in other parts of the world you’ll find yogurt made from goat, camel and water buffalo milk. Creating yogurt from milk is a simple process: heat the milk; mix in some plain yogurt (teeming with live, active cultures), and keep it at a warm temperature for several hours.

What happens next is why there are so many different options at the supermarket. Very few cartons of yogurt are sold without some alteration: sugar, flavorings, stabilizers, thickeners and preservatives are common additives. Lower-fat yogurt, made with 2 percent or skim milk, typically uses artificial sweeteners to keep the calories low.

To answer the earlier question, Greek yogurt is a style of yogurt made by straining off the whey or watery liquid that remains after the milk has been curdled. The benefits are a higher protein content as well as a luxurious, rich texture. But, since the term “greek” isn’t regulated, you may not be buying the real thing. Some unscrupulous suppliers do not actually strain their yogurt; instead, they add cornstarch and milk protein concentrates to imitate the desirable texture.

The key ingredients to look for on the yogurt label are milk and live active cultures. Be sure it says “contains” rather than “made with” live active cultures to guarantee your yogurt includes the healthy bacteria your body needs. Alternatively, you can make your own yogurt in a slow cooker. Of course, you could purchase a yogurt maker appliance, but it’s completely unnecessary.

Begin with whole milk (for the best texture) and heat it almost to a boil. After the milk cools to the right temperature, stir in plain yogurt (i.e., full of live active cultures). Wrap the crockpot with towels and tuck it into a sheltered nook or place it in an oven (turn on the oven light). It will take at least six hours or as long as overnight for the yogurt to set. If you want Greek yogurt, strain the yogurt in a cheesecloth-lined colander.

Once it’s ready to eat, you can spoon it over fresh fruit or mix in your favorite flavorings like honey, vanilla or cinnamon. You can substitute yogurt in recipes that call for buttermilk, whisk it into a smoothie or use it as a tenderizing marinade. Our favorite way to enjoy yogurt is layered between strawberry compote and fresh blueberries - a perfect dessert for the Fourth of July.

Crockpot Yogurt

1/2 gallon whole milk
1/2 C plain yogurt*

Pour milk into the bowl of a well-cleaned slow cooker. Turn to low and heat for 2 1/2 hours. Turn off heat, cover and allow milk to cool for about 3 hours. When milk reaches 110 F, remove 1 C of the warm milk to a bowl and whisk in the yogurt. Return milk and yogurt mixture to the slow cooker and stir to combine. Cover the slow cooker and wrap snugly with a thick towel. Set it in a warm kitchen corner or in the oven (turn on the light). Allow mixture to ferment for at least 6 hours or overnight. Place yogurt in the refrigerator to chill for about 4 hours before serving. For thicker yogurt, line a colander with cheesecloth and fill with yogurt; strain for about 1/2 hour. Store in well-sealed glass jars. Reserve 1/2 C as a starter for the next batch. *Note - make sure yogurt contains live active cultures.

Yogurt Hummus

1 can black beans, drained
1 can chickpeas, drained
2 T olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 C plain yogurt
2 chopped garlic cloves
2 t cumin
salt & pepper, to taste

Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Puree until smooth. Serve with pita chips or celery sticks.

Yogurt Marinade

1 C plain yogurt
2 T olive oil
2 minced garlic cloves
2 t dried oregano
1 t dried savory
juice of 1 lemon
1 t lemon zest
3 T chopped parsley
salt & pepper, to taste

Whisk ingredients together in a bowl and transfer to a zip-top bag. Use as a marinade under refrigeration for shrimp (15 minutes), boneless chicken breasts (30 minutes) or steak (40 minutes) before grilling.