By Elif Selvili
Photography by Whitney Arostegui
What happens when good-natured bacteria meets warm milk? Yogurt! Or yoghurt, yoghourt, yogourt or yogurt (based on the archaic Turkish verb yogmak meaning “to thicken or coagulate”). No matter how you spell it, when it comes to making this creamy, tangy delight, there’s one simple and foolproof method that requires little more than a food thermometer and a lukewarm location.
Yogurt’s origins remain somewhat mysterious, but most historians think that it was probably created by nomadic Turks who accidentally fermented milk by storing it in goatskin bags, where it became contaminated by bacteria. Although this process sounds thoroughly unappetizing, the resulting product is nothing short of delicious, versatile and extremely healthful.
Yogurt’s rapid spread through Europe and the rest of the world is also shrouded in myth. One version of the story includes the French monarch Francis I, who suffered from a gastrointestinal illness that no French doctor could ease. His Ottoman contemporary, Süleyman the Magnificent, heard of his ally’s ailment and sent his personal doctor, who cured the king by prescribing yogurt. However the journey began, yogurt quickly moved across continents and oceans—appearing in many diverse cuisines, from the Russian Empire to Central and Western Asia, the Balkans, Central Europe and India, and finally on American tables around the 1910s.
Nutritionally speaking, yogurt is a good friend to the body—especially in its unadulterated form without artificial flavors, syrupy sweet fruit or thickeners added. Like milk, it’s full of protein, calcium, potassium, B vitamins and vitamin D. Where it differs from milk is in the benefits produced by fermentation. Yogurt’s fermenting agents produce bacteriocins (protein assassins that kill other bacterial strains), which are beneficial for intestinal flora. Many lactose-intolerant people can tolerate yogurt better than milk because the lactose in the milk is converted to glucose and galactose, and partially fermented by the bacteria. Probiotics (live microorganisms that restore the balance between beneficial and non-beneficial intestinal bacteria) found in yogurt have been thought by many to help with a variety of problems ranging from the offset of antibiotic side effects to the prevention of food poisoning.
Making yogurt at home is easy, adaptable and a great project to do with kids—let them choose their own flavor combinations and favorite add-ins. It’s also a tasty way to introduce the magic of fermentation, the importance of choosing healthful foods and the idea that foods that are good for us can taste good too.
You’ll need a food thermometer, a lidded glass or ceramic bowl large enough to hold two cups of liquid comfortably and a warm oven, around 100 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit (most gas ovens with a pilot light or an electric oven with a lightbulb will be warm enough). If you don’t want to give up your oven for five to seven hours, use a small, well-insulated cooler and several dish towels to wrap the bowl to make it sit snugly in the cooler. Yogurt can be made from raw or pasteurized milk, but either type will need to be sterilized with heat just before culturing. Also, heating the milk denatures the milk proteins and weakens the cell membranes, which helps the protein molecules stick to one another and make thicker yogurt.
Place three tablespoons of fresh yogurt into the bowl you’re going to use to make the yogurt and allow it to come to room temperature. (Counterintuitively, using a lot of the yogurt starter will not make richer yogurt because the culture will compete for food in the milk and use up the food before the yogurt is completely set.) Heat two cups of milk (whole milk produces richer results than low-fat or nonfat milk) to 180 degrees and set it aside until it cools down to 110 to 115 degrees. Immediately pour a little of the milk into the bowl with the yogurt and mix thoroughly. Continue pouring in the rest of the milk while stirring. Work quickly to avoid the milk cooling below 106 degrees. Cover the bowl and place it in the warm oven. If using a cooler rather than the oven, wrap the bowl with dish towels to insulate it before placing it in the cooler. Please note that yogurt is extremely cranky during the fermentation process and hates to be jostled. Check after five hours to see if the yogurt has thickened to a custard-like consistency. After that, check every half hour to make sure it doesn’t get watery and sour. Once the yogurt has set, refrigerate it immediately. It’s best to stir in any flavorings just before serving to avoid separating the whey and solids. Yogurt will keep two to three weeks in the refrigerator. Be sure to save at least three tablespoons of the yogurt to make your next batch.
When strained, yogurt can mimic the consistency and mouthfeel of cream cheese while retaining its tangy flavor. Line a wire-mesh strainer with cheesecloth or a loosely woven cotton or linen napkin. Place the strainer on top of a bowl to catch the whey. (The whey drained from the yogurt is quite nutritious and can be used for cooking or drinking.) Spoon the yogurt into the strainer and cover with a plate or foil to prevent the yogurt from drying out. Place in the refrigerator overnight (at least six to eight hours) to drain. Five cups of yogurt will make about two cups of yogurt cheese. In a tightly sealed container, the cheese will stay good for about a week in the refrigerator.
Using yogurt cheese (see recipe on next page) instead of cream cheese adds an interesting tangy dimension to this dessert. Some of the butter in the crust is replaced with olive oil to reduce the saturated fat. Pureed or whole berries can be substituted for the lemon zest and lemon juice to create different flavors.
For the crust:
12 graham crackers
½ c. chopped pecans (optional)
4 T. butter, melted
2 T. olive oil
For the filling:
2 c. yogurt cheese
½ c. sugar
Juice of half a lemon
1 T. lemon zest
½ t. salt
Place the crackers and pecans (if using) into a food processor and grind to a fine consistency. Pour in the melted butter and olive oil and blend well. Pat onto the bottom and sides of a 9-inch cheesecake pan and chill for about 1 hour before baking. Preheat the oven to 375°. Place all of the filling ingredients into a food processor and blend thoroughly. Pour into the crust and bake for 35 minutes. Allow the cake to cool to room temperature and place in the refrigerator to chill for 3 to 4 hours.
A kid favorite! This frozen treat made with yogurt cheese has a very similar consistency to ice cream but doesn’t need to be churned constantly and requires no special equipment. Experiment with different flavors to create your own version.
8 oz. frozen fruit
5 T. sugar (optional, depending on the sweetness of the fruit)
1½ c. yogurt cheese (made from 4 c. of yogurt)
Puree the frozen fruit in a food processor or blender with the sugar. Add the yogurt cheese and blend thoroughly. Divide into 4 to 5 bowls and place in the freezer for about 3 hours, or until desired consistency is reached.
HAYDARI (HERB YOGURT SPREAD)
Try this spread as an appetizer served with bread and olives. It can also be used as a garnish for meat or chicken dishes.
2 c. yogurt cheese (made from
5 c. of yogurt)
3 garlic cloves, crushed
½ c. chopped walnuts
1 t. Turkish red pepper (or
substitute red pepper flakes)
2 T. chopped fresh dill
Salt, to taste
2 T. olive oil
2 t. dried mint
Place the yogurt cheese in a large bowl and add the garlic, walnuts, pepper, dill and salt and mix gently. Cover and chill in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes. To serve, drizzle the olive oil over the spread and sprinkle with the dried mint. Serve with assorted olives and bread.
CACIK (COLD YOGURT SOUP WITH CUCUMBER)
A treat on a warm spring or summer day. The soup should be prepared in advance and served very cold. This recipe has half the garlic of the original version.
5 c. yogurt
1 c. cold water
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 t. salt
2–3 seedless cucumbers
3 T. dried mint
Fresh mint leaves, to garnish
Mix the yogurt, water, garlic and salt until smooth. Peel and dice the cucumbers into tiny cubes, discarding the seeds. Squeeze out the excess water from the cucumbers before adding them to the yogurt mixture. Mix in the dried mint and decorate with mint leaves. Chill for 1 hour before serving.
Yayla Çorbasi (Plateau Soup)
This tangy soup is very mild in flavor and can be made vegetarian by swapping vegetable broth for chicken stock.
For the soup:
5 c. chicken stock
2 T. butter
Salt and pepper, to taste
½ c. white rice
4 c. yogurt
2 T. white flour
4 egg yolks
For the garnish:
2 T. butter
1 T. paprika
2–3 T. dried mint
Put the chicken stock, butter, salt and pepper in a large pan and bring to a boil. Add the rice, turn the heat down and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the rice is very tender. In a large bowl, mix the yogurt, flour and egg yolks thoroughly. Using a large ladle, slowly add the hot stock mixture to the yogurt mixture—stirring constantly to prevent the egg yolks and flour from clumping. After adding 4 to 5 ladles of stock, pour the mixture back into the soup and stir carefully. Simmer for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Prepare the garnish by melting the butter in a small pan over low heat and stirring in the paprika until it starts to sizzle. Ladle the soup into individual serving bowls and drizzle with the butter-paprika mixture. Sprinkle generous amounts of mint over each and serve immediately.