Yogurt: Not Just for Breakfast
With over 5 millennia of history, yogurt is still one of the most recognized and consumed foods globally, with each culture having its unique application, texture and form. As an American, growing up the debate in our house was do you buy blended or fruit on the bottom…we only thought about yogurt for breakfast. People tend to have a strict preference on this one and my families hasn’t changed theirs in over 40 years. I prefer plain Greek with honey….the rest love the sweeter fruit on the bottom. But that is because yogurt preferences are personal and the good thing is the yogurt landscape allows for each of us to have our favorites. The sheer variety of flavors, textures is tremendous, especially compared to just a few years ago.
So how did we get here? How are there so many variations on one product? I find it is always best to start at the beginning and then look at the evolution and cultural impacts that have shaped this continually growing segment of the market.
What Defines Yogurt?
Yogurt is creamy and slightly sour dairy product made by taking milk and then adding live and active cultures of two bacteria (Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus). As it ferments, the yogurt develops its characteristic acidity and texture. The process for Greek yogurt goes one step further by straining out the whey to concentrate the solids which creates the extra thick texture. Very few ingredients make up this tangy dairy product.
Few know that the word yogurt is actually derived from the Turkish word yoghurt steaming from the root word yog which translates to “curdled” or “thickened.” This makes sense given the natural process that most likely occurred thousands of years ago from milk that spontaneously fermented in wild bacteria in goat skin bags. The food itself was very popular in Greece, Rome and Egypt where they called it oxygala meaning acid milk. It was typically eaten with honey. This is pretty incredible, considering that honey is still one of the most popular ways to naturally sweeten yogurt. As yogurt made its way around the world, other stories of this fascinating dairy product continued.
Tradition of Nutrition
Yogurt as a health food is nothing new. Persian tradition holds that: “Abraham owed his longevity to the regular ingestion of yogurt.” And the introduction to the Western world came under the reign of François I, who was suffering severe intestinal issues. Suleiman the Magnificent, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, sent a doctor who cured the king with yogurt: the news of the benefits of this unknown food started to spread in France and in Europe. To this day yogurt is eaten with a focus on gut health, in addition to its other nutritional benefits.
In Spain in 1919 Isaac Carasso, the founder of Danone, took the principles of the nomadic shepherds and modernized the process of bacterial fermentation. His son 10 years later brought the company to France. A variety of flavors and packaging were introduced in the 20th century. Fruit jam was patented in Poland in 1937 and blended yogurt in 1963 and the continuation of yogurt forms and flavors continues to develop. This was the start of yogurt spreading around the world.
Just as the history of yogurt is fascinating, the manner in which different cultures eat this thick and creamy dairy product is equally intriguing.
In the US, we have traditionally thought of it as a sweet breakfast item paired with berries and granola. Our yogurt profile is sweeter than most of the world and we tend to focus on the lower fat versions. To achieve the creamier texture sometimes starches are added. With the popularity of Greek yogurt now in the US, this thicker and creamier consistency can be achieved naturally through the straining process, which creates protein rich Greek yogurt.
In Western Europe they tend to prefer higher fat yogurt and no sugar added. It is very smooth and creamy because of the high fat content. Yogurt is very popular and is eaten for breakfast, as a snack or even as a dessert.
In Asia and Latin America, drinkable yogurts have gained tremendous popularity, with a real focus on probiotics and the health benefits yogurt provides. Not all yogurts contain probiotics, but it is a growing trend.
On the contrary, in Mediterranean countries like Greece and Turkey, the focus tends to be more on savory applications and utilization in cooked dishes. In Greece, they use yogurt in traditional sauces like tzatziki but they also use it as a dessert with honey, sour cherries or other local ingredients. Yogurt in Greece is typically made from sheep’s milk. In Turkey they prefer to incorporate yogurt into warm meals and plain yogurt is the most common.
Some of my personal favorite meals are Middle Eastern. For example, labneh is a strained yogurt that is used as a “yogurt cheese” and served with olive oil and is a popular mezze dish or sandwich ingredient.
In India, yogurt is commonly used to marinade meats because the natural acidity tenderizes the meat and is typically made from cow or water buffalo milk. While there are Indian desserts that use yogurt blended with spices and fruits, it is additionally used in sauces like raita as a cooling effect to the often spicy flavors of Indian cuisine. Because of the versatility it is also used in traditional Indian lassi beverages. Since most Indians are vegetarians, yogurt plays a key nutritional dynamic because of its high protein.
Nutrition With Purpose
Yogurt’s long history of nutrition and well known uses for digestion today continue to help lead the popularity of this simple ingredient and distinct flavored protein. As a Chef, I see the potential for yogurts’ growth and popularity for many additional reasons. Yogurt’s tart taste gives the acidic pop to foods while the texture gives dishes a smooth and creamy mouthfeel.
Dairy in general is a great flavor carrier and yogurts versatility and texture allow it to replace other dairy ingredients or creamy ingredients like mayonnaise with much less fat. It allows for lower calories typically, cleaner labels and incredibly tasting foods that you can enjoy without the guilt. Popular swaps with yogurt and specifically the thicker Greek style yogurts are mayonnaise, sour cream and cream cheese. And real big nutritional impacts come from substituting butter and oil especially in baked goods.
So how do I see yogurt as an ingredient outside of the traditional berries, honey and yogurt breakfast. I see it hitting the menus inspired by ethnically traditional application but to broader taste profiles. Key areas where yogurt has and will continue to grow are in sauces, dressings, marinades, smoothies and beverages.
Sauces & Dressings
Everyone loves a rich creamy dressing like Ranch but the nutritionals on a traditional Ranch Dressing might just shock you. Substituting mayonnaise and/or sour cream with yogurt will not only produce an incredible tasting dressing, but you will see an impact on the nutritionals that will delight anyone with calories cut and fat reduced by more than half. Other popular yogurt sauces and dressings making their way to the menu are Raita and Tzatziki in their traditional form but getting sauce savvy and taking traditionally high fat sauces and dressing and adapting them is really impactful. Honey Mustard Caper Yogurt Sauce over Salmon or Eggs Benedict with Creamy Yogurt Hollandaise with Fresh Herbs brighten your menu with healthy alternatives. Think about using yogurt for pasta sauces like Spring Vegetable Linguini with Lemon Yogurt Sauce.
The definition of a “marinade” is a savory, typically acidic sauce that meats, fish and vegetables are soaked in to enrich flavor and tenderize. Yogurt fits the bill perfectly and has traditionally been used in Indian food to tenderize meats with ginger, herbs and seasonings. However, think about foods like fried chicken that is typically marinated in buttermilk and substitute yogurt. It’s great because the active bacteria in yogurt breaks down protein making it especially tender. Lactic acid found in yogurt works slower than citric acid that lemons have. So the benefit is that by working slower, the pH is not going as low and therefore not doing as much change to the protein structure. This can prevent the yogurt from breaking down the meat too much and making it mushy.
Smoothies & Beverages
The smoothie craze is not slowing down. Smoothies are no longer limited to fruit but green smoothies are common place and exotic flavor combinations and custom blends are becoming the norm. The flavors are getting more sophisticated just like the yogurt and add-ins they are made from. Kale is a staple is many homes as are chia and other nutrient rich superfoods. Using Greek yogurt in your smoothie can add amazing texture, but will also help your smoothie not separate as quickly. Yogurt drinks typically referred to as Lassis from India have gained popularity as well.
Alternative Uses for Yogurt
Yogurt is an incredible alternative to high fat ingredients in baking. Not only however does it cut the fat, but it also adds a creamy texture and can add extra protein to your delicious recipes. Just imagine cutting ½ the butter…you can. Here is the basic substitution formula: replace half the butter with half as much yogurt. For instance, instead of 1 cup butter, use 1/2 cup butter and 1/4 cup yogurt. Other substitutions when a recipe calls for shortening or oil, replace half the oil with 3/4 the amount of yogurt. For example, instead of 1 cup oil, use 1/2 cup oil and 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons yogurt. Substitute yogurt cup for cup for sour cream in recipes. Yogurt also tenderizes the yeast in cinnamon rolls and breads.
I love sweets but don’t indulge as often because of their high calories and fat. Therefore, I have been developing a more nutritionally friendly treat. Some of my favorite new baking recipes are Vanilla Yogurt Panna Cotta with Seasonal Fruit Compote, Fudgy Yogurt Chocolate Brownies and Lemon Yogurt Scones with Whipped Vanilla Yogurt Crème. These desserts are so delicious because of the addition of yogurt you won’t even miss the fat.
Greek, extra creamy, low fat, no fat, sweetened and unsweetened. These are just a few of the choices out there these days. The varieties and flavors are endless and the yogurt isle doesn’t even remotely resemble what it did 10 years ago. But what is even more exciting is that yogurt is truly the secret ingredient in many Chef kitchens today. The authentic tangy flavor, the versatility and the nutritional profile allow you to use it across the menu. Yogurts rich traditions and applications still apply today but the next level of yogurt application is really exciting. From traditional breakfast applications, baked goods, savory marinades to nutritionally enhanced sauces and dressings yogurts. The growth of this category is just astonishing and the love of yogurt globally continues. Look for yogurt in sweet and savory dishesover the next year in new and creative ways. It’s all about flavor!
There’s so many ways to use yogurt! If you’re curious about how to use this incredibly flexible food in your recipes, get in touch. Or, share your thoughts for using yogurt in the comments below!
Graph 1.0, Culinary Applications
|Marinade||Low fat baking||Low fat dressing||Frozen yogurt|
|Smoothie base||Low fat Cream sauce||Dipping sauce base||Milk shakes|
|Coulis sauce||Indian Lassie||Parfait matrix||Baked potato topping|
|Base for chicken or tuna salad||Luscious lemon cake with yogurt cream sauce||Yogurt with strawberry jam muffins||Trifle|
Graph 2.0, Yogurt varieties and ethnic varieties
|Greek yogurt, strained||High protein yogurt||Fresh yogurt||Swiss style, stirred||Dadiah, Sumatran water buffalo yogurt|
|Low fat yogurt||Sweet fruit flavored yogurt||Balkan Style, Set yogurt||Skyr, Islandic strained yogurt||Iranian, Mâst Chekide strained yogurt,|