Like the great crested grebe is how we’ll dive into today’s topic, labneh. Oh, labneh, you cheese-ish yogurt sequel, beloved art thou by Middle Eastern peeps from Aqaba to Zarqa, from Ta to Ur.
If you’ve never had labneh, one of two things is probably true: Either, you’re not of Middle Eastern stock, or, you are of Middle Eastern stock but there’s something definitely up, like, you’re lactose intolerant or you’re a vegan or you’re a werewolf and you only eat meat.
Why you need to learn this
In all seriousness, if I see one more gaily festooned plate of quaggy hummus, I’m going to plotz.
Don’t get me wrong: I love hummus like buzzards love roadkill. But, come on, it’s a bit ubiquitous, innit? Dare to be different, I say: Here’s something that can serve the same function as hummus, but with a distinctive mouthfeel — rich, tart, full of umami — and adaptable to a planet-load of flavor profiles.
The steps you take
A little background never hurt anyone. So, we’re mammals, right?
Mammals are a class of animals so named because their young are kept alive with milk produced by the mammary glands of the females. Our species, homo sapiens, differs from the other 5,000-some-odd species of mammals in that we regularly drink the milk of other species. Of course, that particular development didn’t arise until we’d been traipsing about for 200,000 years or so.
Anyway, because the invention of the electrical refrigerator didn’t occur until many thousands more years, sometimes that extra-species milk would spoil. Fortunately, over time, we learned how to control that spoilage — like training bacteria with teeny whips and tiny chairs — et voila, behold the yogurt.
Here in the modern U.S. of A., when we think of yogurt, we think of that slippery, sour, super-white, puddinglike tongue-balm that you eat for breakfast with fresh berries. Mostly, it’s from cow’s milk. In other places on the planet, though, yogurt has many different forms, depending on, for example, the animal from which the milk flows or how much liquid it contains.
About a decade ago, we started seeing on our grocery shelves a product called “Greek” yogurt. In truth, Greek yogurt is Greek like French toast is French, Chinese checkers are Chinese, and moon pies are Moonisian. Word on the street is, it’s called “Greek” because it’s similar to a thick, strained sheep’s milk yogurt common in Greece known as “straggisto.” Straining, incidentally, removes some of the whey, that cloudy liquid enjoyed famously by Little Miss Muffet.
Labneh is yogurt that’s been strained to within an inch of its life, attaining a consistency closer to cream cheese than pudding. Most recipes for labneh call for Greek yogurt precisely because some of the whey has already been strained out. Listen: Because some duplicitous “Greek style” yogurts are thickened artificially rather than by straining, read the label and go with the ones that don’t have any thickeners (such as gelatin or guar gum).
Labneh can be made from any yogurt, from any mammal. It can be of any fat content, even fat free, for those of you tired of tasting your food.
Now, finally, let’s look at how to make labneh. It’s so easy, even an Irish American like me or a reasonably intelligent chimp could do it and, quite frankly, I’d love to see that.
The ingredients for labneh are, literally, just yogurt and salt. The equipment you’ll need are a colander or sieve, a bowl and some cheese cloth (or a clean dish towel).
Here’s what you do:
1. Set your colander inside the bowl and line it with several layers of cheesecloth, leaving the ends flapping o’er the side.
2. Stir the salt — roughly 1 teaspoon per quart — into the yogurt, then scrape it all onto the cheesecloth.
3. Bring the corners of the cheesecloth up and tie or twist them together to make a handy yogurt sack, like something Cow Santa would tote. Squeeze the sack, oh so gently, to lose some of the whey, then set it back into the colander inside the bowl and place the whole thing in the fridge.
4. After a day or two — the longer you leave it, the stiffer your labneh — remove the bowl from the fridge. Give the sack one last gentle squeeze, then scrape the labneh into a bowl.
There. Now you have labneh.
Here’s you: “Great. Now I’ve got labneh. And?”
Well, Brad, you can eat it right away, fresh, or, you can mix in some flavoring ingredients of your choice: parsley, mint, garlic or the spice mix called za’atar would all be fairly typical of Middle Eastern flavor profiles. However, this being Anytown, U.S.A., you can add anything you want: herbs de Provence, ginger, chipotle, Sriracha. Think of it as you would cream cheese in terms of its ability to act as a culinary canvas. You could even sweeten it up with honey, agave or maple syrup.
Whatever you do, don’t forget to save the whey. You can use it for smoothies and batters, soups and sauces.
To serve labneh fresh, envision its cousins, hummus and baba ganoush, and schmear it on a platter into a round of attractive concavity, like an inverted Frisbee. Drizzle extra-virgin olive oil over the lot with giddy abandon and garnish with any of the above herbs and spices or tomatoes and olives or any other thing that makes you smack your lips like a weasel watching “Watership Down.”
If you’re too famished for pretty things, for the love of God, just slather your labneh on a bagel. You can also use it like any other condiment: Spread it on burgers, sandwiches or wraps. Scoop a spoonful or two into a bowl of dal or beans — black, red, white. Whisk it into a vinaigrette or sauce to thicken and enrich.
Any labneh left ungobbled, you can store in the fridge in a covered container for a week or so. Or, try this:
Get your hands wet with water or slippery with olive oil and roll the labneh into balls the size of walnuts or stegosaurus brains. Place the balls in a jar and submerge them completely in extra-virgin olive oil. They’ll last in your fridge for a couple months, easily.
Oh, and if you do that, try this: After fabricating the balls, but before submerging them, roll them in something pretty and flavorful, like paprika or za’atar. Now, go party like it’s 1399.
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Draining time: overnight to 3 days
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups plain Greek yogurt (see note)
- Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
Note: Use yogurt with no artificial ingredients or thickeners.
Line a colander or mesh strainer with a couple layers of cheese cloth; set over a bowl large enough to hold it steady.
Stir salt into the yogurt and scrape directly onto the cheesecloth. Bring cheesecloth corners together and twist or tie them together.
Set the bowl with the strainer with the cheesecloth with the yogurt in the refrigerator for 24 to 72 hours. (The longer the drain time, the stiffer and drier the labneh.)
After draining, squeeze the bag gently to release any more liquid. Serve labneh immediately (see below) or store refrigerated in an airtight container up to 3 or 4 days. Alternately, roll labneh into 2- to 3-inch balls and place on a sheet pan. Cover with a clean towel and refrigerate overnight to firm up a bit. After the labneh balls have firmed up, refrigerate them, submerged completely in extra-virgin olive oil in an airtight container. They will keep up to 2 months.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Nutrition information per serving (for 6 servings): 114 calories, 3 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 8 mg cholesterol, 6 g carbohydrates, 6 g sugar, 15 g protein, 146 mg sodium, 0 g fiber
Serve it up
Labneh can be eaten plain with bread (pita), bagels or chips, or it can be used on sandwiches and burgers or stirred into soups and stews as you would sour cream. Flavorings can be mixed in to taste or sprinkled over the top of fresh labneh along with extra-virgin olive oil. Or the labneh balls can be rolled in these ingredients before storing in oil.
For fresh labneh, spread it in a thick circle on a plate. Sprinkle with one or more of the following: fresh minced herbs, dried or fresh mint, sumac, za’atar, smoked paprika, black pepper, crushed pistachios, minced garlic, or any other flavoring ingredients you like. Drizzle with a generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil and serve immediately.
Prep School is a Tribune News Service column by James P. DeWan, an award-winning food writer, chef and culinary instructor who teaches at Kendall College in Chicago. He is the author of “Prep School: How to Improve Your Kitchen Skills and Cooking Techniques,” a collection of his columns.