For centuries, cooks around the world have been tapping a powerful secret ingredient. It can bind casseroles, tenderize meats, meld with vegetables and spices as a cooling dip or blend with fruits for a tangy drink.
We're talking, of course, about yogurt.
American consumers are just beginning to look beyond yogurt's fruity, sugar-sweetened incarnations to explore its savory potential. But across the globe, the culinary culture of yogurt is ancient, thriving and incredibly diverse.
"I think yogurt is just a fascinating topic not just culinarily but culturally," says Cheryl Sternman Rule, whose new cookbook, Yogurt Culture, is a pun of a title that explores both concepts.
Yogurt's protean potential begins with the animal providing the milk. And that depends on where in the world you find yourself.
Most commonly worldwide, it's cow's milk. But goat's milk (which has a lower lactose content and can be tolerated by more people) and sheep's milk (which produces a sharper, more sour flavor) are also frequently used in countries like Greece and Turkey.
Buffalo milk yogurt, with its creamier texture and higher fat content, is a popular choice in India and parts of Asia, Sternman Rule says. And in Mongolia, where milk is considered sacred, yogurt makers turn to yaks, though mares and camels will also do the trick.
There are the endless ways to cook with, pair and transform yogurt. Mongolian nomads will dry it, press it and cut it into portable cubes, then turn the byproducts of yogurt and buttermilk production into a milk vodka. In the Middle East, yogurt is strained into a super thick, cream-cheese-like labneh that's spread on pita and topped with za'aatar spice mix.
In India, where yogurt is a daily, homemade staple, it's eaten mixed with rice and in raita – yogurt-based side dishes with chopped vegetables or fruit folded in. When paired with spicy dishes, raita offer a cooling counterpoint.
Persians turn it into chilled soups and mint-cucumber dip, or dilute it with water and mint for a refreshing drink. Serbians drink it as jogurt, which Sternman Rule describes as "closer to buttermilk." Albanians use it in elbasan, a traditional lamb casserole with a firm, baked yogurt crust. Eritreans drizzle it over fata, a dish of spicy tomato served over bread. Turks, from whose language the word "yogurt" derives, often pair it with kebabs.
The Japanese — who consume around 70 percent more yogurt per year than Americans do — have been guzzling a beloved probiotic yogurt drink named Yakult since the 1930s. Demand for yogurt is exploding in China, where drinkable yogurts now account for nearly 20 percent of liquid milk products sold there.
Sternman Rule stuffs her book with a global smorgasbord of tempting recipes. Some were gathered during trips abroad, or adapted from interviews and cooking lessons with immigrants in the U.S. for whom yogurt remains an essential taste of home.
Iranian-born chef and memoirist Donia Bijan told Sternman Rule about a classic Persian soup. As an 8-year-old girl in Tehran, she took over soup-making responsibilities for her mother. And Sternman Rule says that as Bijan told her how to make the dish, "You could hear it in her voice, when remembering this time of her life, that it was an honor for her. ... I think that yogurt is really a foundational food in many of these cuisines."
In the West, modern interest in yogurt has surged alongside scientific research into the potential benefits of probiotics, or so-called good bacteria, in yogurt. Interestingly, many cultures where yogurt is fundamental have their own health lore associated with this fermented food.
In the 16th century, for instance, King Francis I was purportedly cured of a debilitating bout of tummy troubles after his ally, an Ottoman sultan, sent over a physician to treat the French monarch with yogurt. In modern-day India, Sternman Rule's sources and mine say, it's traditional to eat yogurt before a big decision or, say, a school exam to calm the brain. (Modern science is exploring this effect.) And in Persian culture, yogurt is traditionally paired with fatty, savory dishes, because its acidic properties are believed to help flush fat from the system.
Sternman Rule's book comes as America's yogurt zeitgeist is changing. As my colleague Allison Aubrey reports, entrepreneurs are now peddling savory versions (think yogurt with a habanero kick) to try to wean consumers from the strawberry-in-the-bottom cups of yore.
"I do see a real change this year of Americans being open to the idea of using yogurt in more interesting ways," says Sternman Rule.
If you're one of those eager to expand your yogurt horizons, check out the recipes below.
Excerpted from Yogurt Culture, © 2015 by Cheryl Sternman Rule. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Recipe: Syrup-Drenched Orange Phyllo Cake
Makes one 13-by-9-Inch Cake; Serves 12 to 16
If I were ever caught without heat, I'd want Anna Vlachogianni by my side. The slim proprietor of Restaurant Anna on the Greek isle of Paros has a smile so bright it radiates. On the day of my visit, the restaurant was a beehive of activity, a chaos just barely controlled by Anna herself, who flitted from stove to counter to my table, where she told me she couldn't chat until later, until close to midnight, when she'd finally have a chance to sit still. It was before noon when she said this, but I hung around a while anyway, taking in the scene and drinking in Anna's energy.
As I sat, Anna kept popping back to me, sharing bits of yogurt know-how. Suddenly, she ran over and handed me a sweet, thick slice of syrup-drenched cake. Off she went, then back she came, once more, twice more, talking me through the recipe in fits and starts as I frantically scrawled in my notebook. Using hand gestures more than words, Anna pantomimed each step, at one point grabbing my arm and walking me back to the freezer so she could point out the phyllo dough at the center of the recipe.
This cake used phyllo in a way I'd never seen. Rather than thawing the dough and brushing each papery sheet with butter, Anna minced the stacked layers and used the shreds in place of flour to structure and bind the cake.
Anna's recipe relied on measurements like teacups and soupspoons, and when she told me she mixes the batter by hand, she literally meant by using her hand (not a whisk or spoon).
I've recreated Anna's cake using standardized (and boring) quantities and a spoon. If you'd like to mix this cake by hand, by all means, go ahead. You'll be in excellent company.
FOR THE CAKE
1½ cups vegetable oil
All-purpose flour, for dusting the pan
1½ cups sugar
4 large eggs
2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt
¼ cup plus 1¼ teaspoons baking powder
Zest of 2 large or 3 medium oranges (2 packed tablespoons) (see Yo!)
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 (1-pound) box phyllo dough, not thawed
FOR THE ORANGE SYRUP
¾ cup sugar
1½ cups water
¾ cup fresh orange juice (see Yo!)
MAKE THE CAKE. Preheat the oven to 350°F, with a rack in the center position and a baking sheet on the rack below to catch any drips. Using a brush, coat a 13-by-9-inch metal baking pan with a thin film of the oil, then dust lightly with flour.
In your largest bowl, stir the remaining oil and the sugar until thoroughly combined. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring well to incorporate each one before adding the next. (The texture will
become thick and gelatinous.) Stir in the yogurt, mixing well. Add the baking powder, then the orange zest and vanilla and mix well.
Unroll the phyllo and, keeping the layers stacked, use the tip of a sharp knife to slice the stack into long, thin ribbons. Mince these stillstacked ribbons into confetti-like bits. They should be roughly the same size, but you don't have to be precise. Stir the phyllo into the batter a little at a time until it is completely incorporated.
Bake until golden brown and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes.
MEANWHILE, MAKE THE SYRUP. In a medium saucepan, bring the sugar, water, and orange juice to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, stirring for the first minute to dissolve the sugar. Boil vigorously, without stirring, for 5 to 7 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes.
DRENCH THE CAKE AND SERVE. When the cake comes out of the oven (it's okay if it sits a bit while the syrup cools), ladle the syrup evenly over the cake, letting each ladleful absorb before adding the next. Let cool completely. Serve at room temperature, or cover tightly and refrigerate for a few hours (or overnight) for a damper consistency. Serve in generous squares.
- Refrigerate the cake, tightly covered, for up to 3 days.
Like many syrup-soaked cakes, this one is sweet and damp, not fluffy and light like American cakes. It changes over time, becoming denser and moister as it settles in the refrigerator.
This cake includes an unusually large amount of baking powder—the amount given is not a mistake. Although baking powder can sometimes impart a bitter taste, mysteriously, in this cake, it does not.
Go ahead and juice the zested oranges for the syrup, but you'll also need an extra orange or two. For a twist, add the juice and zest of a lemon to the syrup as well.
Oven-Baked Tarragon-Scented Salmon
Serves 6 to 8
Fennel seeds and fresh tarragon quietly infuse a yogurt marinade in this delicate fish supper. After it has spent a few hours in the fridge, slide the salmon into the oven and stir together the golden bread-crumb topping. You'll be rewarded with a meal completely out of proportion to the amount of effort expended.
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon kosher salt
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
½ cup plain yogurt (not Greek), preferably whole-milk
1½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon minced fresh tarragon
6 to 8 (5- to 6-ounce) wild salmon fillets, 1 inch thick, or 1 (2- to 2½-pound) salmon fillet (see Yo!), pin bones removed
1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup panko bread crumbs
MARINATE THE SALMON
In a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle, grind the fennel seeds, salt, and pepper together until powdery. Transfer to a small bowl. Whisk in the yogurt, mustard, vinegar, and 1 teaspoon of the tarragon.
Line a baking sheet with parchment. Place the salmon on the parchment and spread the yogurt marinade thickly and evenly over the top. Refrigerate, covered, for 2 to 4 hours.
BAKE THE SALMON
Preheat the oven to 375°F, with a rack in the center position. Bake the salmon until cooked through but still moist, about 15 minutes for individual fillets or 20 minutes for one large fillet.
MAKE THE TOPPING
While the fish bakes, or just after you pull it from the oven, heat the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the panko. Season generously with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until golden. Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon tarragon.
Sprinkle the panko over the salmon and serve.
If you don't have a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle, bash the cooled, toasted fennel seeds in a zip-top bag with a meat mallet.
This dish is equally elegant with a single 2- to 2½-pound fillet you portion out after baking. If baking a large fillet, you'll have one thinner end that's flakier and better done and one thicker end that's rarer. This is ideal for diners with different taste preferences. I like my salmon pretty rare. You can also use salmon steaks, if you like.
If you can get your hands on Alaskan king salmon—a high-oil variety also called Chinook—I recommend it because of its rich flavor and texture. Sockeye and coho will also taste great, but you'll want to check for doneness a few minutes earlier so the salmon doesn't dry out. This is especially important if your fillets are less than 1-inch thick.