Until I started delving into food history, I didn't realise how indebted we are to absent-minded goatherders. After regularly leaving their lunches on rocks or in caves, they came to realise that fermentation altered food. Frequently it simply went bad, but every so often it transformed into a pleasantly edible substance with an extended shelf life. A turning point in civilisation came when our ancestors learned to control fermentation to preserve food, thus enabling a more diverse and nutritious diet and a more regular, reliable food supply.
Yoghurt was born from one of these happy accidents. When deliberately fermented under more controlled conditions, highly perishable milk that was surplus to requirements became the thickened, curd-like food we know today. Worldwide, more milk is consumed fermented than fresh. Most societies developed forms of fermented milk: cheeses, clotted and soured creams, cultured milks such as buttermilk and the lyrically named clabbered or loppered milk of Ireland, Scotland and the American South. Culturing methods in the ancient Middle East were creative - crushed ants' eggs, herbs, fig sap. Modern knowledge of bacterial cultures has removed the guesswork, resulting in greater predictability and consistency.
Yoghurt is one of the top 10 so-called 'super-foods', which carry some pretty ambitious health claims that may be mere marketing tools. If we ignore some of the more magical of these claims and focus on the facts, undoubtedly yoghurt is one of the food good guys. It is more digestible than milk - as the lactose is already partially digested, it suits lactose-intolerant diets. Lactobacteria help keep the intestinal environment acidic and inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. It is low in fat relative to creams and cheeses and contains protein, calcium, riboflavin and B vitamins.
Yoghurt products have proliferated in supermarket dairy sections but any review of sugar and protein levels will confirm that all yoghurts are not created equal. Unfortunately many products targeting children have quite high sugars, thickeners, emulsifiers and additives that counteract the benefits and compromise the taste. Making your own and controlling the additives is an easy, cheap option. After a couple of batches, you will be hooked on the mild, tangy-sweet, creamy flavour.
DO IT YOUR WHEY
- Because natural yoghurt curds may break if stirred, make your own yoghurt in small containers (pot-set) rather than one big bowl.
- Low, even heat during incubation is vital. There are some ingenious ways of achieving this. My chosen incubator is a towel-lined chilly bin with a hot-water bottle inside. I cover the sealed bin with another towel and put it beside a heater. A crockpot of hot water, a wide-mouthed thermos flask, an electric blanket and an on-and-off oven are all also useful. Or you could buy a yoghurt maker.
- Hang the "Do Not Disturb" sign for at least four hours. If yoghurt hasn't "yogged" after eight hours, discard it - something has gone wrong and it is probably off.
- Adding powdered or evaporated milk gives a creamy result. The following recipe makes a deliciously luscious, mild-tasting yoghurt. Low-fatties can use 2 cups skim milk powder, 3 cups water and low-fat yoghurt.
- Reserve some of your batch to start the next one. Use a fresh starter every few batches to maintain
CURDS OF WISDOM
- When used as a marinade, the acid in yoghurt tenderises meats.
- A spoonful of yoghurt in cakes, muffins and scones helps to activate baking soda for light, moist results.
- Don’t cook yoghurt-based mixtures in aluminium pans – the acid may react with the metal.
- Yoghurt, especially low-fat yoghurt, may curdle when heated in sauces, curries and soups. Using Greek-style full-cream yoghurt mixed with a little cornflour added last when sauce stops simmering may help. In some curries, separation is intentional – it’s part of their charm.
- Yoghurt extinguishes chilli burn more effectively than water. Serve diced banana or cucumber in yoghurt with incendiary vindaloos.
- For summer snacks, freeze bananas, dice and process until creamy. Mix with Greek yoghurt and honey to taste. Freeze in popsicle moulds. Other frozen fruits may be substituted.
- Substitute thick yoghurt for sour cream, crème fraiche or mayonnaise in stuffed potatoes, potato salad, guacamole, salad dressings and dips.
MORE THAN ONE WAY
Here is some yoghurt-speak explained:
Yoghurt strained after fermentation to remove some liquid, making it thick and acidic. It separates less readily than regular yoghurt and adds richness to cooking.
This increasingly seen word refers to live micro-organisms that, when eaten in adequate amounts, have health benefits including lowering cholesterol and boosting the immune system.
Swiss or custard-style
Yoghurt mass-produced in vats then transferred to cups, with artificial thickeners such as gelatin or cornflour added to maintain firmness. These yoghurts have a large market share.
The milk and other contents, such as fruit, are produced with no pesticides, artificial fertilisers or hormones.
All yoghurt labels should say this. Heat-treated yoghurts are dead yoghurts.
This term – a good sign – is seldom seen on labels but check the ingredients list; these pot-set yoghurts usually contain only milk, milk solids and live culture.
Goats’ milk and sheep’s milk
These milks have different protein structures and higher butterfat than cows’ milk. Their yoghurts are naturally sweet, silky and very digestible. Both may be boiled without curdling – add a few pinches of salt.
This yoghurt is considered by some as the pinnacle of yoghurts – very firm and crowned with a thick layer of cream. Look for the Clevedon Valley brand.
1 litre (4 cups) full-cream milk
1 cup full-cream milk powder or 375ml can
full-cream evaporated milk
4 generous tablespoons plain yoghurt
containing "live culture"
Sterilise your containers and utensils with boiling water. Reserve ¼ cup milk. Pour the remaining milk into a pot and add powdered or evaporated milk. Heat to just below boiling point – steam rising and bubbles around edges (90°C) – then cool quickly to lukewarm (43°C) by placing the pot in a sink of cold water.
Whisk yoghurt with the reserved milk until smooth and stir gently into warm milk. Pour into sterilised containers.
Leave undisturbed in a warm place for 4-8
hours until set (see tips at left). The mixture should maintain a temperature of 40-44°C. Refrigerate at once to stop fermentation – it sets further when cold. Yoghurt will keep for a week or more in the fridge. Makes 1¼ litres
“Support bacteria - they’re the only culture some people have”
Stephen Wright, american novelist
Mango Yoghurt with Coconut Palm Sugar
Some Indian lassis contain lightly salted yoghurt – here, a hint of salt contrasts with sweet coconut and palm sugar.
¼ cup shredded or flaked coconut, toasted
1 cup grated palm sugar (use a food processor)
½ cup water
1½ teaspoons flaky sea salt
2 cups Greek-style yoghurt or preferred yoghurt
1 cup mango purée, fresh or canned
Spread coconut on a sheet of oiled tinfoil. Place sugar and water in a heavy-based pan over a low heat. Swirl until sugar dissolves. Raise heat and boil until sugar caramelises (a drop should go hard in cold water). Pour quickly over the coconut. When hardened, remove from tray, reserve some shards for decorating and process remainder to a coarse powder. Mix with sea salt.
Layer yoghurt, coconut sugar and mango in dessert glasses and top with reserved toffee. Serve immediately. Serves 4-6
Chicken with Kashmiri Spiced Yoghurt
This mouth-watering spice mix is also superb with a leg of lamb.
4-6 chicken Maryland pieces (thighs with drumsticks)
1 teaspoon each: ground cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, coriander and black pepper
Large pinch of ground cloves
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon crushed garlic
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup plain yoghurt
¹/3 cup ground almonds
1 tablespoon honey
Place chicken pieces in a non-metal dish, skin side up, in a single layer. Make several slits in the skin with a knife point. Mix remaining ingredients except yoghurt, almonds and honey and massage into chicken skin. Mix yoghurt and almonds and spread over chicken. Drizzle with honey, cover and refrigerate for several hours.
Preheat oven to 230°C. Place chicken pieces skin side up in a large baking dish and bake 30-40 minutes until meat is cooked and yoghurt crust starts to brown – the mixture may separate but don’t worry. Serve with steamed rice and naan bread. Serves 4-6
Web Exclusic Recipe - Yoghurt, Honey and Apricot Sponge
Sweet honey, fruit and tart yoghurt are a winning combination in this baked dessert cake.
||Sponge or butter cake for base|
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup liquid honey
350g Greek yoghurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 x 400g cans apricot halves, well drained
Apricot jam or marmalade for glazing
Preheat oven to 160°C. Grease a 20cm springform pan. Cut cake 2-3cm thick to fit base and press into pan. Combine yolks, honey and vanilla and whisk into yoghurt. Pour over sponge and top with apricot halves, round side up – they should just peek out of the mixture. Bake 30-35 minutes until yoghurt mixture is just firm. Cool, remove cake from springform pan, brush generously with jam and chill 1 hour before serving. Serves 6-8
Story: Janet Dunn
Photographs: Aaron McLean
Stylist: Claudia Kozub & Jo Wilcox