How The Whole Wide World Does Yogurt

Denis Abramov/Getty Images
Denis Abramov/Getty Images

Before the Egyptians built the pyramids, before Stonehenge was erected, and before we even made the freaking wheel, we made yogurt. Evidence suggests yogurt was around as early as 6,000 BC, when our Neolithic ancestors started domesticating livestock, put some goat milk in a leather satchel, and let it warm up a little. Since then nearly every culture (pun intended) and country has come to consume yogurt -- whether it’s topped with fruit and chia seeds, served as a blended drink with rosewater, or made into cheese. Because yogurt has a place at nearly every table, not just the breakfast nook, we dove deep into how the whole world eats (or drinks!) the stuff.

In a lot of countries, they drink their yogurt

For Americans, sipping dairy products in the hot sun may inspire flashbacks to Ron Burgundy’s bad choices, but it’s what most people in Turkey, Persia, and India reach for on particularly stifling afternoons. Drinkable yogurt thirst quenchers are one of the most common yogurt recipes in these countries, especially during the summer.

Take the Turkish ayran, a 50-50 mix of yogurt and water, with a few dashes of salt. It’s stirred up, creating a frothy, cool drink that’s just as popular in Turkey on a hot summer afternoon as cold brew coffee is here. You’ll find ayran almost anywhere in the country -- from big city coffee shops to street vendor’s backpacks to, naturally, Turkish McDonald’s. It’s also a recipe that nearly everyone knows how to make at home (again, sort of like coffee.)

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In Turkey, going out for an ayran is actually a summer afternoon treat. It quenches the thirst, in part because the yogurt has a cooling effect, but also thanks to the salt. Adding salt to the mixture is the quickest way to get extra sodium -- a key nutrient that’s depleted when you’re dehydrated. (The same reason you see so much sodium in sports drinks in the US.)

This isn’t some new phenomenon either: the Turkish have been drinking ayran for thousands of years. It’s said to have been discovered when the Gokturks, Turkey’s ancient ancestors, first started making yogurt. The problem was that the yogurt was just a tinge too bitter. The solution -- diluting it with some water -- led to its drinkable form. Today, ayran is found far beyond Turkey too -- some version of the drink can be found in nearly a dozen countries, spanning the Middle East and Caucasus. Yogurt is an indispensable ingredient in much of Turkey’s cooking -- it’s found in everything from dipping sauces for meats to appetizers to, of course, the ayran.

Salty drinkable yogurt isn’t the only option. There’s also the sweet lassi -- an Indian yogurt beverage that’s quick and inexpensive to make. Because of its convenience, sweet lassi is a staple in Indian households, particularly in the Punjab region, which is credited with creating the drink to quench the thirst of dehydrated farmers. Like the ayran, the lassi is a mix of yogurt and water, but instead of salt, a sweetener is added in. Sometimes, it’s sugar, but there are more complicated versions, too, like rosewater or mango. To help the drink stay cool, it’s normally served in a clay flask, because no one (especially not people living and working in the desert) want to drink warm milk on 100 degree days.

Lassis aren’t just served up by Indian grandmothers as an afternoon refresher (although, that’s how a lot of households drink it). You can also get one from government authorized bhang shops throughout India. It’s been consumed for centuries, normally as part of holidays like Holi, the springtime festival of love and colors and Shivatri -- the religious holiday to celebrate Shiva.

The trend of drinking yogurt may have blossomed in the warmest corners of the world, but it’s about to become mainstream in the US, too. Just last year, Chobani unveiled Drink Chobani: a line of sippable yogurt in flavors like strawberry banana, mango, and apple veg. Just like the traditional ayran and lassi, Drink Chobani packs myriad health benefits: they have 14 grams of protein, are made with real fruit and only natural ingredients, and gut-healthy probiotics.

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There are different ways to make yogurt

You only need two things to make yogurt: milk and some good bacteria. That’s probably why the second we started domesticating livestock in 6,000 BC, we started making the stuff. Over that long and winding history, different regions developed different yogurt styles, either changing up how it was made, or what is was made from.

Let’s start with the one form of yogurt we’re most familiar with: Greek yogurt. First thing’s first: Greek yogurt doesn’t necessarily come from Greece. All that title refers to in North America is the process for making it. After the milk is fermented, it’s strained to remove the whey that’s created in the heating process. That makes the yogurt thicker and more protein dense.

And while the Greeks do make their yogurt this way, they aren’t the only ones. Strained yogurt (the more universal name for the product) is actually made everywhere from Armenia to Bulgaria, with several countries producing similar varieties, like Iceland. Iceland’s strained yogurt variety, called skyr, goes back as far as the 9th century, when it first appeared in medieval stories. (In one, a party host served it instead of ale, and it was a major faux pas.) Nordic people have been making skyr ever since, straining about four cups of fermented milk to make one cup of yogurt.

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Around the world, recipes for making yogurt use heat to ferment the milk, but that’s not the only way to get the stuff made. Case in point: dadiah, a traditional Indonesian dish that appears in West Sumatran folk tales and these days is served at weddings. It’s made with raw, unheated buffalo milk that’s cased in a bamboo shoot. They close the shoot off with a banana leaf, then let the mixture sit. In a few days -- after the specific strains of bacteria used in the recipe essentially “cook” the mixture --  they have yogurt. It might be the first “set it and forget it” recipe ever made.

Bacteria doesn’t just assist in the yogurt fermentation process. It can also affect how yogurt tastes  -- like in kefir, a yogurt cousin-meets-milk beverage that’s thin enough to drink. Central Asia and Russia have drank kefir for centuries, and now it’s also common in Europe, too. What gives kefir its almost buttermilk taste and smooth texture are the kefir grains: aka the specific blend of live cultures they use to make kefir. It’s a combination of yeast and good bacteria cultures that ferment the milk (and even give it a bit of carbonation).

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Yogurt finds its way into recipes all over the world

In the United States, we tend to put yogurt in a breakfast food corner -- where it’s reserved for eating solely on its own, or maybe topped with some fruit. But for people in countries around the world, yogurt is more like a pantry (well, refrigerator) staple. Thanks to its versatility, yogurt is everything from the base for a condiment to a key baking ingredient.

In Greece, yogurt finds its way onto dozens of dishes thanks to tzatziki -- the dipping sauce/spread made from yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, dill, and olive oil. It’s eaten on its own with pita chips, on gyros, and also as a sauce to accompany main dishes. But to the Greeks, yogurt is more than an ingredient. It’s a ubiquitous staple in Greek cooking, appearing in everything from soups to stuffed peppers to lamb casseroles, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a table that doesn’t have the stuff on it -- even if it’s hidden in a phyllo cake.

There’s a similar dish to tzatziki from Iran, too: mast-o khiar. It’s used in several Persian dishes similarly to how the Greeks use tzatziki, but instead of dill, dried mint is a key ingredient. That gives the dish an even lighter, fresh taste -- and it normally finds its way onto the dinner table alongside grilled meats. Or, even better, as a party dip.

When other cultures do break out the yogurt for breakfast, they have some pretty creative takes on how to use it. Like labneh, a Middle Eastern yogurt cheese that will give avocado toast a serious run for it’s money. It’s made by straining yogurt through cheesecloth for several hours, turning the yogurt into a soft, creamy, spreadable cheese. The most common way to serve the labneh, even at breakfast, is part of a maza, aka a spread of dips and olives, including hummus and baba ghanoush. Putting out a spread like that is a way to celebrate bounty in Lebanon, so it’s like the ultimate Sunday brunch. In Lebanon, recipes for labneh are passed down from generation to generation, with most families opting to make it themselves rather than buy a premade version.

But the most surprising breakfast choice has to be the Brazilian pão de queijo -- aka the Brazilian cheese puff. It may sound like a Super Bowl snack, but these bread bites are actually a breakfast food to Brazil. Yogurt is one of the key ingredients in some recipes, which is usually adapted depending on the household. And besides the very important cheese, the yogurt also gets combined with tapioca flour -- a crucial ingredient -- making this dish gluten-free, which might make you feel a bit better about consuming cheese puffs for breakfast.

Pão de Queijo | Marcelo_Krelling/Shutterstock

And yes, yogurt can be dessert

Yogurt’s nutritional value hasn’t stopped the snack from becoming a dessert. Just look at frozen yogurt in North America. From the time it was first introduced in the 1970s, eating yogurt as a dessert has skyrocketed. According to the USDA, 68 million gallons of frozen yogurt were produced in 2015 alone. And while frozen yogurt may be touted as a healthy alternative to ice cream, you can still top it with everything from gummy bears to caramel syrup -- which sounds like dessert to us.

But it’s not just the United States that’s taken to treating yogurt like a, well, treat. In India and Bangladesh, mishti doi is the most common dessert course at home. It’s a yogurt that’s made overnight using molasses or brown sugar, with a bit of cardamom for extra flavor. You can even get it at sweet shops around the country.

Shrikhand, another Indian dessert, is also a common yogurt treat. It’s strained yogurt, topped with everything from honey and cardamom to nutmeg and raisins. And while it’s sweet nature definitely lends itself to the dessert category, it’s more traditionally served as a palate cleanser.

Then, if you’re in France and you want to make a quick, easy cake at home, you’re going to break out the yogurt. That’s because whether a regular baker or not, just about every French home cook can make a French yogurt cake. If it’s a birthday, if you’re having a dinner party, or you just feel like making a cake at home because they have no time to get to a French pastry shop, this is what you bake. It’s firm, sort of like a pound cake, baked in a loaf pan, and is just a tinge sweet. Half a cup of yogurt helps keep the cake moist and dense, and perfect for holding up birthday candles.