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 this traditional dish, 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.
While its dip cousin hummus is amazing, it’s a bit ubiquitous. Labneh serves the same function as the chick pea puree, but with a distinctive mouthfeel – rich, tart, full of umami – and adaptable to a planet-load of flavour profiles.
So what’s up with the yogurt thing?
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 electric fridge 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.
Which brings us to labneh
Labneh is yogurt that’s been strained to within an inch of its life, attaining a consistency close to cream cheese. 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, how to make it. It’s so, so easy. The ingredients 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).
You only need two ingredients and three pieces of equipment. It really is that simple.Now I’ve got labneh. And?
Once you’ve made it – well, you can eat it right away, fresh, or, you can mix in some flavouring ingredients of your choice: parsley, mint, minced garlic or the spice mix called za’atar would all be fairly typical of Middle Eastern flavour profiles. However, this is 2019, so you can add anything you want: herbs de Provence, ginger, chipotle, shiso leaf, sumac, Sriracha, truffle salt, berbere. 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.
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 pomegranate seeds, tomatoes and olives, or any other thing that makes you smack your lips.
Two recipes for pre-dinner snacks to serve alongside your labneh6 Jun 2019
If you’re too famished for pretty things, for the love of God, just slather your labneh on a bagel, or use it as a dip for crudités. 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 making the balls, but before submerging them, roll them in something pretty and flavourful, like dried or fresh mint, crushed pistachios, smoked paprika or za’atar. Now, go party like it’s 1399.
Prep: 5 minutes
Drain: overnight to 3 days
Ingredients (makes 4 to 6 servings)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups plain Greek yogurt with no artificial ingredients or thickeners
Extra-virgin olive oil, as needed
1. Line a colander or mesh strainer with a couple of layers of cheese cloth with the ends hanging over the sides. Set over a bowl large enough to hold it steady.
2. Stir salt into the yogurt and scrape directly onto the cheesecloth. Bring cheesecloth corners together and twist or tie them together to make a sack. Squeeze gently to lose some of the whey
3. Set the bowl with the strainer with the cheesecloth with the yogurt in the fridge for 24 to 72 hours. (The longer the drain time, the stiffer and drier the labneh.)
4. After draining, squeeze the bag gently to release any more liquid. Save the whey – it’s great used in smoothies and batters, soups and sauces.
5. Serve labneh immediately (remember those suggestions above) or store refrigerated in an airtight container up to 3 or 4 days. Alternately, roll labneh into 5- to 8cm balls and place on a tray. Cover with a clean towel and refrigerate overnight to firm up a bit. After the labneh balls have firmed up, coat them with your favourite flavourings if you like, then refrigerate them, submerged completely in extra virgin olive oil in an airtight container. They will keep for up to 2 months.
Nutrition information per serving (for 6 servings): 114 calories, 3g fat, 2g saturated fat, 8mg cholesterol, 6g carbohydrates, 6g sugar, 15g protein, 146mg sodium, 0g fibre
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