Chances are you have had yogurt at least once in your life. For many, it's a staple food of the breakfast table. But this ingredient isn't just a morning snack—it's eaten at each meal all over the world, can be cultivated from any type of milk, and is made in a variety of ways.
What is Yogurt?
Whether you're getting yogurt, (also spelled yoghurt), in small containers from the corner grocery, in big plastic tubs at a supermarket, or in a glass jar from your local yogurt maker, it all boils down to the same basis: milk fermented with yogurt cultures. Yogurt is, in a sense, bad milk. So why does it taste so good?
It's all in the way the milk fats break down when heated and how they regroup as it cools with the proper bacteria. Keeping this mixture at room temperature for about half a day is what gives yogurt a creamy, rich texture and slightly sour flavor. You can use goat, sheep, or cow's milk to make yogurt, though most commercial varieties on the market use cow's milk. All yogurt needs to be refrigerated in order to prevent spoilage.
The first records of yogurt as food come from Central Asia. Herdsmen used to save extra goat's milk in carrying skins made from the animal bladder, which were often left out in the sun. The heat caused probiotic bacteria to bloom, which created some of the first tart yogurts. Once the headsmen realized it was safe to consume and even tasted good, yogurt quickly became a staple ingredient in the region and began to travel to other food cultures.
The name yogurt derives from the Turkish verb "yogurmak," which means "to thicken." In ancient India, a dish of yogurt and honey became the "food of the gods," and in ancient Rome, author and naturalist Pliny the Elder was the first to write about this remarkable ingredient.
How To Use Yogurt
Eat yogurt on its own, add it to a layered parfait, or whip it into a smoothie—the ways to eat yogurt are endless. For some, plain Greek yogurt works as a sour cream substitute on top of spicy chili, in tacos, or in dip, and tastes great on any kind of fried potatoes.
Other uses include adding yogurt to marinades for its tenderizing and flavor-enhancing properties (similar to buttermilk), subbing it in for sour cream or buttermilk in desserts, and using it to make chilled sauces like tzatziki. Yogurt is incorporated into a lot of Greek, Mediterranean food, South Asian and Middle Eastern Food in countless applications.
Making frozen yogurt in your ice cream machine is an easy way to make a healthier, lower-fat dessert.
What Does Yogurt Taste Like?
Fans of fermented food will revel in yogurt's sour tang, which is especially prevalent in the strained Greek variety. It always has a smooth and creamy texture, and yogurt can be sweet, savory, sour, and/and rich, depending on which type you try.
Where to Buy
Any store that sells food, from grocery stores to gas stations, will likely have some sort of yogurt available in a refrigerated case. Specialty and farmers' markets may carry goat, sheep, and plant-based yogurt options (like almond, soy, and cashew).
Keep yogurt refrigerated in its tub (or in glass jars if homemade) to prevent spoilage. Unpasteurized yogurt from a farm will stay fresh outside the refrigerator, as long as it's kept in a moderately cool environment. Yogurt can be frozen in its container, but its texture will be altered when thawed, making it more suitable for smoothies, marinades, or applications other than eating straight.
Nutrition and Benefits
The live cultures in yogurt are beneficial for gut health; however, not all yogurt sold contains this beneficial bacteria. This is especially true for larger brands, which can be over-pasteurized and flavored with sugar and additives. It's best to look for yogurts with the lowest number of ingredients, and a label that specifies it contains active cultures.
Yogurt, whether low-fat or full-fat, is also rich in protein. A serving of plain Greek yogurt contains a healthy dose each of Vitamin B12, calcium, and protein.
So many food cultures have a version of yogurt, you could taste the whole world through this one ingredient. One of the most common varieties is Greek yogurt, which is thick, tart, and extra-creamy thanks to using two to four times the amount of milk of regular yogurt. In Iceland, there's a version called skyr, which is usually eaten for breakfast. Labneh comes from the Middle East and is a slightly tart yogurt that's so thick and creamy, you can use it like a soft cheese spread. Australian yogurt tastes a lot like Greek yogurt, though traditionally it's not strained and flavored with fresh fruit.
Despite its widespread popularity as a healthy food choice, not every yogurt is healthy for you. Many brands pack in fillers, sugary additives, and flavorings and remove the live culture, resulting in a product that's more like dessert.
It's been suggested that yogurt has no lactose, making it a safe choice for those with lactose intolerance. While yogurt often has less lactose than regular milk, those who are sensitive to dairy should not eat it, and those allergic to dairy should avoid it altogether.
Studies have confirmed that eating a helping of live culture yogurt each day you're on antibiotics will help replace some of the beneficial gut bacteria the medication kills off.
US Department of Agriculture. FoodData Central. Yogurt, Greek, plain, lowfat. Updated April 1, 2019.
Verna EC, Lucak S. Use of probiotics in gastrointestinal disorders: what to recommend?. Therap Adv Gastroenterol. 2010;3(5):307-19. doi:10.1177/1756283X10373814