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Yogurt is in every grocer’s dairy aisle, but it originated in the Balkans as a means to preserve milk resulting in a tangy, versatile ingredient that is primarily made from cow’s milk, but can also be made from goat’s milk. Labneh, the Lebanese word for yogurt cheese, is a staple in many households and also makes it onto many Greek tables, as well. Since yogurt is comprised of coagulated milk curds in whey, when strained, the whey separates leaving a creamy cheese that can be used in baking and cooking. Sweetened with sugar or vanilla, it is great with fruit – and left plain, it is great in lasagna.

Both the Greeks and the Lebanese have a long-standing tradition of serving mezze – similar to the tapas served in Spain. While their Spanish counterparts are enjoying wine or beer with their small bites, the Greeks are enjoying ouzo, a strong licorice-flavored liqueur and the Lebanese are enjoying tea.

Excellent as an appetizer or on sandwiches, marinated yogurt cheese is rolled into balls, and stored in the refrigerator with layers of herbs, spices and extra virgin olive oil. In this recipe, it is marinated with bay, oregano, sage and peppercorns - but different herbs and spices can be used to suit your tastes creating a different dish each time.

Marinated Yogurt Cheese
32 oz. (2 lbs.) full-fat or low-fat plain yogurt
3 cups extra virgin olive oil
1-2 tbs. mixed peppercorns
2-3 dried bay leaves (or fresh)
4, 2-3 inch sprigs of fresh oregano or 1 tsp dried
4, 2-3 inch sprigs of fresh thyme or 1 tsp dried
2-3 leaves of fresh sage or 1 tsp dried

The process of making marinated yogurt cheese takes a minimum of 2 1/2 days. Day one, place a strainer over a bowl, line with two layers of cheesecloth and place the yogurt into the cloth. Pull together the corners of the cheesecloth and secure them shut with a rubber band. Place in the refrigerator for 24 hours to drain.

Then, line a tray or a shallow container with plain paper towels. Using two spoons or a small cookie scoop, put 1-inch size mounds of the drained yogurt onto the paper towels. Return to the refrigerator and chill for at least four hours or overnight.

To marinate, use a wide-mouth jar that has been cleaned with very hot, soapy water and dried with paper towels. Place a layer of herbs in the bottom of the jar, adding olive oil to cover. Then, rolling the drained mounds of yogurt into balls, place 2-3 in the jar and continue layering with the herbs and olive oil – ensuring the top is covered with oil. Place in the refrigerator and marinate for at least 24-hours. Stored this way, the yogurt cheese should be used in 2-3 weeks.

To serve, enjoy with flat bread or a crusty baguette. Also great with marinated olives, roasted nuts, etc.

Copyright 2006.