Yogurt: Use it for baked goods, meat marinades, even finger paint

By Evan Kleiman

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Sumac Roasted Strawberries with Yogurt Cream recipe is featured in “Ottolenghi Simple.” Photo courtesy of Clarkson Potter/Ten Speed.

The other night, I made a version of the Persian dish borani esfanaj (spinach with yogurt) by stirring fresh spinach I briefly sauteed with garlic into yogurt with shallots (mast-o-musir) that I took home from a Persian restaurant. It occurred to me that I probably use yogurt more lavishly than most, and that’s with almost never making a smoothie. Good full-fat yogurt is a workhorse in my kitchen and can be in yours as well. 

On the sweet side of the yogurt world, there are the parfaits made with jam and granola, and overnight oats, but yogurt is also a wonderful team player when it comes to baking. Its acidity reacts with baking soda, causing greater leavening. Adding yogurt to a batter also balances sweetness and makes the crumb of your baked goods more tender. I often use it instead of milk when making pancakes. They rise beautifully and end up so light. And there is Ottolenghi’s truly fabulous Sumac Roasted Strawberries with Yogurt Cream recipe that is perfect for early spring strawberries appearing now.

But where I really rely on the magical ingredient is in savory applications. Of course there are all the dips of Balkan and Middle Eastern origin, from Greek tzatziki to the Persian yogurt dishes mast-o-khiar (made with cucumbers, walnuts and rose petals), and mast-o-musir (which combines yogurt with fresh or dried shallots). And often I make a meal of Indian raita and rice. The repertoire of different raitas is extensive and goes beyond cucumber. 

Lemon, yogurt, and cucumbers are among ingredients to make Greek tzatziki or Persian mast-o-khiar. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

But you don’t just have to use yogurt for side dishes. It makes a wonderful tenderizing marinade for meat without the risk of a mushy result from over-marination that you get from lemon or vinegar marinades. I’ve marinated beef, lamb and chicken in a slather of yogurt, turmeric, cumin, ginger, onions, garlic and cilantro dozens of times over the years. If you want to know more about how and why yogurt works so wel, cookbook author Nik Sharma does a deep dive into the science of yogurt marinades.  

If you’ve ever tried to make the crispy bottom rice tahdig and failed, next time try stirring a bit of yogurt in just enough rice to cover the bottom. I think you’ll find that it helps. 

I don't think it’s possible to talk about yogurt and not mention all the Ottolenghi drizzles that he uses to great effect on salads and marinated vegetables. He uses yogurt as a carrier for all manner of spices and herbs and perhaps the addition of tahini to customize the drizzle. The garnish is more than a decoration. The embellishment carries richness and an additional layer of flavor to a particular dish. 

And finally, have you ever made finger paints with yogurt? Just add some food coloring or kool-aid to it, and let the little ones go wild without worrying what ends up in their mouths.

As most things, making your own yogurt is a journey that yields the best product once you get some experience, but we are spoiled for choice of high-quality versions made from pastured cows without any additions besides the probiotic starter. 

Aris Natural Food makes an extraordinary product in Inglewood. You can find them at many farmers’ markets. For a real treat, try their lemon yogurt, which is rich and while mousse-like, it’s also incredibly smooth and dense. 

California company Strauss makes both a pourable European style of yogurt and a strained Greek version. I use the thinner one for making overnight oats and the Greek version for everything else. It’s exceptional. I asked our Instagram audience what they used, and for those who went beyond Fage or Trader Joe’s, Strauss was a favorite. 

I’d also shout out Maple Hill, which uses milk from 100% grass-fed cows, and White Moustache. Both companies are New York-based but White Moustache has an outpost at Eataly in Century City, where the yogurt is made in-house.

This recipe for yogurt marinade for meat is from Evan Kleiman’s well-used copy of “The Cooking of India: Foods of the World Series,” which is now 53 years old. Santha Rama Rau developed the recipes. Photo by Evan Kleiman.