It’s easy to think of yogurt as one-note. I’ve seen it treated as a morning grab-and-go afterthought, an obligatory partner for granola parfait—something common, boring, uninspiring. I too have made the mistake of taking yogurt for granted. When I was growing up in Iran, my family always made yogurt from scratch. We ate it every lunch and dinner (never breakfast) because it was as essential to our meals as table wine. But only after we immigrated to the States, after I’d pursued an entirely different career, did I appreciate the depth of this seemingly simple ingredient.
In 2011 I started a yogurt company, The White Moustache, to share the traditions handed down to me over generations. Taking milk, manipulating its temperature, adding probiotics, and straining out the liquid whey drop by drop created something pure and sacred. Each batch I make is a quiet but powerful reminder of my Iranian-Zoroastrian heritage. I have devoted my life now to celebrating this gift, and yogurt’s many wonders, with an even greater community.
Sometimes when I’m convincing people to cook with yogurt, I find myself sounding like an infomercial (It chops, it slices, it dices!). But yogurt really is endlessly versatile. It tenderizes meat; it makes soups creamy and baked goods moist. It pairs as well with earthy turmeric or fiery harissa as it does with sweet honey or cooling cucumber. And it’s packed with living, good bacteria that can promote gut health and boost immunity.
You don’t have to make your own from scratch to see how dynamic yogurt can be. Store-bought brands work well in the dishes that follow—inspired by tastes and influences so dear to my Iranian palate and Brooklyn community.
Is yogurt simple? On its own, perhaps. Is it one-note? Not at all. Whether sweet, savory, frozen, decadently thick, or in its beautiful liquid whey state, this humble ingredient provides the home cook countless creative possibilities. Through these recipes with yogurt, my hope is that you’ll be charmed by yogurt in its many forms—each a wonder worth embracing.
Save the whey
If you make labneh, you’re going to have whey—the liquid left over from straining yogurt. Whey is an incredible elixir full of calcium, riboflavin (a B vitamin), and good bacteria. It’s basically a liquid version of yogurt and can be used in endless ways. Its high acidity works perfectly in sweets recipes, tenderizing flour for moist pancakes, quick breads, and cakes. I do a 1:1 swap, replacing milk, water, or buttermilk with whey. (The water content isn’t exactly the same, so die-hard scientists may disagree, but in my cooking it’s always a success.)
I’m a big fan for another important reason: A great deal of whey is thrown out, which is a huge missed opportunity—like cracking eggs just for the yolks and discarding all the whites, but on a much bigger scale. Improper industrial whey disposal can be highly toxic to the environment; its live bacteria depletes oxygen levels in waterways, killing fish and other wildlife. The biggest companies pay farmers to take whey off their hands, but there’s still too much excess. One day I hope to see whey available at farmers markets for free by the bucket. In the meantime, strain yogurt and give whey a try.
There was always a bottle of sekanjabin around in our family home, so we could add water or whey and serve a cooling drink to guests in the summertime. The syrup is made with mood-lifting ingredients. Having it handy is a way of saying, “Please stop by. Let me refresh you. And give me the gossip.” This refreshing cucumber version, which gets additional tanginess from whey, is a Dashtaki favorite.
I rarely heat yogurt. I want it in its purest state, at its most alive—teeming with probiotics. To me, putting yogurt in a cold soup like this vibrant beet soup is the ultimate health hack. You’re adding creaminess without cream, as well as tons of probiotics and tang.
Every summer, pastry expert (and my Red Hook, Brooklyn neighbor) Fany Gerson gets a bucket of yogurt from our factory to make these amazing ice pops. This is what I love about our community. All I have to do is make great yogurt and it’ll find its home.
Like yogurt, on every Iranian table you’ll find a platter of items that include radishes and fresh herbs. We use them as palate cleansers or flavor enhancers that can change the color of every bite. Those often-overlooked essentials are honored directly on the plate in this recipe for yogurt-marinated chicken.
New York Shuk’s Ron and Leetal Arazi make the very best harissa. Like me, they’re immigrants celebrating heritage and food through nostalgic flavors and memories. Plus, harissa and labneh just taste really good together, like in this blistered asparagus dish.