IDIOT’S GUIDE: Greek Yogurt
Most people reading this article have probably seen Greek yogurt at some point. Whereas ten years ago the thick, creamy variety of yogurt was rarely seen outside health food stores and ethnic markets, these days Greek yogurt is everywhere. Brands like Chobani and FAGE are household names. Everyone from Dr. Oz to Rachael Ray seems to be talking about it.
But do you REALLY know what Greek yogurt is? What makes it different from other yogurts? What makes it so much better than the plain stuff we’re used to? Why does everyone seem to be going nuts over it? Stay tuned—the answers to all these questions, and more, are about to be answered.
The first thing you need to know about Greek yogurt is that it’s not just Greek. The real name for Greek yogurt is “strained yogurt,” and in most of the world this is the name it’s known by. Evidence suggests the Greeks were probably fairly late to the party—yogurt was already being produced in Iran and India long before the Greeks heard about it. At the risk of involving himself in the rather contentious relationship between Turks and Greeks, this writer will say that, really, Greek yogurt probably should be called “Turkish yogurt,” since most evidence suggests that the production of strained yogurt did not start until the Ottomans conquered Greece in the Middle Ages.
To understand what differentiates strained yogurt from the normal variety, it’s easiest to think about opening up a container of yogurt. More often than not, you’re exposed to a rather unpleasant layer of liquid on the top that looks a bit like cloudy water. This is whey—those who are familiar with cheeses or protein shakes will recognize the name. Whey is a byproduct of the curdling process used to produce cheese and yogurt. It is composed of water and lactose and a small amount of milk fat. It’s easiest to think of it as the water that was in the milk and has separated from the solidified milk curd. Not a terribly appetizing thing to think about, but it has plenty of tasty uses. The most common is the production of “whey cheeses,” like ricotta, which are lower in fat and sweeter than other cheeses. It is also commonly used to create the rennet that is used in the production of other cheeses, and in the athletic world it is the source of the popular whey protein supplement.
What makes strained yogurt different from other yogurts is the straining process, where the yogurt is run through a strainer. The whey, being a liquid, drains off while the yogurt remains. The process significantly reduces the water content of the yogurt, which leads to the thicker consistency the yogurt is known for. Normal unstrained yogurt tends to retain most of the whey, leading to its being thinner, sweeter, and more watery. One of the reasons why it tends to be so much more expensive than plain yogurt is that the strained product loses a considerable amount of bulk, requiring more milk to produce the same quantity of yogurt.
In terms of the health benefits of Greek yogurt, one should recognize that Greek yogurt and plain yogurt are, in all but one way, the same thing. Both are produced by the fermentation of lactose by active bacterial cultures in a warm environment. The difference is really in the straining process. Effectively what you’re buying (and likely paying significantly more for due to inflated prices) is a more refined product than normal yogurt. It has a higher quantity of protein (around twice as much) and a lower amount of carbohydrate (due to the removal of the whey).
A cup of plain, unsweetened fat-free Greek yogurt from Green Mountain Creamery (the kind provided in the Tufts dining hall) has 120 calories, 20g of protein, and 1.2g of carbohydrates. Compare that to plain, unsweetened fat-free unstrained yogurt, which has 128 calories, 13g of protein, and 18g of carbohydrates. One could also compare it to cottage cheese, which has long been popular among athletes for its protein content; according to the information Tufts provides, the brand they offer has 160 calories, 2.4g of fat, 6.4g of carbohydrates, and 28g of protein in one cup, as well as 920mg of sodium, or 40% of your daily recommended value.
For those who care about protein content, it might be interesting to know that Greek yogurt is one of the best vegetarian protein sources around. Per calorie, its protein content is comparable to powdered protein supplements and lean chicken. No wonder health gurus and fitness nuts are both going crazy over Greek Yogurt. You get an excellent source of filling protein that is low fat and low in carbohydrates, and you get it without the huge sodium content of cottage cheese.
One of the biggest complaints people seem to have about Greek yogurt is that it doesn’t taste good. Plain Greek yogurt lacks the sweetness of plain unstrained yogurt and in this writer’s opinion, tastes a lot like sour cream (on an aside, replacing sour cream with Greek yogurt is a really easy and painless swap which can be a great way to lower the fat content of your food).
One common trend in yogurt has been its adulteration with sugary flavorings and syrups. While this is an excellent way to introduce yogurt to children and handle the taste issue, the alternative is so simple and, in this writer’s opinion, far tastier. Greek yogurt has a relatively mild and slightly savory flavor but responds very well to the addition of fresh fruit. Chop up a banana, add some raisins, or at the very least mix in some canned peaches. Any issues with the taste will be eliminated and you’ll wonder why you ever were willing to settle for a sugary knock-off (since these sugary syrups usually add as much sugar as the straining process removes, you’d be better off sticking with the unstrained variety if you can’t give up the adulterated stuff).
However, there are so many more ways to make it more palatable:
- Combine with applesauce and cinnamon. The unsweetened applesauce adds a naturally fruity sweetness to the yogurt, while the cinnamon nicely compliments the base savory-ness. An excellent, filling breakfast combines an oat-based granola or oatmeal with this mixture for a healthier take on apple cinnamon oatmeal.
- A tablespoon of Nutella turns Greek yogurt into a delicious chocolate pudding that you don’t have to feel guilty about eating—you’re getting your daily dose of Nutella, satisfying your sweet tooth, and getting plenty of protein and calcium to boot.
- Greek yogurt makes a perfect smoothie base, especially if you want a delicious snack after your workout. Unlike milk, it won’t curdle if you add acids, so feel free to add all sorts of fruit for a filling, vitamin-filled drink.
If you’re not in the mood for a bowl of yogurt, you can involve all the goodness of Greek yogurt in your life in so many other ways. Keep an open mind and check your recipe book for any use for mayonnaise, buttermilk, or sour cream. Though there’s a time and place for everything, especially mayonnaise and sour cream, for most applications you won’t notice the difference if you make a quick switch. Greek yogurt is so mild and yielding when it comes to the addition of other flavors that it works great in creamy dips and dressings. Add it to guacamole to make sure that you’re only getting the good fats. Combine it with egg, potato, or meat for a healthy deli salad. Or add it to baked goods that need buttermilk instead of relying on the common work-around of curdled milk—it’ll be moister and more authentic, thanks to the active cultures. You’d do best to stick with mayo in sandwiches, but you’ll forget you ever needed sour cream—this writer will tell you that a baked potato topped with Greek yogurt tastes exactly the same.
While this article is certainly focused on non-fat Greek yogurt, Greek yogurt comes in a variety of fat contents. Higher fat Greek yogurt has its own niche in the culinary world—typically the traditional culinary uses (compared to the health-conscious ones) will rely on full-fat yogurt, which is thicker, richer, and works better in desserts than non-fat varieties. Full-fat Greek yogurt may not be as guilt-free, but if you want to make Mediterranean cuisine, the creaminess of a full-fat tzatziki, tandoori marinade, or labneh can’t be matched by the non-fat variety. Serious Eats provides a wide variety of recipes for full-fat and reduced-fat Greek yogurt.
One of the big issues with Greek yogurt is cost. On the whole, the price of Greek yogurt is ridiculously inflated. A combination of high demand and artificial price inflation may bring pause to the shopper who was considering buying it. However, a solution exists that brings Greek yogurt into the realm not only of affordability but also of savings. Making your own Greek yogurt is easy and cheap—Molly Sheridan at Serious Eats calculated a savings of $3.50 from making her own, and that was with an expensive organic milk. Check out her instructions here (The writer can tell you from experience that the process works).
If you want to make a simple swap to improve your life, you could do far worse than switching to Greek yogurt. Between its superior nutritional qualities (20% your DV of calcium, high protein, and active cultures) and its culinary versatility, it’s a healthy food choice that couldn’t be easier to include in your diet. Next time you want a cup of yogurt, whether you’re at the supermarket or in the dining hall, consider making the switch to Greek yogurt—once you’ve gone Greek, yogurt will never be the same again.