Homemade yogurt, Lebanese laban: the recipe

Here’s a simple post for a simple recipe to make your own yogurt. You can do this! You want to do this! There’s something deeply satisfying about homemade yogurt—the making of it, and above all, the eating.

Your yogurt can be as thin or as thick as you like; thickening is achieved by straining the yogurt. I always make some of each: thinner for using as an ingredient in other dishes or eating a lovely, pure bowlful; thicker for spreading and pairing with just about every other Lebanese dish there is. It’s our crème de la crème, our flavor-maker, the delight of every plate.

Homemade yogurt; Lebanese laban
My Sitto and my mother and many other a Lebanese cook rinse the pan out with cool water before pouring the milk in, to help prevent burning the milk. I do not know if this practice is effective, but it is not mine to question. Read additional tips on making yogurt here.

½ gallon milk (skim, 1%, 2%, or ideally, whole organic milk)
¼ to ½ cup yogurt (rawbi, plain yogurt with live active cultures; ideally whole milk), room temperature

Heat the milk: Rinse a large heavy saucepan (3-quart or larger) with cool water. Add the milk, and if using, clip a digital thermometer in the pan. Bring to just below a boil (210 degrees) at medium low heat, about 15 minutes. Stay nearby, because the milk will froth up and as it begins to boil it will rise up swiftly in the pan. Remove from the heat immediately.

Cool the milk and add the starter: Let the milk cool down to 110-115 degrees, stirring occasionally. If you are not using a thermometer, the equivalent is when your pinkie can just withstand being swirled in the milk for ten seconds. Arriving at this temperature can take an hour. If the milk cools below 110 degrees, gently warm it up to 110-115 degrees. If in this process of reheating, the temperature goes above 115 degrees, wait again until it comes back down to 110-115. Spoon a few tablespoons of the milk at this temperature into the yogurt (rawbi) starter, then stir that starter yogurt into the milk. You will notice a skin forms on the surface of the milk; that can be stirred right in with the starter, or spooned out.

Rest the milk: Remove the thermometer if you’ve used one, and cover the pan. Set the pan aside, undisturbed, in a warm spot for anywhere from 6 to 10 hours, or overnight. An ideal incubator is the oven, turned off (the oven can be heated on the lowest setting for a minute before placing the pan in, just to encourage warmth, but be sure to turn it off immediately).

Chill the yogurt: Remove the pot from the oven. The milk will have thickened into yogurt. Place, undisturbed as of yet, into the refrigerator for 1-3 days to further set the yogurt before eating or straining to thicken.

Congratulations: small batch, handcrafted deliciousness is yours.

Tomorrow, more on straining the laban, and the very many special ways to enjoy eating it.

Print this recipe here. Find my short essay on making laban, published in Saveur, here.

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25 Responses to Homemade yogurt, Lebanese laban: the recipe

  1. Phillip B. Shamas says:

    My grandmother taught me how to make Laban and other Lebanses dishes. Laban and Labanee seem to be the only dish I have tried. I’m going to look into a butcher here in Austin that would prepare Kibbeh meat for me and try making that. I was always told though that my hands are too warm and I would have to keep putting them in a bowl of ice water not to make the meat sour…or something like that anyway. I did used to make the chicken, green beans and rice and grape leaves when my children were little. The grape leaves take patience! I love to cook and love to cook Lebanese food but only cooking for me is boring! If I had a Lebanese significant other then maybe I would give a full Lebanese meal a shot!

    • Robin Daumit says:

      Since I was a girl growing up in an American/Syrian home, we always made our yogurt. But in the past 15 years I have not been able to find a store bought yogurt for starter, that is really yogurt! The real and natural active ingredients that give yogurt it’s medicinal properties are gone! What brand would you suggest to use as starter?

      • Maureen Abood says:

        Hi Robin–the main thing to look for is “live, active cultures” in your starter, and many brands have this. I look for whole milk plain yogurt, which is rarely found in a small container. Mom always used Dannon plain yogurt as her starter. I like Fage Total yogurt, which comes in a small container; it is thicker than regular yogurt but works well (thinned out with some of the warm milk before adding back into pan of cooked milk).

  2. Phillip B. Shamas says:

    Another thought…I use my finger when making Laban and when I can count to 10 without burning my finger then the milk is ready for the starter. I just use Greek Yogurt as a starter rather than the rawbi like back in the day! My how times have changed! When I was little you were very strange eating that strange white “Jello” that smelled funny and tasted weird according to my friends! And now…it’s the rage!

  3. Jerry Wakeen says:

    Great article that answered previous questions about “starter”.

    Here is my previous exchange:
    As a young man I was more interested in the technicalities than the cooking. One day I asked Aunt Doris where “starter” came from. She said her mother gave her some. I asked where her mother got hers. She said her father’s brother’s wife gave mom some. I asked where they got theirs and Doris said something like, I don’t know, everyone has starter! :)

    Then after she cooled down a bit she asked my dad where the starter came from originally. He thought for a minute and said well you can make your own starter using Junket tablets you know. (In the back of his grocery store were canning supplies and other seldom sold items, Junket tablets were always there but to this day I don’t think dad ever sold any).

    So, assuming this Laban (Labne, labneh, yogurt, yogurt cheese) is the same sort of “labon” that my grandparents made (it has to be actually) it is good to know that the starter can come from a number of places.

    As a young man I never cared much for it but would follow my elders in dipping kibbe in it, or the like. My wife, who is not Lebanese, loves it with grape leaf rolls and she makes it by doctoring up regular unflavored yogurt, as another aunt taught her to do. I do recall that as a dressing for cucumber salad, with mint, I liked it a lot more.

    Anyway great coverage Maureen, hope you didn’t get hit too hard by SANDY, we were lucky here in Hughesville, Maryland, only lost power for an hour or two (I worked all day Saturday on a generator that we didn’t in the end use at all). I pray for the millions that still do not have power.
    best, Jerry

    • Roger Toomey says:

      I’ve always heard that the original bacteria that makes the starter work came from the stomach of an animal. They used the stomach of a slaughtered animal as a bag to transport milk and in the process laban and other cheeses were born.

      I also understand that if one exposes milk to air wild bacteria will form cheese. Another possibility for the original starter.

      I wouldn’t recommend either of these as there were probably thousands of sick people from eating a bacteria that wasn’t beneficial until they found that one that was beneficial and used it as the starter for a thousand generations.

  4. Bill B. says:

    Loved it so much that I learned how to make it. Shocked the heck out of my mother.

  5. Carol Miller says:

    Using the pinky finger is how my grandmother (on my father’s side) taught my mother and me to make Laban when I was a child. Frequently though it wouldn’t set. I finally figured out my mother had a “high heat tolerance” and she was “killing” the starter. I could barely count to 4 or 5 when she was testing and saying it was cool enough! When I told her to count to 20 (instead of 10), we never lost another batch.

    • Urmila says:

      I am from India, living in USA last 4 decades. I have always made homemade yogurt, like my mom and her mom used to make, everyday. Here is my modified simple recipe that many of my Indian friends use now. No need to wait for 10 – 24 hours! No need to put the yogurt in the refrig for 1-3 days! Here is what I do: one quart 1 or 2% milk in a 2qt corningware or Pyrex bowl. Boil the milk in the microwave. Remove. Cool till 115degF, or till you feel the right temp with your pinky. Add just two tablespoons of room temperature yogurt from last batch. Stir. Cover. Put back in the microwave, since it is warm from your milk boiling. I put a post it with time. Check in 3 hours. Yogurt is set and ready! Put in refrigerator for just few hours. Enjoy. I add 4 tbs non fat dry milk and stir before adding the starter culture. By the way, if I am out of town for several weeks, I keep a few tablespoons of my yogurt in a sealed container in the freezer. When I am back, I thaw in in the refrig and use it for fresh batch of yogurt….I just had to write this since I have seen too many long, involved recipes….drove me nuts!

  6. Roger Toomey says:

    Laban is the one Lebanese dish that my mother made but wouldn’t eat. In fact I didn’t know of anyone that wasn’t born into the family that would eat it. I’m still stunned that good marketing (and a lot of added sugar) could somehow make it Swedish and popular. We always milked cows and sold the cream. That left the skim milk to be either fed to animals or available for laban. When the cows started slowing production and we knew there would be some time before they would calve again, Dad would put the laban in a cloth bag and hang it from the cloths line until all of the liquid drained. He would then roll it in balls about as large as an egg, put it in a jar and cover it with oil. This preserved it without refrigeration so we were never short. Our family always salted it before we ate it. My cousins always peppered theirs and this was always a debate as to which was better.

  7. Jim Abood says:

    Great post Maureen! Once I asked Sitto how leban was first created. She said that in primative times in the middleeast, they used a goat’s stomach to carry liquids when they traveled (through the hot desert) which caused the milk to curdle–creating laban.

  8. Thoroughly enjoy the above comments. Maureen’s writing resonates with us all.

  9. Roger, I have often thought that about the 39 (?) steps involved in curing olives.
    How many people died while they were figuring this out over eons?

  10. SAK says:

    Great, Urmilla. Your process is simple and great! It worked.

  11. Deanna H says:

    Hi Maureen,

    I followed your instructions to the tee, but my yogurt didn’t “set”. It is still very liquid. How can I fix this? I don’t have any more starter. I did the pinky test then added about 8oz starter when my pinky was okay for 10 seconds. Maybe I have a better heat tolerance than others. What can I do with a half set yogurt?

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Hello Deanna–sorry that your laban didn’t take! It could well have been the temperature of the milk when you added the starter, or perhaps the starter wasn’t quite right. You can start the same process over using the half-set yogurt, but you do need another starter.

      • Deanna H. says:

        Okay so I repeated the entire process again using more starter. Now it looks like areesh. Ha. I’m going to toss the batch and start over!

  12. David E. Samara, MD says:

    Maureen, Thanks for bringing me back to childhood memories. Unfortunately all the old great cooks in the family have passed on and I miss them and their recipes. (I am lucky to have many of their original handwritten notes connecting me to them.) Your blog brings it all back! Though I live in Dallas and can get superb commercial Labne , I make my own Organic Fat Free yogurt using the same technique as Urmila (see above post.) My 4 liter pyrex bowl of milk cools in about two hours but I speed the process by sitting it in a larger pot of cool water and it is between 108-112 degrees in 1 hr. If too cool, I microwave for 1 minute. I too learned the pinkie in the milk trick (ouch!) but now I am more scientific with an instant read thermometer. My Rohbi is from a previous batch but as this can degrade over time (and with the bacteria from your pinkie) I always add a bit of Yogourmet starter powder which I get from my Whole Foods and get fewer watery or failed attempts. http://www.yogourmet.com. Thanks for your posts and I have a batch of Lift started as well from your inspiring post on it.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      David, thank you so much for sharing all of that! I will check out the powder starter, very curious about that. And how nice that you are staying in touch with our beautiful, delicious culinary history. Please keep me posted as you go!

  13. Maguy says:

    Hi Maureen,

    Have you ever tried to make laban or labneh with lactose free milk?? Any special tips on making laban and labneh from lactose free milk? Thanks!!

  14. Maguy C says:

    Hi Maureen, thoughts on making Laban and labneh from lactose free milk? Thanks!

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Hello! My understanding is that you can make yogurt with lactose-free milk because of the way the enzymes are structured in it. You still need to use a starter of regular yogurt with live and active cultures, by that doesn’t contain much lactose (neither does regular yogurt, by the way). If you try it, I’d love to know how it goes!

  15. Barbara T. Austin says:

    I learned to make laban from my husband’s mother and Sitti. They always got a starter (rawbi) from a friend or relative. I made laban a lot when my children were at home as they loved it on stuffed squash, grape leaves, any stuffed vegetables and as a cold dish with garlic, salt and cucumber and mint (spearmint) The older folk are all gone now and we are the old folk. Fortunately we raise sheep, garlic, cucumbers, squash of all kinds, tomatoes and eggplants and okra and have parsley, dill and basil and spearmint from my mother-in-law’s patch. We even have a grape vine from Sitti’s grape vine which came from the old country. In doing research on how to make laban I came across a procedure for making a starter from organic, raw milk. It involves letting the milk sit out until it sours and curdles and using the curds (about 2T) to make successive batches of fermented milk using the method you describe above until you have the proper taste. You use the remainder from each batch in cooking when sour milk is called for or give your dogs a treat. I am on the 4th batch now and I’m going to test it this evening. It smells right, so wish me luck. By the way, soured raw milk smells good, not like store bought pasturized milk that goes bad and smells just rotten awful. We have been drinking raw milk for about 7 years now and we know the farmer and her cows. No problems and we dislike “store” milk now and won’t drink it. Mother-in-law’s family were Nassar and Sitti’s al Akl, others were Attaya and Khourey.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      That’s all so fascinating, Barbara. I imagine your local raw milk is wonderful to drink and for laban and labneh. Thank you for sharing!


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