Once you get the hang of making your own yogurt (a.k.a.: laban), you will do it without thinking. You’ll do it as a matter of course, the same way you start the week off with all kinds of habits. While I’ve struggled to form many a habit, laban-making is not one of them. I love having my own yogurt in the fridge so much that I make it every week. Perhaps I am addicted to the kitchen-thrill of discovering each time that yes, my milk has set, and yogurt has been born.

Making yogurt this frequently also means I can make a smaller batch at a time. When I tried to make a huge batch not that long ago for a dinner for the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, things got out of hand. I bought three gallons of milk and used two large pots, neither of which was very heavy or equipped for the task.

Apparently I wasn’t either, because Murphy’s law was at play that day. The large amount of milk heated at a snail’s pace, and I got distracted. The milk boiled over, which is a major event to clean up on the pain-in-the-neck flat electric cook top we have on Main Street. I recovered from that and did end up with laban after its overnight rest, but then when I was about two hours into my trip downstate for the event, I remembered my big pots of laban were still back in Harbor Springs, in the refrigerator. Which turned out to be a good thing, because when I arrived up north again and pulled out the laban, it smelled and tasted distinctly of bonfire. I love a good smokey bonfire flavor all over my marshmallows, but not my laban. Suffice it to say I’m a fan of the small-batch laban. Hand-crafted, as they say.

Let’s cut to the chase before I launch into a lengthy story about yogurt and its deep culinary history and meaning in my family and probably yours too. Here are the tips:

  1. The milk. I always use organic milk, because anything I eat that much of, I like it to be as clean as possible. Yogurt can be made with skim, 1%, 2%, or whole milk. Of course, whole milk is the best in terms of flavor and texture. Heck, I’ve even taken a page out of Aunt Hilda’s play book and poured in a pint of heavy cream with my milk. Good Lord, that’s like the wedding gown of all laban—some seriously luscious, special-occasion loveliness.
  2. The starter.Yogurt is made like sourdough, with a starter—called “rawbi” in Arabic—from your last batch. If you have no last batch, use yogurt from the store. Much of your yogurt-making success depends upon the starter. Just ask Amara, who discovered after three exacting tries last week that it must be a faulty starter she was working from. She changed that up, and voila!, she had laban.If you buy commercial yogurt for your starter, be sure it’s plain (not vanilla). I generally use a whole milk (not non-fat) rawbi, even if I’m making a low-fat laban with low-fat milk. Thicker labne or plain “Greek” yogurt can work for rawbi, but I’ve experienced fails with that once or twice, and that’s what was causing Amara’s trouble as well. I tend to stick with regular, unstrained (thinner) yogurt. The starter should be room temperature when it’s stirred into the milk, so let it sit out for a while before you make your yogurt, or warm it in the microwave for a few seconds. You’ll “temper” the starter (bring it to similar temperature as the milk) with a little warm milk from the pot as well.
  3. The flavor. Yogurt is made with such simplicity, and so few ingredients, that it is going to taste only as good as your ingredients. The Lebanese enjoy their yogurt with a certain tang, a certain depth of flavor that is unlike the typical sweetened or plain commercial yogurt. Commercial Greek yogurts sometimes capture this flavor (whole milk Fage comes darn close). When my homemade yogurt lacks depth of flavor, I salt it a bit and leave it out on the counter for the day and it ferments some. Or I try to find a starter that has better flavor for my next batch, from someone else’s laban or from the homemade laban you can purchase at Middle Eastern markets. Authentic Lebanese laban is often made with goat’s milk, which is super flavorful, rich, and good.

I know many of you have also made a lot of laban in your time, so by all means please weigh in on your own tips. Tomorrow, the recipe for homemade yogurt, straight up.

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