Now that we’ve got down the basics for making our own yogurt, we’re going to take it to the next level. Your yogurt becomes its finest once it has been strained some (or quite a bit) to remove the whey that makes it so thin. Straining intensifies the yogurt’s flavor, and gives it the body and texture we crave. The more the yogurt is strained, the thicker it becomes.
There are a couple of different ways to strain your laban: use a thin muslin cloth, handkerchief, or bread cloth that is hung from the kitchen faucet, Sitti-style, to increase pressure and speed up the draining. Or use any of those cloths to line a strainer that is set in the sink or over a bowl to catch the whey. I’ve come to appreciate, after swearing off of it for a time, the ease of using plain white paper towel lining a strainer to drain yogurt. The strained yogurt practically peels right off of paper towel, whereas with cloth it must be scraped off, and then you have a yogurt-y mess of a towel to wash. My mother always kept a paper towel tucked over her laban in the refrigerator, which soaked up the whey and kept the laban a nice thickness.
Once your yogurt is strained, and you’ve transferred it from the cloth or paper towel into a bowl, it will need to be whisked for smoothness. Because there is always a layer of yogurt that is dryer closest to the cloth, that layer when mixed with the rest forms lumps in the yogurt. These will decrease substantially when thoroughly and briskly whisked. Add a little cold water to the yogurt to help smooth out the lumps while whisking. Aunt Hilda was known to place her laban in the stand mixer and have at it until she got the smooth consistency she was looking for. If it comes down to it, you can also run the yogurt through a sieve, but I think Aunt Hilda and I are the only ones smooth-obsessed enough to do something like that.
Here are straining times (for a towel-lined strainer, as opposed to hung with pressure, which will take less time) and results you can achieve. The yogurt will be fine if left unrefrigerated while it’s being strained (which also contributes to its fermented flavor), but this can also be done under refrigeration.
Laban: Slightly strained, 2 hours. I like a slightly strained yogurt for my day-to-day eating, topped with granola or honey or nothing at all, and this yogurt is great for baking and cooking (a full cup in my recent batch of meatballs, mixed with a touch of milk, was an excellent replacement for buttermilk). I always include a good spoonful of laban in the mix when I make hummus, which does the job on creaminess, suppleness. Slightly strained yogurt is the consistency of well-stirred mayonnaise.
Labne: Very strained, 6-8 hours. Yogurt strained this long becomes labne, a thick spread. This is what my Sitto ate every single morning on two pieces of buttered toast; she knew how to live. There is no doubt in my mind that I could survive just fine on a diet of labne, kalamata olives, and thin pita bread or Lebanese flat bread (plus dessert). There are very few Lebanese dishes that don’t beg for a dollop of labne to complete the plate: kibbeh (raw, baked or footballs) mujadara, coosa, eggs, shish kebab, hushwe, lubieh, grape leaf rolls…the list is endless. Labne even improves, as cousin Vicky pointed out, chicken soup.
Labne also makes wonderful dips for veggies or chips (with mix-ins like dill, cayenne, garlic or scallions), and appetizers—top crostini with labne and roasted tomatoes or roasted red bell pepper, and you are eating well. Mixed with a little milk and seasonings, labne is a cool, creamy salad dressing.
Labne preserved in oil: 2 days. This is yogurt-cheese, and it is special. Drain your labne way down to a very thick, cream cheese consistency, which takes a full 24 hours for laban made from ½ gallon of milk (longer for larger amounts).
Stir in salt to taste. From this thick labne, form little balls the size of walnuts and place those on a paper towel-lined sheet pan. Then top the balls with another paper towel. Leave them to continue to dry out for another day, changing out the paper towels whenever they get saturated with the whey. Reshape the balls in the palms of your hands to make them even rounder now, then place in a clean jar. Pour excellent-quality olive oil over the labne balls, cover, and keep refrigerated for many months, up to a year. Eat these topped with their olive oil and za’atar for breakfast, as part of a sophisticated cheese plate with bread or crackers, in a salad as you would goat cheese, or atop crostini like we did with the labne. It’s not uncommon for these labne balls to be flavored with cayenne pepper and eaten spicy.
Have you had your fill of yogurt yet? Never! Let me know if you make some and how you like to eat it…I bet you’re going to enjoy adding the laban-making tradition to your own kitchen as much as I have.
Print yogurt straining times here.