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.
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 labneh 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.
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 add lemon juice to the starter (just a squeeze), then salt it a bit and leave it out on the counter for the day and it ferments some. I add more lemon juice when the yogurt is made for more tang, as needed. 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.