Recipe: Drained Yoghurt (Labneh)

I’m not sure you can call something with exactly one ingredient a recipe, per se, but this is a really useful thing to know about, very easy, and a basis for all sorts of yummy things.  This is basically a yoghurt cheese, which you can make as firm as you have the patience (or planning) for.  It’s somewhat similar in personality to cream cheese, but has the advantage that you can choose what ever variety of dairy product you like to start with – low-fat or full-fat, cow, goat or sheep’s milk, according to taste or lactose tolerance.  Rumour has it you can even make this using soy yoghurt, but given the difficulty of finding a plain soy yoghurt in Australia, this is probably not going to be practical for my local vegan friends.

The only trick to this recipe is that you do need to start it at least 6 hours ahead of time (though I understand that soy labneh takes less time).  But since you don’t actually have to do anything with it during this time, we’re really talking a matter of planning rather than work.

The fun part, of course, is all the stuff you can do with it when it’s done… see below for many, many ideas.

Your shopping list

2 kg yoghurt of your choice, but bear in mind that you do want a reasonably well-flavoured yoghurt, and thicker, Greek-style yoghurts are easier to work with.  And yes, I know this is a lot of yoghurt but you will be losing a lot of the bulk as the liquid drains out, especially if you are using a fairly thin yoghurt or draining it for a longer time.  There’s really not much point in starting with less than 1 kg if you want a usable amount at the end.
You will also need cheesecloth (ha, like I can ever find that), clean chux wipes (the option preferred by my cheesemaking teacher), or a sacrificial tea towel (which you will really want to rinse out immediately after use, or horrible things will start growing in it very quickly), as well as a seive or colander and a bowl to sit it on.

Now what will you do with it?

Line your seive with your cheesecloth, chux or sacrificial tea towel, and place on top of a bowl (you don’t want the bottom of the seive touching the bottom of the bowl, and ideally you want it to sit fairly high above the bottom of the bowl so that you won’t have to keep coming back and pouring off the liquid).

Pour the yoghurt carefully into the tea towel and colander, and draw up the corners a bit so that you can cover the top of the yoghurt.  Try to resist the urge to start squeezing liquid out immediately (I rarely resist the urge, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t behave more sensibly than I do).  You’ll find quite a bit of liquid comes out of it quite quickly – I often leave the yoghurt at room temperature for half an hour or an hour, as this speeds the process up.

Pour off whatever liquid has gathered in the bowl, and put the whole arrangement in the fridge for at least 6-8 hours or up to a couple of days.  Pour off the liqud periodically.

What will happen during this time is that the yoghurt will thicken as it is drained of much of its moisture, giving it a creamier texture, a stronger flavour, and eventually a consistency that can be rolled into balls of yoghurt cheese.

When it is done to your liking, remove it from the cheesecloth and store it in an airtight container in the fridge.  Or follow one of the suggestions below.  I recommend experimenting with different kinds of yoghurt and different draining times, to see what you like best.

Variations, which in this case are mostly things to do with your labneh

This is the fun part, really.

A traditional thing to do with labneh is to spread it on pita bread with a bit of za’atar or cumin and maybe some olive oil and have it for breakfast with a bit of tomato and cucumber on the side.  I feel that one could do much worse.

Labneh at the thick-but-not-cheesy stage is a really good basis for tzatziki dip that you don’t want to go all watery.  Grate a cucumber and squeeze out the moisture, then add to a cup or two of labneh with some crushed garlic, olive oil, mint, lemon zest and a little salt.  Lovely.

Labneh that has been allowed to get very thick can be rolled into little balls and then you can roll the balls in dried herbs or za’atar or whatever you like, really, and serve as a mezze.  Or you can preserve the balls in olive oil, with or without coating.

One completely un-traditional thing I like doing with very thick / cheeselike labneh is making a yoghurt cheesecake (which is both egg-free and gelatine free, so double points for me!).  This is really easy.  You start with whatever your preferred cheesecake base is (I’m rather fond of crushed gingernuts held together with melted butter), and then mix your labneh with lemon zest and sugar to taste, and spoon over the base.  Top with strawberries or other fresh fruit, and you’re done.  Yum.  This is, of course, adaptable to just about any flavour you like.

You could even make a savoury version of this as a yoghurt pie for summer, with salad vegetables and a cracker base.

I seem to recall there is rather a lovely middle eastern dish that involves layers of toasted pita bread with labneh and chickpeas and a tomatoey sauce (probably seasoned with cumin and thyme, and maybe with some mint over the top).  I bet you could figure this one out retroactively if you tried.  Add lamb meatballs if you want a carnivorous version.

Labneh is also nice at the semi-thick stage spooned into a bowl and scattered with pomegranate seeds and pistachios, a drizzle of honey, and a sprinkling of cinnamon.

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