There is one food I remember at every Arabic breakfast with my family (spoiler: it’s not hummus). My mother would disappear into the pantry and emerge with a large jar of tightly packed, golf ball-size cheese immersed in olive oil. After scooping out a few, she’d then douse them again with olive oil and sprinkle on za’atar. This was labneh. We ate it in Arabic bread with fresh sliced tomato, cucumber, and pickled vegetables or spread it on toast. Because I’m mildly barbaric there *might* have been a time I ate it by itself with a spoon (the way I eat Nutella from the jar). Anyway, the cheese is somewhere between a cream cheese and mascarpone with a smooth, lush consistency and a distinctive tang that made a permanent impression on my palate. I guess I’m trying to say you haven’t lived until you’ve eaten a good labneh–and nothing, even “Greek yogurt” compares. Though labneh is made from yogurt, it is not the same thing.
Speaking of which, the ingredient standards for what’s sold in stores as Greek yogurt are a bit of a mess. It’s often made with preservatives and thickeners to achieve a firm consistency. I turn to Stonyfield Farms Organic Greek or their Double Cream plain yogurt. The former is made entirely without pectin, but really any good quality yogurt will do. The same goes for commerical labneh, which although convenient just tastes bland and flat to me and has a lot of additives. While in my childhood the making of labneh was always a bit of a mystery, you can produce your own yogurt from scratch with milk and a starter. Be warned that this can really go awry, so beginning at the store-bought yogurt stage is really best for most of us; it doesn’t make much difference in flavor and saves a lot of time. Homemade labneh is pure yogurt (no thickeners) with as much whey as possible strained out until you have a dense, extra thick and spreadable cheese. It’s then typically dusted with za’atar, sumac, mint, or cracked black pepper and drizzled with olive oil. In Eastern Mediterranean Arab countries, it’s formed into the golf balls of my childhood memories and preserved up to a year in olive oil (labneh bil zayit). This is a very popular method among Palestinians. The labneh of yesteryear was always made with goat’s milk yogurt, so if you can find some, you’ll have an authentic flavor.
My love of sweet and savory (and cheese) is well documented on this blog. Perhaps some of the romance I feel for labneh is its ability to serve as a carrier for other flavors while also enhancing them because of its mild acidity. There is almost no wrong way to use it–it’s great with lamb, salmon, or even roasted chicken, in a grain bowl over farro, or dolloped on roasted vegetables such as carrots and sweet potatoes. One of my favorite snacks is labneh spread on whole wheat toast then drizzled with honey and topped with chewy, caramel-flavored dates. Sprinkle some lemony sumac on labneh and eat it with crackers and a side of olives. I’ve heard about labneh ice cream (!), baking it into fig galettes and cheesecakes, or eating labneh like a dip by stirring in some chopped veggies and herbs. However you choose to consume it, labneh, deriving from its root word laban (meaning white or milk) has been produced and eaten in Eastern Mediterranean Arab countries (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine) for thousands of years.
A few tips: you’re more likely to get a delicious labneh if you use full fat yogurt. I can’t help you if you’re terrified of healthy fats because six pack abs > the pleasure of food, or you live in a large coastal city where it’s cool to subsist solely on kale chips and vegetable juices, or, if you’re a vegan fascist* who believes there is no ethically produced dairy and making yogurt cheese is tantamount to murder (this was a real conversation). Because we are not extremists at Intifooda, low-fat yogurt is a fine alternative if you’re willing to sacrifice a little flavor. Organic yogurt made from cows not treated with hormones and antibiotics is obviously a better choice.
*Veganism is great. Aggressive rants about vegetarians and omnivores are not great*
To make labneh:
32 oz whole milk, organic Greek or regular yogurt, plain
1 tablespoon kosher salt; less or more to taste
- Stir kosher salt into yogurt, mix until well combined. You should taste the yogurt and add more salt depending on your palate
- Place a fine mesh strainer over a large bowl. Drape cheesecloth or a thin towel securely over the mesh strainer.
- Pour yogurt into cheesecloth that is cradled by the strainer. Loosely bring the ends together and cover the yogurt. Put the entire straining contraption in the fridge for a few days until the yogurt is firm and the whey has drained out.
- Uncover and scoop labneh either into a bowl to serve immediately, or into an airtight container where it will keep in the fridge for up to a week. To make bil zayit, roll labneh into balls and place them gently into a jar with a seal. Cover with a good quality olive oil to preserve them for up to a month.