I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am to have figured out this recipe. We love Middle Eastern fare. One of our favorites is kabobs, although we love everything else we've ever tried of it, too. Yogurt sauce is ubiquitous in many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines. Unfortunately, I've just usually never been a big fan of them. Tzatziki is probably the best known, but it's always too tart for my taste. Enter our local Mediterranean/Middle Eastern eatery (hey, it's a small town - thus this one place has a wide range of cuisine). From the first time we ordered their gyros and souvlaki, I was hooked. I had never enjoyed eating a yogurt sauce so much! But what was the difference? When I asked them, they said it was basically just yogurt and cucumber, but when I would buy Greek or other yogurt from the supermarket, it never came out right.
Then I recently placed an order for some more cheese cultures. While surfing New England Cheese Making's site, I came across a yogurt culture that claimed to be "sweet." Was this what I was looking for? I had to give it a try!! I ordered some culture, but just sat on it for a while, never quite getting around to it. Then, while out of town, I was in a Mediterranean grocery and started asking them about the yogurts they had for sale and whether any of them had a sweeter flavor. The clerk suggested I try this one, which is a strained yogurt "cheese" (i.e. is drained until it is almost the texture a soft cheese). I gave it a whirl and it turned out exactly how I wanted it! It was absolutely delicious!
Just one problem. I live in a small town in the South. Not many Mediterranean groceries around here. But now that I had a recipe, I knew I had to give that "sweet" yogurt culture a try. It worked perfectly. It's a bit time consuming to make the yogurt sauce when you have to make the yogurt yourself first, but - I'm telling you - it's worth it! If you have a market nearby you can buy the stuff from, even better!! Even my three year old scarfs it down like there's no tomorrow. Give him a plate of kabob meat and yogurt sauce, and you've got one happy little boy.
Well, if you can buy the stuff, then you can ignore the next few paragraphs (lucky devil!). Otherwise, here's how to make your own yogurt.
First, you have to scald the milk. The starter culture that I use will work for 1-2 quarts. The process is the same for either amount, you just need to change the size of the vessels you use. I did one quart this time, but I'll probably do two in the future to maximize my time. Place the whole milk (please don't skimp on this) in a pan and heat to 185 degrees, stirring occasionally to reduce the chance of scorching. Use a thermometer and pull it off the heat as soon as it reaches temperature. Have a sink of cold water ready to set the pan in. The goal is to cool it down to between 110 and 112 degrees F fairly quickly.
Add the starter culture and stir for one to two minutes. Pour the milk into a jar (or other vessel) to culture. I use a jar when I make yogurt because you typically don't want to disturb the yogurt once it's done because it causes it to separate. In this case, it's not as big an issue because you're going to dump it all into a colander to drain anyway. I drilled a hole in the top of my lid so that my instant read thermometer can sit in there and keep tabs for me without having to disturb the whole kit and caboodle.
Use a heating pad to keep the yogurt at around 112 degrees F for approximately seven or eight hours. If you have a yogurt maker, even better. This set up works really well for me, though. I wrap the heating pad around and then a towel for insulation (and to hold it all together). A binder clip finishes it off. Adjust the heating pad temperature as needed to maintain as consistent a temperature as possible in the milk.
Once the yogurt is set and thickened, it's ready to drain, This particular yogurt culture did not set as firmly as some others I have used, but since I was going to drain it anyway, I wasn't concerned. I lined a colander with butter muslin (you can also use multiple layers of cheesecloth, but it will let some of the "curd" through). Let it drain for a couple of hours, until the yogurt is very thick.
Here, you can see just how thick it is, that it holds its shape quite well in the muslin. One quart of milk made about 1 1/2 cups of drained yogurt.
Add approximately an equal amount of grated English cucumber. Do not squeeze the liquid out. Add the remaining ingredients and let sit in the refrigerator for at least four hours. I actually think this sauce tastes best on days two and three. The first day, it's still a bit tart. By day four, it's starting to break down a little bit.
Lebanese Yogurt Sauce
Yield: about 2 cups
1 - 1 1/2 cups Labna* or "sweet"**, drained yogurt
1 cup grated English cucumber, finely chopped
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp microplaned garlic (or very, very finely minced)
1/2 tsp salt ***
1/8 tsp (white) pepper
After grating the cucumber, run a chef's knife through it to cut the shreds into smaller pieces. Do not squeeze the liquid out of the cucumber. Mix all ingredients together. Place in a covered container in the refrigerator for four hours or overnight. Tastes best if used within three days.
* Look for Labna in Middle Eastern or Mediterranean groceries.
** You can make your own "sweet" yogurt using the directions in the post above. Use the starter you can purchase here.
***The amount of salt you will need will depend on whether you use store bought or homemade Labna. Homemade will need more. Be sure to taste regularly to get it just right. In general, this sauce tastes best when it is a bit on the salty side.