Culture Club: We Talk Yogurt with Cheryl Sternman RulePhotos by Ellen Silverman, courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Food Features Culture Club
It’s the most popular fermented milk product in the world. In Greece, they fold it with diced cucumbers to make tzatziki; in Turkey, they mix it into a refreshing drink called ayran; in India, they use it as the base for cooling raitas and lassis; here in America, we blend it into smoothies and hand our preschoolers disposable tubes of full of sweet, fruit-flavored versions of it.
So many cultures eat yogurt in so many ways, and that’s what drew Cheryl Sternman Rule to write Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Sip, and Chill the World’s Creamiest, Healthiest Food. It’s part cookbook, part guide, and 100% inspiring. Whether you buy little containers of it from the store or make your own at home, Yogurt Culture will make you fall in love with the tart and creamy stuff anew.
I got a chance to sit down with Rule for a few moments several months ago, which was exciting not just because it meant chance for super-nerdy yogurt shop talk. Rule also happens to be a keen observer of the meaningful details in life, and on her award-winning food blog, 5 Second Rule, she’s repeatedly proven to be a master of the short, poignant essay. She knows her way around a kitchen, too—in Yogurt Culture, she shares sweet and savory recipes for dips, desserts, drinks, curries, and more, as well as surprisingly doable instructions for making your own yogurt. Either way, you’ll find yourself clamoring for yogurt in as many forms as possible.
Paste: How did you get into yogurt, and making your own yogurt?
Cheryl Sternman Rule: I’ve always eaten yogurt. I grew up fairly close to Dannon, in Westchester County, and they opened a big headquarters in White Plains when I was a kid. That wasn’t on my radar when I was a child, though. At home, we had store-bought yogurt, always fruit on the bottom—I was a blueberry yogurt girl. My mom was a working mother and she did not make a lot of things from scratch.
Then, I was in the Peace Corps with my husband from 1995-1997 in Eritrea, which is in the Horn of Africa. That’s when I started making my own yogurt. It still was something that we were playing around with—we didn’t have access to a lot of familiar foods—so when we discovered that they did serve yogurt on one of the traditional dishes in town, we knew we could get a starter. Through trial and error, we figured out how to make it.
Paste: So is that, in part, what inspired the book?
CSR: Yogurt is a really big topic, with so many interesting entry points. There’s the literal culture angle—the bacteria, the fermentation—but there’s the global and cross-cultural angle. It’s eaten and made and consumed in so many different parts of the world. And here in the U.S., we always tend to eat it in the same way. And I think that’s changing, and people are realizing there are so many ways to use it.
Paste: Since you started this project, have you lost the ability to just go to the store and buy commercial yogurt and enjoy it…or has it been the opposite?
CSR: It’s been the opposite. I do make it frequently, but I also buy plain yogurt, as well. I consume so much if it, and I cook with it so much, that I don’t always have a homemade batch on hand. I like to strain my own yogurt and make labneh [yogurt cheese] out of my own yogurt, but I also keep big tubs of plain yogurt in case I run out of the homemade and don’t have the six hours make it and overnight to chill it. I’m working with yogurt so much these days, and my kids eat it, so we go through quite a lot.
Paste: Is there a joke around your house these days—“oh no, more yogurt?”
CSR: Yeah, it’s been that was for about two years. But my family has really embraced it. My kids are 13 and 15, and their palates have really shifted since I started this project. Everybody used to think it was sour, and now they really like that sour flavor. I have one son who doesn’t like eating yogurt in the morning, because he doesn’t like it sweet. And that’s very different from how it started for us. That’s very typical for many parts of the world, but in our family, they were not used to eating it in a savory way, with soups or stews.
Paste: Which recipe in the book surprises people the most, as far as the possibilities of yogurt as an ingredient?
CSR: There’s a recipe for a plain Greek yogurt topped with a lemon vinaigrette, and you wouldn’t think that this sour-and-sour pairing would actually work, but it’s a tangy base and a sharp-bright vinaigrette on top. I had it in Israel—you dip pita into it. They serve it for breakfast. It’s the simplest thing in the world, but it’s an exciting combination of flavors that jolts you. It’s delicious.
Paste: What kind of milk do you use when you make your own yogurt?
CSR: I always use whole organic milk. There’s also a lovely grass-fed milk that I get in smaller quantities—it’s pricey—I use it for special dishes.
Whole milk yogurt more versatile, so it’s more stable in cooking. It’s got a better mouth feel because of the fat, and the flavor is much better. It doesn’t have the added sugar that you need to make the nonfat yogurts…they add sugar to make up for the fat. Since it’s less processed, I think it’s better for me. It’s a personal choice.
I think you’ll see more commercial brands of yogurt who have stayed on the low-fat/no-fat side start to change. The tides have turned, the health studies are coming back, and medical professionals are starting to actively dispel the notion that nonfat dairy is going to help you have better weight or be a key to better health. I think you’re going to see the yogurt market follow suit.
Paste: Tell us a little about the website Team Yogurt, which is an extension of your book.
CSR: It’s a new venture that takes all of the research and interviews and excitement I have on the topic, and it allows me to continue to move forward with this in a new way. I have a team of collaborators who have a different culinary or ethnic tradition, or they use yogurt to meet particular nutritional needs. My goal over time is to bring on more people who can educate me and the readers. There’s a lot more learning to do.
I’m profiling regional yogurt makers for Team Yogurt, too. Every brand of plain yogurt has its own taste. They incubate for different amounts of time, and some add additional cultures beyond what you need to make the yogurt, plus there’s where they’re getting their milk from. I want to get people to explore regional yogurts in their area and try some of the interesting new things that are on the market.
Paste: Let’s talk about whey—the tart liquid that’s left over when you drain yogurt. What do you do with your whey?
CSR: You can use it in baking—such as biscuits and pancakes—where you’d also use yogurt, but when it’s not the featured star. It has the same acidic properties as yogurt. And there are a few companies that are making drinks from whey, such as whey lemonade. Whey has the same health properties as yogurt, it lasts a good week or so in the fridge, and, if you drain your own yogurt, it’s free. So why not get that extra boost of nutrition and avoid the waste?
Paste: Has all of this yogurt changed your life?
CSR: I’ve become aware that, as a quick protein source, it’s a good way to eat something before I have to run out the door. I’ve developed a love for the sour, tangy flavor. I just really like paying attention to other culinary traditions. So yogurt’s been a way to go back to what I loved about living in Africa, and learning about eating in other parts of the world.
Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor. She will gladly bake with all of your whey.