Cooking With Yogurt: Cultured Flavors

I cook a lot with my kids, and last week my 11-year-old asked me what was the first recipe I remember making. I had to think hard (OK, it has been a while since I was 11) but I clearly remember making yogurt as a child. And I think it was, possibly, the first recipe I ever learned.

Today, 30 years later, I use the same exact recipe that my parents taught me. We had no special equipment — no thermometers, nothing. Just a simple yet effective technique to make yogurt:

  1. Bring about 1 quart of milk to a boil. You can do this on the stove top or in the microwave.
    Remove from the heat and pour the milk from the pot into a storage container. Set aside to cool.
  2. Do the pinkie test: If you can touch the milk comfortably with your pinkie for 30 seconds, it's ready for the culture. You can also use modern technology and check the temperature with an instant-read thermometer. It should register just warm, 110 to 112 degrees.
  3. Add about 2 tablespoons of plain, unflavored yogurt, stir, and cover the container. This is called a starter yogurt as it helps you start a new batch.
  4. Wrap container snugly with a large towel.
    Place the container in a warm spot. An oven with a pilot light is ideal. Alternatively, place it inside the microwave.
  5. Let this sit undisturbed for at least 7 hours. Overnight works best. During winter months, I find that it has to sit longer.
  6. To check if the yogurt is set, remove the towel and lid and very gently shake the container to see if the yogurt is firm. If not, it needs to sit for a few hours longer.
    If it has set, place the container in the refrigerator to chill.

About The Author

An engineer turned food writer, Monica Bhide writes about food and its effect on our lives. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Food & Wine, Prevention, Cooking Light, Health and Self. Her latest book is Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster). Read more at her website.

That is it. Simple, easy and no stabilizers or preservatives or sweeteners added — or needed.

You can prepare homemade yogurt with any type of milk. Whole milk produces thick, creamy yogurt that is excellent for cooking. Make sure the starter you use comes from a yogurt with active cultures. Before you start cooking with your homemade yogurt, scoop 2 tablespoons of it into a small container with a lid and refrigerate. Now you have a starter ready for your next homemade batch.

Cooking with yogurt can be a challenge. Over the years, however, I have learned some tricks that work. For instance, when I use yogurt in curries — or anytime it is going in a dish on the stove top — first I lower the heat to medium-low. (If the heat is set too high, the yogurt will curdle, and then there is no saving it.) I always use whole milk yogurt for cooking because I find it has less chance of curdling. I add it very slowly, a tablespoon at a time.

Dishes made with yogurt are best eaten fresh. They'll keep in the refrigerator a couple of days at most. Freezing dishes prepared with yogurt is not recommended, because the texture changes when frozen. If I am using yogurt in an uncooked dish, I whisk it well before using. This incorporates the whey (which usually separates) back into the yogurt and makes it really smooth. For a thick yogurt (the consistency of Greek yogurt), drain the yogurt for a few hours. A lot of liquid drains out, making the yogurt really thick.

While Western cooks mostly use yogurt in its raw form for desserts or in drinks, Indian chefs use it to tenderize meat, as a souring agent and as a base for lightly textured curries. In India, yogurt also turns up in desserts and is used to prepare homemade buttermilk. Whether it's dusted with cumin, creamed with saffron or churned with water, this protein-rich ingredient has an important place at the Indian table.

In India, yogurt is integral outside the kitchen as well. In fact, one of my favorite Indian festivals stars yogurt. Celebrated in North India, the dahi-haandi ("yogurt in a bowl") festival is a loud and magnificent festival to celebrate Lord Krishna. Yogurt (or sometimes buttermilk or butter) is placed in a terra-cotta bowl and tied up high (like a pinata). Teams of young men climb on top of each other, trying to break the bowl. The team that succeeds wins money — sometimes big money. The festival showcases Lord Krishna's love of yogurt (and butter).

My favorite childhood memory of yogurt, though, comes paired with my least: final exams. Before each school exam, my mother would feed me tablespoons of yogurt loaded with sugar as is typical in some Indian homes. She said it enhanced brain power. I just think it was because she loved me and wanted to send me off with something delicious in my mouth.

Walnut-Yogurt Sauce

(Akhrot Ka Raita)

This dish is very versatile and adaptable, and tastes best freshly prepared. Instead of grapes, you can add diced pears or pineapples. This recipe uses whipped yogurt: Place the yogurt in a bowl and use a fork to mix it well. This incorporates the milk part with the whey and gives a smooth consistency to the yogurt.

Walnut-Yogurt Sauce i i
Monica Bhide for NPR
Walnut-Yogurt Sauce
Monica Bhide for NPR

Makes 4 to 6 servings, about 1/2 cup per person

2 cups plain low-fat yogurt, whipped and chilled

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds, roasted and crushed

1/4 teaspoon crushed dried red chilies or red pepper flakes

10 to 12 purple, green or red seedless grapes, thinly sliced

Combine yogurt, sugar and salt. Mix well. Add the walnuts and mix well. Pour into a serving dish. Sprinkle cumin and chilies over yogurt. Place grape slices on top of the sauce in any pattern you desire. Cover and chill 20 minutes before serving.

Curd Rice

(Dahiwale Chawal)

The ultimate Indian comfort food: Leftover rice is combined with beaten yogurt and topped with a sizzling tempering of curry leaves, mustard seeds and red chilis. This recipe uses whipped yogurt: Place the yogurt in a bowl and use a fork to mix it well. This incorporates the milk part with the whey and gives a smooth consistency to the yogurt.

Curd Rice i i
Sala Kannan for NPR
Curd Rice
Sala Kannan for NPR

Makes 6 servings, 1/2 cup per person

2 cups basmati rice

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 cup plain low-fat yogurt, whipped

1 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup diced green mango

2 tablespoons minced cilantro

2 tablespoons clarified butter (ghee) or vegetable oil

1 teaspoon black mustard seeds

2 whole dried red chilies, any size

15 to 20 curry leaves (available at Indian markets)

1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and julienned

1/4 cup unsalted raw cashews

Rinse rice at least twice, until the water runs clear. Drain well.

Bring rice and 4 cups fresh water to a boil in a deep saucepan. Add salt and oil. Reduce heat to low and loosely cover. Cook 12 to 15 minutes, until all the water has been absorbed. You will see small craters forming on top of the rice.

Remove from heat. Let cool to room temperature, about 2 hours.

Combine rice with the yogurt, buttermilk, green mango and cilantro. Mix well and place in a serving bowl.

Heat clarified butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add mustard seeds. When they begin to sputter, in quick succession, add the chilies, curry leaves, ginger and cashews. Mix well. Saute 1 minute, until the cashews begin to brown.

Pour spice mixture over the rice. Serve immediately.

Saffron-Marinated Chicken Skewers

(Kesari Malai Tikka)

For a beautiful presentation, use extra-long skewers and stand them in a slim-necked vase.

Saffron-Marinated Chicken Skewers i i
Sala Kannan for NPR
Saffron-Marinated Chicken Skewers
Sala Kannan for NPR

Makes 6 servings, 2 or 3 skewers per person

1/4 cup plain low-fat yogurt, drained*

2 tablespoons finely ground almonds

1/4 cup grated cheddar cheese

1 tablespoon grated, peeled fresh ginger

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon ground white pepper, or to taste

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, soaked in 2 tablespoons warm milk

2 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut in 1 1/2-inch cubes

Combine the yogurt cheese, almonds, cheddar, ginger, lemon juice, pepper, salt, saffron and milk in a large bowl. Add the chicken and mix to thoroughly coat. Cover and refrigerate for 5 to 6 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Drain chicken and discard any remaining marinade. Thread the chicken onto skewers, 4 or 5 pieces per skewer.

Lay the skewers on a nonstick baking sheet and roast for 10 minutes. Turn over. Roast another 10 to 15 minutes, until golden brown and juices run clear. Serve hot.

* To drain the yogurt: Place a colander over a medium bowl. Line the colander with several layers of cheesecloth. Place yogurt in cheesecloth. Refrigerate at least 8 hours, until whey has drained out (overnight works best).

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