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Say Cheese: Making labneh from yogurt

Labneh in a few easy steps; keep reading to find out how. (Domenica Marchetti)

Need a break? I know I do, from snow and winter and coma-inducing comfort food. To be honest, I’ve had it with all three. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. Round about this time of year —snowstorms or no — we start to get antsy for spring. I find myself craving fresh, sharp flavors.

The other day my craving took a more specific turn and I found myself wanting labneh, the thick, creamy, clean-tasting yogurt cheese that is a staple in Middle Eastern kitchens. It is, essentially, nothing more than yogurt that has been drained of its whey to produce something akin to cream cheese, but with more bite.

Recipe Included

You can find labneh at some supermarkets and at ethnic grocery stores, but it is very easy to make on your own — even simpler than my homemade (faux) ricotta if you start with already-made yogurt. And once you’ve made labneh, there is really no end to what you can do with it: Savory, sweet, plain, spiced, it takes to almost any flavor profile.

I have made yogurt before. I even own one of those yogurt machines. (I’ve said before that I am a kitchen gadget person). But this craving was not going to wait that long. So I cheated and bought two pounds of Lebanese-style yogurt from Mediterranean Bakery & Cafe in Alexandria; milky white, creamy and somewhere between the ultra denseness of Greek yogurt and looseness of supermarket yogurt in consistency.

It is important to start with a good-quality yogurt that does not contain stabilizers, gelatin or other additives. If you can find goat’s-milk yogurt (or make your own from goat’s milk), all the better. The yogurt I bought was whole cow’s-milk; you could use low-fat, but while I was craving fresh I was not necessarily craving lean.

There is only one other ingredient necessary to make labneh: salt. It helps to draw out the whey. You can add as much or as little as you like. I tend to go easy on the salt so that I can use some of the labneh for sweet recipes: Drizzling honey on it and serving it with good raisin bread or with plump dried figs are two of my favorite ways.

To drain the yogurt, you will need a colander or, better still, a fine-mesh sieve; and cheesecloth or a muslin bag (the sort that is used to strain the seeds from raspberries when making jam or jelly). I started with cheesecloth, which I double-layered, then triple-layered, then quadruple-layered. However, I found that too much of the solids were still seeping through. Perhaps it was a loose-weave cheesecloth, if such a thing exists. Once upon a time I had a muslin bag stored away with my jam-making equipment, but I couldn’t for the life of me find it. By sheer luck I did find a plain white muslin towel at the bottom of my dish towel drawer. That worked perfectly.

Here's how you do it:

  1. Line your sieve with the muslin or cheesecloth and place the sieve over a bowl.

  2. Thoroughly combine 2 pounds (about 4 cups) of yogurt with 1/2 teaspoon of fine sea salt in a medium bowl. Pour the mixture into the cloth-lined sieve.

  3. Gather up the ends of the cloth and bring them together. Use a piece of kitchen twine or a rubber band to tie the cloth so that the yogurt is cocooned within.

  4. At this point you can either hang the ball of yogurt over a deep bowl or pot by sliding the handle of a wooden spoon or spatula through the tie and resting the spoon over the top of the bowl. Or you can leave the tied yogurt in the sieve over the bowl. In either case, refrigerate the yogurt for several hours until it is well drained. Letting it drain for 8 hours will yield a thick but easily spreadable cheese. If you let it drain longer — 24 hours or more — it will of course be denser and you can turn it into. . .

  5. walnut-size labneh balls, which can be marinated in olive oil, with or without spices.

And here are just a few of the ways you can serve labneh or use it in cooking:

  • Spread the labneh into a small shallow bowl and with a spoon make a series of wells in it. Fill the wells with good extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle cracked pepper and coarse sea salt over the top. Serve with fresh or toasted pita.
  • Stir a little za’atar spice (a Middle Eastern spice blend of toasted sesame seeds, marjoram, oregano, sumac and/or thyme) into the labneh. Spread in a shallow bowl and sprinkle more spice on top. Drizzle with olive oil.
  • Make a pesto of coarsely chopped Kalamata olives, fresh oregano and mint, lemon zest, salted pistachios and olive oil. Spread the labneh in a bowl and spread a layer of pesto over it.
  • Spread the labneh in a bowl and spoon a little harissa (Moroccan chili paste spiced with caraway, coriander and cumin) over the top.
  • Make labneh balls by pinching off pieces of thoroughly drained labneh. Roll the pieces into walnut-size balls and put them to drain on a paper towel-lined plate in the refrigerator. Arrange them on a serving plate and sprinkle with spices and olive oil. To store, put them in a glass jar and cover with olive oil. Refrigerate until ready to use.
  • Stir some flavorful honey, such as orange blossom, wildflower or chestnut, into the labneh and spread on raisin bread or a bagel. Or serve plain on a bagel and top with jam or apple butter.
  • Serve sweetened labneh in a bowl alongside fresh or dried figs and shelled walnuts. Garnish with julienne of orange peel.
  • Mold the labneh into a smooth mound and put on a decorative serving plate. Press edible flowers, such as organic marigolds or pansies, into the top. Drizzle honey around the bottom of the mound. Serve with thinly sliced multigrain or fruit-studded bread.
  • Use labneh in place of cream cheese in cheesecake.

-- Domenica Marchetti
(Follow her on Twitter.)

By The Food Section  |  February 23, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Recipes , Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Say Cheese, labneh, recipes  
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Great post, thanks! I make yogurt at home and often drain it to make it thicker. The stuff that's usually called "cheesecloth" is really not very good for straining cheese or yogurt; instead I use this stuff called "butter muslin" which has 90 threads to the inch:

Posted by: reader38 | February 23, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

@reader38 Thanks for passing along info about butter muslin. Will check it out.

Posted by: Domenica1 | February 23, 2010 6:49 PM | Report abuse

This sounds like a great idea. Two questions: how long does it keep in the refrigerator (covered with olive oil or without), and can I make it with Greek yogurt, which I have on hand at all times? OK, three questions -- can I substitute it for feta cheese? My husband doesn't like feta and I find it goes bad far too quickly.

Will definitely be trying this...

Posted by: plynn1 | February 26, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Thanks, plynn1. The labneh lasts for at least a week in the fridge, even when not covered with oil. I probably wouldn't let it go much longer than that. I've seen instructions that call for storing labneh balls (covered with oil) in sterilized jars but I just use a plain old jar and cover them with oil. Yes, you can make labneh with Greek yogurt--the draining process will take less time because Greek yogurt is already dense. As for using labneh as a substitute for feta,I would say it depends on how you want to use it. The texture of the two cheeses is different. Labneh is smoother and doesn't crumble the way feta does, although the longer you let it drain the firmer it gets. Hope this helps.

Posted by: Domenica1 | February 26, 2010 10:32 PM | Report abuse

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