So you want some yogurt? Swing by your local grocery store … and take your pick from one of the approximately 300 options.
That’s the average number of varieties you’ll find in your typical American supermarket, according to a brand sales and marketing agency cited in a recent analysis by the Wall Street Journal. After many years of growth, yogurt sales have decreased in the past two years, likely driven by the proliferation of choices (which now include plant-based, high-fat, high-protein and low-sugar products) and the inevitable contraction of a booming trend.
Trend or no trend, I still eat a lot of yogurt. I admit to succumbing to the tyranny of Greek yogurt (particularly the nonfat stuff, much to my increasing regret) for far too long, but I’ve realized that there are so many more possibilities worth exploring. Here’s how to make sense of what’s out there.
Like many foods, yogurt is defined by the government. Essentially, it is cream or milk combined with two bacteria, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. The regulations also address fat content, acidity and sugar. How these and other elements are manipulated differentiates what you see on the shelves.
Dairy and fat. Whether yogurt is made with cream, whole milk, low-fat milk or skim milk affects how much fat is in it. As Cook’s Illustrated notes in its tasting of international yogurts, fat can also be adjusted by the addition of evaporated milk or nonfat milk powder. Cow’s milk is still No. 1, but you can also find sheep and goat milk yogurt, as well as nondairy options.
The cultures. The two legally required bacteria cultures each encompass many strains, according to Cook’s Illustrated. Manufacturers put together their own blends to adjust flavor, acidity and shelf life. Don’t be too swayed by labels that include cultures other than the big two, as one expert Cook’s talked to says they’re not nearly as important to the yogurt fermentation process.
Acidity. Yogurt is acidic, which is why it is characteristically tangy and tart. Some are more acidic than others, with Bulgarian varieties among the tartest. Australian-style and your run-of-the-mill traditional yogurt are at the other end of the spectrum.
Sugar. Many types of yogurt have added sweeteners, but sugar is naturally occurring in dairy, too. The bacteria cultures change that sugar into tangy lactic acid, and longer-fermented yogurts (info not generally on packaging) tend to have less sugar and more tart flavor for that reason.
Straining. If you wanted to strain yogurt at home, you might use a cheesecloth or coffee filter. Manufacturers, Cook’s says, often use a spinner to separate the whey. More straining means less liquid and a thicker texture. Thicker strained yogurts tend to have less sugar, because the sugar-containing whey, the liquid you sometimes see rise to the top of a container, is drained off.
Now that you know what determines how a yogurt looks, feels and tastes, let’s talk about the specific types, which are often attached to different countries, even though many of them are actually made here. “This United Nations of yogurt options is exciting, but it can also make for a mind-boggling shopping experience,” my colleague Ellie Krieger, a dietitian, nutritionist and cookbook author, wrote a few years ago.
Traditional American. This is the stuff you probably ate the most of before Greek yogurt exploded on the scene. It’s relatively thin and loose, with a nice balance between sweet and tart. Think of it as a good all-purpose yogurt, especially for breakfast. You might find it too thin for some dips and sauces, which you can remedy by straining (or switching to Greek). I recently tried whole-milk Brown Cow brand for the first time, and it reminded me how great regular ol’ yogurt can be.
Greek. Krieger points out that while straining is great for thickness, less sugar and more protein, you do lose some vitamins and nutrients. Flavor-wise, it’s not particularly tart, though it’s a bit more acidic than traditional. Depending on the brand, you can get fluffy and creamy or grainy and chalky. Look for brands without added stabilizers or thickeners. After going for the nonfat option for a long time, I’ve gone in the opposite direction after realizing I prefer the texture and flavor of whole-milk yogurt (even if I eat less of it). Fage’s 5 percent Greek yogurt is particularly luscious. Greek yogurt is another good all-around option for eating out of hand or turning into sauces and dips.
Icelandic. “There is debate as to whether skyr, an ancient staple in Iceland, should be called yogurt or if it is really more of a cheese,” Krieger says. “Because it is strained even more than Greek yogurt, it is very thick and glossy, with the consistency and flavor undertone of a tangy, spoon-able cheese.” It skews so thick and creamy you may not realize you’re eating a low-fat version, though it can be made with whole milk, too. Skyr is typically lightly sweetened, if at all. I’m happy to eat it straight out of the container. Cook’s Illustrated liked it with granola and in tzatziki. Cook’s tasters even compared one brand to sour cream, which means it would be an easy garnish for savory dishes, too.
Bulgarian. If you want something that will be a real shock to the system, try Bulgarian yogurt; it “has a pleasant but decidedly tart flavor, and its texture is creamy but loose and easily spoon-able,” Krieger says. Cook’s called the flavor “bracing” and thought it made for a bold-tasting tzatziki after straining. Because it’s so thin, this wouldn’t be my first choice for eating out of the container or bowl. I could see it working very well as a swirl on a rich, spicy curry or stew.
Australian. Krieger describes the Aussie style as “unstrained yogurt with a creamy, velvety texture that tends to be very rich. Although you can buy low-fat and plain Australian-style yogurt, the thing that really sets it apart is its indulgent, dessertlike quality and creative flavors that don’t shy from sweetness.” To me, that makes it a natural fit for eating on its own or in a parfait-type situation. It would also make a fine topper to a cake, such as this Strawberry and Pistachio Olive Oil Cake.
French. Yes, this is what’s usually in those cute glass jars at the store, although we found one French brand, La Fermière, sold in adorable terra cotta pots. “It is unstrained, so it is not very dense, but it has a luxuriously smooth, creamy texture that is due in part to the fact that it is typically made with whole milk,” Krieger says. Savor this one as is or very minimally topped. A great example I just sampled for the first time is Liberté, a Canadian-founded brand.
Nondairy. Vegan yogurt (the USDA, states and manufacturers continue to wrestle over what to call these alternatives) is one segment of the market that is continuing to grow, according to the Wall Street Journal. I hope to revisit the topic soon, but safe to say, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the options in this category alone. Nondairy yogurts can be made from soy, coconut, flax, oat, almond and cashew milks. One brand, Lavva, is particularly esoteric, thanks to a blend of pili nuts, plantains and cassava root, among other things. They can also be made just like dairy yogurts and cultured with bacteria. Of course, you can eat them out of the container, similar to the dairy stuff, but keep in mind they may not behave the same when cooked.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly called Liberté a Canadian brand. While it was founded it Canada, it is no longer based there. This version has been updated.
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