07 August 2011

Food for the Rich (1) Labneh

It's hard to be witty about yoghurt cheese. Which is tragic since this is a momentous post - the very first of a series to be titled Food for the Rich. The title pleases me since it is 1) ironic and 2) stolen from an old book of the same name. But more about that in the next post. For now it is only important to know that this is actually food for the impecunious who have an appreciation for the finer things in life.

So without further ado, on to the labneh. It's nothing more than drained yoghurt, thickened to a cream cheese consistency or thicker, and with a bit more tang. There is a reason it's eaten throughout the Middle East, Greece and large swathes of the Med. It's cheap, easy, keeps really well for a fresh cheese, and of course, tastes fantastic. Labneh is mostly eaten drizzled with olive oil and piled onto whatever local bread is available, sprinkled with herbs or not, as you prefer.

You'll need to start with a plain / bulgarian yoghurt with no emulsifiers or thickeners. Here's a tip that's only useful in South Africa - amasi (maas) is basically bulgarian yoghurt, but at well less than half the price. I don't know about the rest of the country, but in Cape Town you can get Sonnendal free range, rBGH-free amasi without any additives or preservatives @ R15 for 2 litres. Also available in smaller volumes.

The yoghurt will drain without salt, but salting will help the whey drain off faster, and result in a firmer final product in less time. Mix in around a half teaspoon salt per litre of yoghurt.

Line a large bowl with any clean tightly woven cloth you have handy - in this case some white polyester (or nylon?) fabric left over from a length used as a photo diffuser. Thinner fabric is easier to wash, but a clean dish-cloth will also work just fine. Ignore instructions stipulating muslin - which is too open a weave and will be a leaky, oozy disaster, even if doubled. As long as everything is clean, and you are using a live youghurt, there is no need to be too paranoid about sterility - once properly established in a good yoghurt culture Lactobacillus bulgaricus can basically kick the shit out of any other bacteria that tries to elbow in.

Gather up the fabric and hang over the bowl to drain.

If you want a cheese with the consistency of cream cheese, just hang overnight (8-10 hours) and spoon into a container, salt to taste, and store in the fridge. Easy.

If you want something even thicker, perhaps to make labneh balls rolled in fresh herbs and stored under olive oil, you have two options. You can drain your labneh for up to 48 hours. But if it is warm and summery, i.e. weather appropriate to the consumption of labneh, there is a small risk that your cheese may get too tangy (acidic) or actually develop off flavours. To avoid any risk of this, after the initial draining, pop your now dramatically smaller bag of cheese between two upside-down plates on the draining board of your sink, and place a weight on top. Your biggest cast iron pot filled with cold water will do nicely. Two to four hours later you should be able to peel away the fabric from a cake of firm white cheese, of perfect consistency to roll into walnut sized balls encased in fragrant fresh herbs.

Labneh will easily keep for a week to ten days in the fridge. Rolled into balls and stored in olive oil, it will keep much longer - easily up to a month. If you want to keep it longer than a few days I would recommend using dried herbs (sparingly) rather than green which are only at their best really fresh.

Lemon zest used with restraint is also great with labneh.

Two litres of yoghurt will produce around a half litre (500g) of labneh. The actual work can be accomplished in 15 minutes total and the cost is less than a quarter of what you would pay retail.


  1. Thanks for the amasi tip- I always thought it was more like buttermilk, will be giving this a try, looks super easy and probably a lot tastier that some of the offerings in p 'n pay!

  2. Hey! http://smashingcapetown.blogspot.com/ (aka Karen), welcome. Well amasi is kind've halfway in taste - I assume they use a slightly different Lactobacillus strain, since the only other ingredient is milk, making it functionally identical to bulgarian yoghurt. Buttermilk is (supposed to be) cultured from the leftover liquid when cream is churned to butter. Come to think of it, buttermilk should make a decent labneh too.

    Beware the nastier versions of amasi though that are packed with additives, preservatives and stabilisers and probably come from hormone fed, unhappy cows.

  3. Greek yoghurt a no-no? I have a slight addiction at present. your post and photos are lovely as always..

  4. Greek yoghurt will work great and taste even creamier. I also love it and would eat it everyday if I could, but sadly I think that would dramatically shorten my lifespan, so I abstain.