I love yogurt. Plain. Unsweetened. Unflavored. Real yogurt. It’s bright and tangy and alive on my tongue. I take my yogurt Greek- or European-style. I can eat it plain, top it, or use it in countless soups, salads, sauces, dips, mains, and desserts. I keep whole milk and nonfat yogurts in my fridge; the former is an indulgence—creamy, rich, practically a dessert unto itself. Lowfat is for everyday. Sometimes I mix them.
I’m fussy—cranky might be more accurate—about what’s in my yogurt. I want milk and live cultures. Period. I don’t want dry milk solids, powdered proteins, gelatin, starch, pectin, or any kind of stabilizers. I don’t make my own yogurt but I want to buy yogurt that’s as pure as it would be if I did.
Where I live, it's quite easy to buy yogurt made only from organic milk (even local organic milk) and live cultures. If I lived elsewhere, I would search out brands that meet my requirements as closely as possible—which is exactly what I do when I travel and need to stock my vacation rental or hotel fridge. Even if your local food scene is not exactly a food paradise, you might be surprised to learn that several large, nationally distributed yogurt brands (including Dannon, Fage, Chobani, and Voskos) make good plain unsweetened yogurt without extraneous ingredients, even if they are not local or organic. Read labels and do the best you can to find yogurt with the simplest possible ingredient list. Ask your grocer to stock the good stuff.
My adamancy about ingredients is as much about flavor and texture as doctrine, or even health considerations. Starch, gelatin, and pectin are used to thicken and stabilize yogurt and to prevent the whey from separating—but separation is a natural characteristic of real yogurt. Stabilized yogurt has a texture more like well-behaved pudding than like the living food that it is supposed to be. Stabilizers also blur and diminish the clean flavors of the yogurt and I can taste and feel them, or their effects, on my tongue. If I want thicker yogurt, I’m very willing to strain it myself—a couple of hours in a coffee filter suspended over a bowl in the fridge does the job—and I have no problem pouring off or stirring in any whey that accumulates in the carton.
At the risk of sounding like a complete old fogey (old hippie?), I must say that I hate the idea that our kids and grandkids might grow up missing out on real yogurt, thinking that yogurt is a sweet-flavored food product, or that authentic yogurt is icky or gross because it separates in the carton. (Please don’t start with me about how kids don’t like sour food—because we know kids love sour candies and many love pickles! I think that not giving kids real food because we assume they won’t like it often assures that they won’t. End of sermon and child-rearing advice you didn’t ask for!)
In our food-obsessed culture, I worry that we are losing touch with real food. If I’m a purist, it’s because real food usually tastes better than food products and it’s healthier. I am bereft (and not a little bit indignant) when my hotel breakfast order of plain yogurt shows up as sweetened vanilla yogurt—and I feel flustered when I can’t get a single-serve carton of plain yogurt in an airport. Those are usually boosted with “other natural flavors,” often dosed at levels high enough to taste phony and completely unnatural to me.
If and when I want my yogurt sweetened and/or flavored, I’d rather do it myself—to my own taste and with ingredients that I choose. I like date syrup or honey or sorghum syrup or maple syrup because these add both sweetness and flavor. I can use as much or as little as I want. I like the option drizzling rather than stirring in a variety of flavors and sweeteners so I can compose perfect bites of tangy versus sweet or flavorful. I add savory ingredients to my yogurt too, like fresh tomatoes with basil, or mint and garlic, or tahini, or avocado, or a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Fresh fruit or preserves or fruit butters beat the mushy cooked fruit and gloppy fruit sauces in flavored yogurts by a million miles.