Cooking with Yogurt (Without Fear)

June  4, 2013

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: The breakfast staple you always have in your fridge does double duty in savory dishes -- just as soon as you learn how to coax it in.

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Did you read this post on Better Than Creamed Spinach a few months back? I hope you did. 

I read it again recently, and a magical thing happened: I had all of the ingredients for the recipe, stacked somewhere, vertically, in my shoebox-sized kitchen, and it involved a technique that had never occurred to me. Yogurt? In creamed spinach? All of my bases were covered, that day -- I was the good girlfriend, the vegetable-eating daughter, the experimental cook. 

But after I got home that night -- after dilligently sautéeing the onions, stirring in the spinach, and adding the yogurt -- the very ingredient that was supposed to make it better than, the very technique that had made my day, made the whole sauce break.

Why did this happen?

Check the Fats
First, I was using nonfat yogurt. Do not do as I did. Save the nonfat for your kale smoothie, and go with fuller-fat versions when you're cooking. Here's why: nonfat yogurts have a higher protein to fat ratio than those with full fat, which makes them more susceptible to breaking, separating, or curdling. When cooked, proteins always firm up -- but since the fats in yogurt surround the proteins, fuller-fat yogurts have more protection from direct heat. Which means your dinner won't curdle and you won't try and break up with it over the stove.  

Extra Security
You'll always have more luck with higher-fat yogurts because they're more stable, but there are a few more things you can do to prevent breaking. First, always cook with room-temperature yogurt. Letting it rise in temperature before you add it to a hot chickpea stew, say, will lessen the chances of it curdling. You can also increase yogurt's stability with flour or cornstarch -- stir in a 1/2 to 1 teaspoon per cup of yogurt before you add it to a dish. And, if you have the extra bowls and the willpower, temper. 

This is extra security for your extra security. Ever tempered eggs while making a custard? This is the same idea. Simply whisk a little of your hot liquid into the yogurt, and then add everything back to the pot. By gently heating the yogurt before it's added, you're lessening the chances it will break from temperature shock. 

Now, Cook! 
Now that you're equipped to never break a sauce again in your life, there are a huge number of ways you can put yogurt to work. Enrich soups and stews with it, top curries with it, try it in creamed spinach and learn from my mistakes. Swap it into a recipe wherever you see cream or buttermilk -- just thin the consistency with water or stock, first. Yogurt works even better in marinades, where its high acidity will help to tenderize meat. Work it into dips, too. 

You can also use yogurt in place of mayo in some dishes -- potato salads welcome it, as does buttermilk ranch -- with one caveat: subbing yogurt for mayo in a tomato sandwich will just bring you pain. 

How do you cook with yogurt? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Dima Haddad
    Dima Haddad
  • Count Mockula
    Count Mockula
  • Salinya
  • Pauline
  • up
Kenzi Wilbur

Written by: Kenzi Wilbur

I have a thing for most foods topped with a fried egg, a strange disdain for overly soupy tomato sauce, and I can never make it home without ripping off the end of a newly-bought baguette. I like spoons very much.


Dima H. July 2, 2013
Dima H. July 2, 2013
Great article kenzi! In the middle east we cook with yogurt quite often... Like stuffed courgette, different kinds of squash and Arabic meat dumplings with yogurt sauce! one trick that my mother always did is to mix the yogurt with an egg or cornstarch and then bring it a boil while stirring. If you are interested in Middle Eastern and Jordanian cuisine please pay a visit to my new blog.
Count M. June 7, 2013
People love (yes, even though it's tofu) my tandoori tofu. I mix yogurt with tandoori paste (from a jar) in a zip-top bag, add sliced extra-firm tofu 1/2 inch thick, marinate for however long I have before people come over, then grill it.
Salinya June 5, 2013
I like full fat yogurt best for everything; it's just better and more natural. Thanks for the tips. Of course now I need to see what happens when I substitute yogurt for mayonnaise in a tomato samdwich...
Kenzi W. June 5, 2013
Don't do it!
Salinya June 5, 2013
Okay. I'll take your word for it. :)
Pauline June 5, 2013
I use yogurt to make salad dressings, easy and it doesn't really matter whether you use low fat or full fat yogurt. A little lemon juice, tarragon vinegar, crushed garlic, lots of freshly made black pepper and you've got a great dr
essing for summer vegetable salads.
up June 5, 2013
add 1/2-1 tsp.ofchickpeaflour)besan) It works better.
up June 5, 2013
It is better to add 1/2-1 tsp.chickpea flour(Besan) to yogurt for cooking.
laurenlocally June 4, 2013
Didn't know the room temp trick! Thanks, Kenzi.