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You go, yogurt!

Sunday, April 07, 2002

By Catherine S. Vodrey

Yogurt -- once considered in this country to be a favorite only of hippie vegetarians and food faddists -- is here to stay.

Yogurt -- the basis for many delicious dips -- has been a staple in Asia, the Blakans and Turkey for centuries. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Almost 40 years after it first became widely available in America, yogurt is as commonplace in the dairy section of the local supermarket as cheese and milk.

Yogurt's history is ancient and distinguished. Its roots are deep in Asia, the Balkans and Turkey, where it has been prepared for centuries. Food historians generally agree that it originated -- probably by accident -- in Turkey.

Its enduring appeal in Asia no doubt has to do with the fact that yogurt is more easily digestible than other dairy products. Lactose intolerance is a common complaint among Asians, and yogurt is an excellent way to get the benefits of dairy without the problems.

The big difference between yogurt and many other dairy products is that the fermentation process that creates yogurt converts the majority of the lactose into lactic acid.

Typically fermented by two different types of bacteria -- streptococcus thermophilus and lactobacillus bulgaricus -- yogurt can be made from any of a variety of animal milks.

Commonly in use elsewhere in the world are the milk of the mare, sheep, camel, goat, water buffalo and dri (female yak). Each has curiously distinct characteristics when it comes to cooking with yogurt.

Goat's milk yogurt, for instance, remains perfectly stable during cooking, while cow's milk yogurt tends to break up or curdle at high heats (the addition of a little cornstarch can help).

Yogurt came to the attention of much of the Western world in the early 20th century when Russian bacteriologist Ilya Metchnikov focused his work on the lifespan of Bulgarians. Their diet typically included enormous quantities of yogurt and other soured milk products, and their average lifespan was 87 years. Metchnikov, an assistant to Louis Pasteur, became convinced that adding yogurt to the Western diet would perform medical miracles.

Although we know now that no single element alone is responsible for a long and healthy life, Metchnikov's single-minded boosterism helped propel yogurt into the popular food it remains today.

Just over 40 years ago, Americans ate an average of 2 ounces of yogurt every year. Today we each eat more than 3 pounds annually.

The biggest boost might have come in the 1970s with the advent of frozen yogurt -- wrongly popularized more by its status as a healthful alternative to ice cream than by its taste. (It turns out the health benefits of yogurt don't withstand the freezing process.)

Now we find yogurt everywhere we turn, in dishes ranging from dips to pasta sauces to desserts.

Some tips about using yogurt

Look for yogurt that states somewhere on the package "Contains active [or live] cultures." You'd be surprised how many yogurts don't have this. Yogurts that have active or live cultures help to maintain the delicate bacterial balance of the intestinal tract. This benefit is lost when the yogurt is frozen.

Yogurt can be used to tenderize any meat. Simply brush meat with a thick coating of plain yogurt several hours (or up to one full day) before cooking. The lactic acid in the yogurt helps to slightly break down the meat's fibers, making the meat more tender and lending a subtle tang to the flavor.

Yogurt can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 10 full days after the manufacturer's "sell by" date.

Bringing yogurt to room temperature before using it in a sauce or soup will help to stop it from curdling. (Yogurt doesn't separate in flour-based recipes, which is why it's wonderful for use in cakes and muffins.)

At temperatures higher than 120 degrees, yogurt's beneficial active cultures and enzymes are destroyed, although protein and calcium remain.

Related Recipes:

Yogurt Cheese
Tzatziki (Yogurt Spread with Cucumber and Garlic)
Marge Parkhurst's Yogurt Cream of Celery Soup
Cumin-Yogurt Dressing
Overnight Coffee Cake

Catherine S. Vodrey, a free-lance writer from East Liverpool, Ohio, is food editor of FIT magazine.

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