Yogurt complexity
The simple, clean label attributes of yogurt offer product developers a perceived healthy option for a variety of applications.

CHICAGO — The simplicity of refrigerated yogurt — it’s just milk fermented by specific bacterial cultures — contributes to its versatility as a culinary tool. Minimal processing, such as drying and concentrating, converts refrigerated yogurt into a highly functional industrial ingredient, expanding its application to everything from snack foods to meat sauces.

“Yogurt has a strong image as a clean and natural food,” said Kara Nielsen, vice-president of trends and marketing, CCD Innovation, Emeryville, Calif. “This wholesome image carries over to products made with yogurt, along with healthful probiotics that are now implied with the mention of yogurt. However, developers should ensure that yogurts used in formulations indeed have a clean label.”

Going Greek

Plain yogurt, regardless of fat content, truly may be as simple as milk fermented by Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus, the two microorganisms collectively known as yogurt cultures. Other bacteria may be added for different flavor profiles or health benefits. Additional approved ingredients include nonfat solids, stabilizers, fruits, flavors, colors and sweeteners.

No company knows this better than Chobani, Norwich, NY, which in addition to owning the No. 1 Greek yogurt brand in the United States, the company also operates Chobani Café, with two locations in New York City and one in Tomball, Texas. The menu showcases its Greek yogurt as a prominent component in items such as sweet and savory parfaits, breakfast bowls and smoothies. Yogurt is used to make labne, which is yogurt cheese. Available plain, with herbs or smoked, labne is used in a manner similar to cream cheese or mayonnaise on sandwiches, contributing more protein and less fat.

“Yogurt is commonly used in the household as a low-fat replacement for higher-fat products and it is used similarly in the food industry,” said Cara Dennis, research and development scientist, Kerry, Beloit, Wis. “Yogurt is lower in fat than sour cream, but you still get similar dairy and cultured notes and creamy mouthfeel that resonates with the consumer.”

Chobani yogurt
Chobani is the No. 1 Greek yogurt brand in the United States.

Chobani Cafés, for example, use low-fat Greek yogurt as a base for salad dressings, such as Caesar, cucumber ranch and herb. Whole milk Greek yogurt replaces cream in its soups.

Due to logistics, Chobani Cafés have limited menus, but that does not stop the company’s product developers from creating recipes for its food service and industrial customers. In addition to soups and sauces — even a Cajun Alfredo for pasta — recipes include naan, a pillowy char-grilled Indian flatbread; frosted carrot cake, which includes yogurt in both the cake and the frosting; and almond panna cotta.

The company offers tips for in-house chef creativity as well. For example, the secret to creating a super-thick tzatziki is to use whole milk plain Greek yogurt and to remove all excess juice from the shredded cucumber. For a modern twist, add feta cheese or beets. To get creative with dips, blend yogurt with white or garbanzo beans and season with herbs.

Yogurt has application in main dishes, too. Mediterranean cooks often serve yogurt as a topping or use it to thicken sauces. In Turkish and Greek cuisines, seasoned yogurt is used as a marinade for meat kabobs. The acidic pH of the yogurt tenderizes the meat. When the meat is grilling, the remaining marinade may be cooked and used as sauce.

Chobani Cafe bagel, yogurt
Chobani Cafe's Turkish bagel sandwich with smoked salmon and labne (yogurt cheese)

In general, Greek yogurt holds other flavors well, according to Tyler Kinnett, executive chef of Harvest in Boston. He likes to blend it with herbs, spices and various oils and reductions. Menu items have included chicken and pork dishes topped with condiments based on Greek yogurt blended with a touch of honey, maple syrup or hazelnut oil.

Ms. Nielsen said, “Other reasons to use yogurt include leveraging its tangy flavor profile, which can bring zip to sweet snacks, balancing out the overall flavor. The many products made with Greek yogurt offer more dairy protein to the mix, building on that product’s sensational reputation as a protein powerhouse.”

When it comes to baked goods and sweets, pastry chefs and home bakers recognize the value of substituting some or all of the shortening, butter, oil or sour cream in a recipe with yogurt. It reduces fat, adds creamy texture, and provides protein and calcium.