Origin: Middle East and Mediterranean
Texture: Soft and creamy
Availability: Increasingly in stores but very easy to make at home
Uses: In recipes in place of cream cheese or as a snacking cheese
What Is Labneh?
The primary ingredient in labneh, is yogurt, and is itself a common ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine. It may be served as an accompaniment to breakfast or as a snack with fruit or stirred into cooked dishes instead of sour cream or milk. Labneh results when the whey gets strained out of yogurt, leaving a thick, creamy, not-quite-firm cheese-like substance that can be used as a dip, spread, or stir-in ingredient. Labneh pairs equally well with sweet and savoury flavours, and it makes a cooling accompaniment to spicy dishes as well. You can buy it in specialty gourmet and Middle Eastern food markets, and increasingly in some grocery stores, but it's actually quite easy and less expensive to make at home with just a couple of ingredients and a few common kitchen tools.
How Labneh Is Made
Making labneh involves stirring salt into good quality full-fat plain yogurt, preferably the Greek variety, and then straining it through cheesecloth until it reaches the desired consistency. Tie the cheesecloth into a ball and set it in a sieve over a deep bowl; after about half a day to a day of straining in the refrigerator, the labneh reaches a soft state perfect for dipping. Just drizzle on some good olive oil, sprinkle on some za'atar, and grab the pita bread. The longer you let it strain, the thicker the labneh becomes—until it eventually reaches the texture of a block of cream cheese.
You can use yogurt, cream cheese, sour cream, or mascarpone in place of labneh for many uses, but the flavour and texture won't be quite the same. Once you familiarize yourself with the flavour and versatility of labneh, you're more likely going to want to swap it for the others whenever you get the chance.
Labneh can be used in any way you would normally use cream cheese, such as a spread on bagels, as a baking ingredient, or as a dip for your favourite fruit and vegetables. Despite its similarity to cream cheese in texture, however, labneh adds the tang of yogurt, which cuts the richness and gives it a refreshing taste.
Roll labneh into 1-ounce balls and marinate them in a jar of olive oil, za'atar, and herbs such as oregano. You can spread them on toasted bread, toss them into a salad, or add them to a dish of hot pasta the way you would balls of fresh mozzarella or burrata. Labneh does not curdle at high temperatures, making it particularly useful for cooking.
You can use labneh for a lighter version of cheesecake, as the base for a dip, or as a swap for sour cream. Or stir in some pomegranate arils and honey for a light and refreshing breakfast.
Store labneh in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week. To make it last longer, completely cover the surface with olive oil; it can stay good for a couple of months if it remains submerged. Rolling it into bite-sized balls first makes it easier to pull out single servings without exposing all of the labneh to air. You can also freeze it in an airtight container with no airspace for up to six months; let it defrost slowly in the refrigerator to minimize textural changes or set the container in a bowl of cool water to speed up the defrosting. Don't try to defrost the labneh in the microwave, as it can separate.
Follow the Middle Eastern tradition and roll labneh into balls for marinating or use it anywhere you need soft, spreadable cream cheese."
All the best Jan