March 19, 2019
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Yogurt Your Meats: It’s Part Science, Part Spiritual
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Forget buttermilk for a second. A soak in yogurt is great for lamb, beef, goat, and particularly chicken.

I thought this story might be a long and winding myth-buster about whether or not yogurt truly works as a marinade, but here’s the TLDR: It works. It works very well. A better story is: Why does it work, and what’s the best way to go about it?

Scientifically speaking, according to Arielle Johnson, a food scientist and the author of the forthcoming cookbook Flavorama, when you coat meat in yogurt (most agree that plain, whole-milk yogurt is the best bet), the lactic acid present breaks down the connective protein collagen and acidifies the muscle fibers. Translation: When cooked, the meat tastes more tender and juicy, with an incredibly desirable tang. It’s similar to what happens in a ceviche, with the acid in the lime juice effectively “cooking” the seafood.

It’s not entirely clear where, exactly, the yogurt-as-meat-marinade method was first discovered, but it likely happened somewhere in Central Asia, according to cookbook author Julie Sahni. It was a common practice during the Mongol Empire, which spanned the 13th and 14th centuries, to ferment mare’s milk (that would be from the horse) into yogurt and use this to marinate meat—particularly those cuts that had become old and tough.

Beyond adding tenderness and flavor, yogurt has other pretty unique superpowers, too. “It infiltrates the meat and builds this beautiful crust,” says Anissa Helou, a London-based cookbook author, about how yogurt-marinated meat, when cooked, can build a layer of caramelization. “This is much different than a marinade of olive oil and lemon juice.”

According to Mary-Frances Heck, a cookbook author and senior food editor at Food & Wine, compared to other acidic marinades, like lime juice or vinegar, yogurt (with its higher pH level) is much more gentle and forgiving. “If you leave a chicken breast in red wine vinaigrette for two to three days, by the time you cook it, it will be jerky,” she says. From a practical perspective, Heck adds, yogurt can perform double duty in a recipe—you can use half of it to marinate the meat and the rest as a sauce or a side. You can even cook your meat in the yogurt marinade, Helou says—but to prevent curdling, make sure you are continually whisking the yogurt in the pot and not letting it come to a boil.

To get the most out of a yogurt marinade, the first rule is seasoning. Do add flavor to your yogurt, Helou says, not just with salt (please do not forget to salt your yogurt!), but with saffron, coriander, mint, or cumin. Yogurt is uniquely great for locking in seasonings because of its thickness. The herbs and spices get “suspended in the yogurt so they stay with the marinade rather than falling to the bottom,” Heck says. “You aren’t having to flip and turn to keep the marinade on the meat. The spices are going to stay right on the surface of the meat, and that is where you get the sizzle and the char and the tantalizing little bits.”

Second, Helou warns against caking the yogurt onto the meat—you want an even yogurt layer, but if there’s too much, it will stick to the grill or skillet, causing burning.

Beyond the plain yogurt varieties available in the grocery store, Helou suggests goat’s milk, because it has a “stronger flavor.” Sahni opts for the Indian-style yogurt available at Indian grocery stores like Patel Brothers, as it’s slightly more acidic. She also recommends straining your yogurt to maximize the tangy flavor in the meat, as the fat content becomes more concentrated.

So can you use yogurt on any kind of meat? The short answer is yes. Lamb, beef, goat—it’s pretty much all fair game. But Sahni believes you get the most bang for your buck with lean meats, like chicken, as yogurt adds a level of richness that’d be hard to achieve from the fat of the meat alone. The result is what she calls “peeling texture. You are making chicken that beautifully shreds.”

Which got me thinking: Why isn’t it more common to use the yogurt marinade technique on fried chicken? Buttermilk is seen by many as the gold standard for most chicken-soaking methodologies. It has an acid content that’s comparable to yogurt, but it is also typically made with low-fat milk. So could substituting whole-milk yogurt for buttermilk yield a richer-tasting, better-textured fried chicken?

I put this theory to the test, using boneless, skinless chicken breasts (the leanest of poultry options available at the store). I set one batch to marinate in buttermilk, and another to bathe in the same amount of whole-milk Greek yogurt—both for about 18 hours. I dredged them in flour, fried them off, and to my great delight, BOOM! The yogurt was the clear winner. The buttermilk chicken was juicy, but also a bit rubbery. The crust got soggy over time. The yogurt version just had so much more flavor, with the tanginess really coming through. The crust was thick and maintained its crunch. The meat was juicy and tender the whole way through. It was like taking all of yogurt’s best qualities as a marinade and amplifying them.

So yes, marinating your meat in yogurt works. But marinating it and then frying it is otherworldly. Buttermilk fried chicken: so 2018.

The Country’s Best Yogurt Column is an exploration of all things coagulated milk solids—how to cook with it, the fads that have surrounded it, and the many ways it has come to fit into our kitchens, grocery aisles, and restaurant menus.

Ingredients

  • 1 lamb shoulder on the bone (about 4 1/2 pounds)
  • 1 ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon Greek yogurt
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced to a fine paste
  • 2 good pinches of saffron threads
  • Sea salt
  • 2 ½ cups basmati rice, soaked for 30 minutes in lightly salted water
  • 1 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground galangal
  • ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • ½ teaspoon ground coriander
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 5 whole cloves
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 ½ tablespoon rose water
  • FOR THE GARNISH
  • ¼ cup blanched almonds, toasted in a hot oven for 7 minutes
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted in a hot oven for 5 minutes

Lamb and goat—and baby camel for special occasions!—are the meats of choice in the Arabian Gulf. Here, in this Saudi version of roast lamb, the shoulder (you can also use the leg) is marinated in a luxurious saffron yogurt marinade and served on a bed of fragrant rice. Simple to prepare and absolutely exquisite to serve and eat.

  1. Trim the lamb of all excess fat. Place in a large roasting pan.
  2. Mix the yogurt and minced garlic in a large bowl. Add half the saffron and salt to taste and mix well. Let the yogurt sit for 15 to 30 minutes, stirring it every now and then, until it has turned a lovely yellow color from the saffron.
  3. Pour the yogurt over the lamb shoulder and coat it well. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for a couple of hours.
  4. Thirty minutes before the shoulder is ready, preheat the oven to 450°F.
  5. Add 2 cups water to the roasting pan. Mix well with the yogurt and loosely cover the lamb shoulder with foil. Roast until done to your liking—if you like your meat pink, calculate 20 minutes per pound, and if you prefer it well done, calculate 30 minutes per pound or a little longer.
  6. About 20 minutes before the meat is ready, drain the rice and put it in a saucepan. Take the meat out of the oven and uncover. Drain the juices and add to the rice together with the spices, lemon juice, and salt to taste. You may need to add a little water (up to 1 cup). Return the meat to the oven, leaving it uncovered so that it browns.
  7. Bring the rice to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the rice is tender and has absorbed all the liquid. Check on the level of liquid, and if the rice looks too dry, add a little more if needed. When done, take the rice off the heat. Uncover and sprinkle the top of the rice with the rose water. Then wrap the lid with a clean kitchen towel and place back over the rice. Let sit for 5 minutes.
  8. Transfer the rice to a large serving platter, making space in the middle to place the shoulder of lamb. Garnish with the toasted almonds and pine nuts and serve.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup plain, unsweetened whole-milk yogurt or laban
  • 1 medium sweet onion, grated
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • Juice of 1⁄2 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons crushed dried mint
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 skinless, boneless free-range chicken breast halves
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
  • Few grinds of black pepper
  • 2 cups Toum
  • Laban (Homemade Yogurt)
  • ½ gallon whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons plain, unsweetened yogurt
  • Toum (Garlic Sauce)
  • 1 head fresh garlic (squeeze it: it should be solid and very firm)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1¾ cups neutral oil, such as safflower or canola
  • 4-6 tablespoons ice water

This is simply the most tender, succulent chicken you can eat—thanks to the yogurt marinade, which is a great tenderizer. These skewers are wonderful grilled, but broiling under high heat is delicious, too. If you use wooden skewers, soak them in water for at least 15 minutes before using them so that they don’t burn before the chicken is cooked.

    Laban

  1. Rinse a large heavy pot (3-quart / 3 L or larger) with cool water. Every Lebanese woman I know does this to help prevent scorching; I don’t question it. Add the milk, and if you’re using a thermometer, clip it to the side of the pan without letting it touch the bottom. Heat the milk slowly over medium-low heat to just below a boil (210˚F / 98˚C), about 30 minutes, depending on how cold the milk is to start. Heating the milk too quickly can result in grainy yogurt. Stay nearby, because the milk will froth up, and as it begins to boil it will rise swiftly in the pan and can overflow. Move the pot off of the heat immediately when it hits 210˚F / 98˚C, or when the milk froths and starts to rise.
  2. Let the milk cool down to 110˚F to 115˚F / 43˚C to 46˚C, stirring occasionally. If you are not using a thermometer, the equivalent is when your pinkie can just withstand being swirled in the milk for ten seconds before you have to pull it away. Arriving at this temperature can take an hour.
  3. To speed it up place the pot in an ice bath in the sink, stirring the milk regularly to release the heat. Temper and loosen the starter by stirring some of the warm milk into it, a tablespoon at a time, about 6 tablespoons total. Stir the warmed starter yogurt thoroughly into the milk. You will notice a skin formed on the surface of the milk while it was heating up; that can be stirred right in with the starter.
  4. Remove the thermometer if you’ve used one, and cover the pot with its lid. Drape a clean kitchen towel over the pot and set it aside, undisturbed, in a warm spot up to 110˚F / 43˚C for 6 to 12 hours. The longer the yogurt incubates, the more developed the flavor will be. I like to make yogurt in the evening and let it rest overnight and well into the next day. An ideal incubator is the oven, turned off (the oven can be heated on the lowest setting for a minute before placing the pan in, just to encourage warmth, but don’t forget to turn it off!). Remove the lid from the pot. The milk will have thickened into yogurt, which you can tell by lightly jiggling the pot.
  5. Chill the pot of yogurt, undisturbed as of yet, for a day or so before eating it or straining to thicken it for labneh.

Skewers

  1. In a small bowl, combine the yogurt, onion, garlic, lemon, mint, and olive oil. Cut the chicken into 1- to 2-inch / 2.5 to 5 cm pieces and place them in a medium bowl or a plastic ziplock bag. Pour the marinade over the chicken, cover the bowl or seal the bag, and refrigerate for at least 8 and up to 24 hours (the longer, the more flavorful).
  2. Preheat a grill or broiler on medium-high. Place the chicken in a colander and drain off the marinade. Pat the chicken dry with paper towels. Thread 6 skewers with the chicken, leaving some breathing room (about 1⁄8 inch / 3 mm) between the pieces. Generously season the chicken all over with salt and pepper.
  3. Grill the chicken over medium-high heat, or broil them on a broiler or sheet pan, until the chicken is cooked through and is slightly charred around the edges, about 10 minutes on the grill and about 20 minutes under the broiler. Turn the skewers over halfway through cooking.
  4. Remove the cooked chicken from the skewers with a fork. Serve the chicken hot with the toum, either on the side for dipping or drizzled over the chicken after it has been removed from the skewers.

Toum

  1. Peel the garlic cloves and slice them in half lengthwise. If there is a green germ in any of the cloves, remove it to prevent the bitter, burning flavor it imparts.
  2. Process the garlic cloves with the salt in the food processor, stopping and scraping down the sides a few times, until the garlic is minced. Add the lemon juice and pulse several times to combine.
  3. With the processor on, begin to drizzle the oil in so slowly that the stream turns to a dribble at times; use the oil drip hole in the top of the processor if yours has one. After 1⁄4 cup / 60 mL of the oil has been added, slowly pour in a tablespoon / 15 mL of the ice water. Continue slowly drizzling in the oil and slowly adding a tablespoon of ice water after every 1⁄4 cup / 60 mL of oil until the sauce is thickened and all of the oil has been incorporated. This takes about 7 minutes.
  4. The sauce will be slightly thick, with some body, but still pourable. Store the toum in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several weeks.

Priya Krishna

Priya Krishna is a food writer and the author of the college-centric cookbook Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks, as well as the upcoming cookbook, Indianish, out in Spring 2019

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