Ah! Labneh! A cheese to make you sigh; and one best homemade, easier than Betty Crocker
I’ve long been a real fan of Lebanese food. It includes all kinds of favourites: apricot tarts, tabbouleh, fattoush, hummus….. and then there is labneh. Of course, labneh is found all over the middle-east and the eastern Mediterranean (where it’s known variously as lebneh, lebnah, labaneh, labane, labne, or labni) and its quality varies according to chefs, and ingredients, which turn are affected by terroir, climate etc.
Labneh is a softly light, tangy cream cheese which has a more all-purpose and more sophisticated and elegant taste and texture than other cream cheeses, whether mascarpone or the ubiquitous Philadelphia, or any other of the commercially created confections. Commercial cheeses are good for all kinds of cooking, from cheesecakes to pasta sauces, but ‘raw’ they are not of much interest, and they are a bit heavy. Labneh by contrast is lighter (especially if not left to drain for too long), containing about half the fat and half the calories. It’s a revelation on a simple crostini, or served (my favourite pairing) with roasted baby tomatoes,…. or simply scoop some up in a stick of celery. There are lots of other ideas further down this post.
I promised in the title of this post ‘easier than Betty Crocker’ didn’t I? The famous cake mix needs eggs, liquid, oil and icing all added. Labneh is simply yoghurt mixed with a pinch of salt and then drained. A little drizzling oil is a nice addition.
What exactly is labneh…or any cheese really? It’s an emulsified dairy product split into its original components – curds and whey
Put very simply, milk and yoghurt are an emulsion of solids (curds) and whey (liquid) – so Miss Moffat’s curds and whey were essentially separated milk…no wonder she was so easily distracted by the spider…. The curds resulting from the separation are the basis of all cheesemaking.
How to make labneh
You use salt to separate the curd from the whey, then you strain. Here’s what to do in a bit more detail.
- First of all, select your yoghurt. Get good quality, thickish, full-fat cow or goat milk yoghurt… don’t even think of using low-fat yoghurt – a lot of the curd is made up of fat, without that you’ll just end up with mostly whey.
- Amounts: 1 cup of yoghurt with ¼ tsp of salt will make just enough for two people. Because labneh keeps well (see paragraph further down) it makes sense to make double this quantity as you can use it in almost anything.
- Mix the salt in well and put it into a cheesecloth or a coffee filter.
- Make sure it drains properly – the salted yoghurt to be strained needs to be well above the bottom of the bowl into which it’s straining. You can either suspend it by using a sieve with handles which fit over the lip of the bowl (fold the loose corners of cheesecloth gently over}; or you can take the longest wooden spoon you own and knot two opposite corners of the cheesecloth over it first, and then do likewise with the remaining two corners (see photo below). Another method is to tie the cheesecloth over the kitchen tap and leave the yoghurt to drain directly into the sink. This won’t work if you are using coffee filter paper obviously!
- You can either throw away the whey, or use it to fertilise plants, or as a brine for meat….
- Put in the fridge, and leave overnight as a minimum, about 48 hours as a maximum. The longer you leave it the thicker it becomes (as more liquid drains out).
How to use labneh
You can use labneh in any way you would normal cream cheese, but here are some especially good ideas:
- Serve as a dip with a drizzling oil – a peppery olive, or a walnut for example and various herbs, spices, and spice blends: dukkah, za’atar; Urfa or Aleppo pepper flakes or paprika; a little tahini; fresh mint or parsley; dried oregano
- Slather over crostini… with olives maybe? And some lemon zest
- Dot over salads
- Dot over pizzas, galettes and feuilletés
- It doesn’t curdle at high temperatures so it’s good to add to pasta sauces
- Americans put it on bagels
- Spread over flatbreads or into sandwiches
- Enjoy for breakfast with honey and a peach
- stir into muesli or porridge
- use to stuff dates
- Tara Guinness uses hers in a sumac and pomegranate salad and serves it with shakshuka
- add to baked potatoes… or on top of baked mushrooms…or into baked celeriac
- This is almost my favourite use, one which I picked up from Hasan Semay, in his book Big Has – Home Recipes From North London to North Cyprus. Serve with roasted baby plum tomatoes. I halve my tomatoes, and top them with a sprinkling of smoked salt and pomegranate molasses, roast for 20 minutes or so in a hot, 210°C oven, and snip over some basil leaves.
You can use labneh in sweet dishes, such as cheesecake, too; but I think this is rather a waste. The sugar and the other ingredients mask the taste and the texture. Easier to just use ordinary cream cheese.
How to store labneh
Labneh stores reasonably well. It will keep in the fridge in an airtight container for a week or two.
Alternatively, if you’ve strained your labneh for longer and it’s good and thick and solid, sterilise a jar; add some olive oil; form the labneh into 1 tablespoon balls and spoon in, one by one, to the jar, topping with olive oil as you go. When you finish the highest ball should be just topped by the oil. This will keep in the fridge for a couple of months.
Labneh has a number of health benefits:
- it contains a lot of probiotics…good for gut health, for controlling cholesterol… and for a host of other things…
- it’s high in protein
- it’s low in calories, in comparison to other cream cheeses