Now consumers are seeking out even thicker and richer options, leading to the growing popularity of skyr, the tangy yogurt from Iceland, and labneh, a Middle Eastern creation that’s so thick and rich it straddles the line between yogurt and cheese.
by Mike Kostyo
Greek yogurt was our gateway drug. Found on less than 1 percent of menus a decade ago, it grew an astonishing 1,500 percent over the next decade as American consumers discovered that yogurt could be thick, rich… even luxurious. Now consumers are seeking out even thicker and richer options, leading to the growing popularity of skyr, the tangy yogurt from Iceland, and labneh, a Middle Eastern creation that’s so thick and rich it straddles the line between yogurt and cheese. In fact, labneh has grown nearly 70 percent on menus in the past four years and Haiku, Datassential’s machine learning prediction engine, foresees it growing another 20 percent in the next four due to its versatility, high protein content, and continued consumer interest in Middle Eastern cuisine.
It helps that labneh appears more often in savory applications at a time when chefs are increasingly leveraging yogurt on the savory side of the menu. Traditionally used as a spread or dip with a drizzle of olive oil and herbs and spices like za’atar and mint, labneh is often served as part of mezze platters in the Middle East. But in the U.S. I’ve seen labneh appear on a number of over-the-top, Instagramable crudites platters or plant-based “charcuterie” boards. Here in Chicago, I’ve had it on the table-filling crudites board at plant-focused Clever Rabbit, where dollops of labneh joined a riot of colorful vegetables ranging from golden beets to heirloom carrots to whole ears of elote-style corn, while the house-made labneh at Chef CJ Jacobsen’s Ēma gets crunch from Marcona almonds and charred sweetness from roasted grapes and burnt honey. Meanwhile, on a trip to Zahav in Philadelphia, we started with the fried cauliflower served over labneh with mint and Aleppo pepper.
But labneh isn’t limited to dips: it can be used just about anywhere you might use Greek yogurt or another sauce or spread (versatility is one of the main reasons why flavors and sauces tend to be true trends instead of fads—you can put an ingredient like sriracha on just about anything, which the food industry has certainly proved in recent years). Mix in a spice like tart sumac or aromatic baharat and use it as a base for proteins, spread it into a pita filled with fresh cucumbers and falafel or kebab meat, or add a spoonful to rich breakfast dishes like shakshuka or an omelet. At Saba in New Orleans, you’ll find a simple Moroccan carrot salad with labneh and mint as an appetizer, and a chocolate labne cheesecake with cocoa nibs, cherries and crispy phyllo on the dessert menu.
For an even more premium option that can garner a higher price point, consider housemade labneh. It is easy to make, and it allows you to control the thickness of the final product depending on your desired application. Whether you start with your own housemade yogurt or use a prepared Greek yogurt, simply add a little salt and strain the yogurt over cheesecloth for about 12 hours to achieve a traditional, thick, spreadable labneh for use in dips or spreads. But the longer you leave it the thicker it gets—after about a day you’ll have a product similar to cream cheese, which can be used in the same way, spread on bagels or toast. Leave it even longer and you’ll have an exceptionally thick, cheese-like ingredient that can be formed into balls and pickled or stored in olive oil like mozzarella or feta. Plus, if you make it yourself you can use the resulting whey in baked goods or marinades.
If you do add it to the menu, you may have a little extra explaining to do, as labneh is new to most U.S. consumers. According to our Flavor tracking database, only 12 percent of American consumers have heard of it and only five percent have tried it. But simply explain to them that it’s even thicker and richer than Greek yogurt and watch their eyes light up—then you know they’re ready to graduate to the harder stuff.
Mike Kostyo is the resident Trendologist at Datassential