Labneh is a delicious Middle Eastern soft, fresh cheese that can be eaten for breakfast, a snack, or as part of a meze spread. It has a smooth consistency and a slightly sour, subtly sweet flavor. In Lebanon and Syria, my grandmother's family would make their own labneh at home with mesta, (that is, homemade yogurt). In Beirut, they would buy milk in bottles at the market, but when they moved back to Syria, they bought a cow and used her milk. My grandmother's mother, Yemmah Sourma, and her older sister, Masy, would milk the cow, then Yemmah Sourma would make mesta, put the fermented mesta in a cloth, tie the cloth together, and let all of the whey drain away until it reached the perfect consistency. They would save the whey to make booshala, a yogurt and swiss chard soup.
These days, we most often buy labneh at Middle Eastern markets, since there are lots of perfectly good brands available. Look for one with fewer additives—the best labneh is just dairy (some combination of milk, cream, whey) and salt (sometimes with a little pectin). Labneh is great spread thinly on a plate and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. You can top it with whatever herbs and spices you'd like—mint, za'atar, sumac, or paprika each works great. We usually serve it as a dip with lawasha or pita bread, but it also makes a great cheese sandwich (and a great cheesecake too!)
While making labneh at home is a really fun project, I've never really found it totally worthwhile to make labneh from store-bought yogurt, since commercial labneh is already so tasty and convenient. But all that recently changed when my friend, Mary, told me how phenomenal it is when it's made from homemade yogurt. And it's true—when it comes to labneh made from homemade yogurt, it's hard to find anything better. So now I've become the kind of person who either buys ready-made labneh or goes all-in and makes it all the way from the beginning of the process, with whole milk, which I turn into yogurt overnight and then strain the next night until it is so perfect, you can't help but eat the whole thing with a spoon straight from the refrigerator (no olive oil, spices, or pita bread required).
If you want to make labneh from store-bought yogurt, maybe because you can't find labneh near you, or maybe because you want a more low-key cooking adventure, some yogurts work better than others.
I used to think Greek yogurt was best, since it's already halfway there. But there's something about the way it's been processed that just doesn't work out quite right (maybe since it's strained by big mechanical centrifuges). After having my friends do a blind-tasting of a few different homemade labnehs, everyone determined that the one made from Greek yogurt was the least favorite of the group.
I've found that starting with plain-old unstrained yogurt works better than starting with Greek yogurt. The most important thing is to find one that's been made from whole milk. I've made labneh with fat-free yogurt, but it's definitely not the same (gritty, sour, and pasty) and I wouldn't recommend it unless you're already accustomed to the tastes and textures unique to a totally fat-free diet.
also known as labne, labni, lebni
yield: 1 1/2 cups
active time: 15 minutes
total time: 12 hours
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4 cups plain unstrained yogurt, either homemade or store-bought
1 wooden spoon
1 pitcher or other tall container to catch the whey
A long sheet of cheesecloth
For serving (optional): salt, za'atar (or another spice blend), and extra virgin olive oil
Line a medium-sized bowl (approximately 1 quart) with several layers of cheesecloth. Make sure that the cheesecloth square is large enough to tie the corners around 1 quart of yogurt.
Spoon the yogurt into the center of the cheesecloth-covered bowl, place the wooden spoon over the top then wrap the cheesecloth edges over the top, tying them around the wooden spoon.
Place the ball inside the pitcher, with the wooden spoon allowing it to hang from the top. This will keep it away from the pooling whey, so that it can strain as it hangs.
Cover with plastic wrap, give the fridge a sniff check to make sure there are no funky smells, and strain the labneh in the fridge for about 6-12 hours, depending on the consistency you want. It will be more like Greek yogurt after 6 hours and much firmer after 12. *
To serve, spread thinly on a plate, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and spices.
* Don't be surprised if the labneh loses a couple cups of whey during the straining process. You might need to empty the pitcher if the whey-line starts to get too close to the ball. Also don't be surprised if the trickle of whey slows down dramatically after the first couple hours. It will lose most of its whey in the first 6 hours.