Jim Hillibish: Strained American yogurt — it’s Greek to us

Jim Hillibish

I’m in line at the grocery checkout when the woman behind me knocks me on the shoulder and says, “No.” She grabs my tub of Yoplait yogurt.

“Get this instead,” she insists, handing me a tub of Greek yogurt. “Then write about it.”

Eat USA Greek

Such are the fans of this stuff. Most of it sold in the United States is imported not from Greece but from New York and Washington State. There’s evidence the Greeks didn’t even invent it. It might be Turkish.

In 1998, yogurt sales were declining. Some New York State farmers chanced upon a product to boost profits. They strained American yogurt and came up with a product the consistency of sour cream.

New Yorkers, always ripe for marketing progress, soon heralded it. In 2005, Fage Total, which has made strained yogurt in Greece for centuries, built a plant in Johnstown, N.Y., to satisfy the American market and avoid tariffs on dairy products.

Spoon-to-mouth popularity

Greek yogurt’s popularity crawled across the country, building a reputation via word of spoon in mouth. Then athletes discovered it’s protein-rich quality. Yoplait in America’s “Greek-style” zero-fat yogurt became a smash hit.

Of course, this comes at a price. Imported yogurts command $6 for 8 ounces in New York. In the Midwest, it began at about double the cost of the standard yogurts, but the gap is narrowing due to mass production and common sense.

Strained yogurt is legion in Greece, Turkey and South Asia. It’s advantage in cooking: It will not curdle at high heat. Many curry sauces are based on strained.

Being concentrated yogurt, it is strongly flavored. It offers more protein and less fat, sugars and carbohydrate. Add some marinated Kalamata olives, chopped, and you have a spread ready for party trays.

Many shoppers do not realize they could easily make their own from cheap American yogurt. All Greek yogurt is regular yogurt with some of its whey (liquid) strained. The more whey removed, the closer it gets to cream cheese.

It’s so easy, let your kids do it:

1. Line a non-metallic bowl with cheesecloth, available in groceries.

2. Dump in a tub of plain, cheap yogurt.

4. Draw up the four corners of the cloth and twist until whey water comes out.

5. Tie off the top of the bag with string and place in a colander inside the bowl, allowing space for the bag to drip.

6. The yogurt is “Greek” when it is the consistency of sour cream. This will take a few hours dripping in the fridge. Open the bag, and spoon it into a plastic container.

Notes: Coffee filters work. Let the yogurt drain fully (24 hours) and you have yogurt cheese, a fine cracker spreader when fresh herbs such as chives or basil are added. Greek yogurt can replace mayonnaise in practically every recipe.

Jim’s Greco-BBQ Fillets

1/2 cup Greek yogurt (or sour cream)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped

1 small clove garlic, diced

4 fillets white fish, such as Tilapia

Mix top four ingredients. Spread thickly over both sides of the fillets. Load into barbecue fish cages or place on the grill on a layer of oiled aluminum foil with holes punched. Barbecue over charcoal or gas, covered, for 8 minutes or until fish flakes.