The frozen yogurt boom of the past few years is finally starting to slow in New York. As fast as 16 Handles locations popped up, they and their assorted competitors are now dying off.
That's fine by us—not just because it encourages us to make the frozen stuff ourselves—but also because it leaves room for the yogurt rebels to step out of the shadows. We mean the people creating their own white-capped wave of dairy resistance with little more than milk, live cultures, heat, and time. Simple, old-world yogurt production is alive and well in New York City, and it's coming out from the underground. Most important of all, its quality runs laps around the major supermarket brands.
What makes a fresh yogurt worth seeking out? A rich, creamy texture and a balance of sweet and tart dairy. Live bacterial cultures and heat coax varying degrees of sourness into yogurt, but shouldn't overpower the flavor of fresh milk beneath. And hardcore yogurt doesn't need any added sugar or thickeners like powdered pectin concentrate.
Though yogurt styles vary, our chosen representatives tend to agree that great yogurt should have a short ingredient list, and that milk matters. Most of the purveyors below stick to local, hormone-free, and partially or wholly grass-fed varieties that haven't been ultra-pasteurized. Also called ultra high temperature (UHT) pasteurization, this speedy process caramelizes milk sugars at a whopping 280°F for a mere two seconds, leading to a sweeter and more "cooked"-tasting yogurt. That can be a boon for milk drank on its own—many prefer that sweeter flavor, but it's less at home in tangy yogurt.
To satisfy Department of Agriculture requirements, our yogurt masters pasteurize their milk again in-house, using either a high temperature/short time (HTST) or low temperature/long time (LTLT) method, which take 15 seconds or 30 minutes, respectively. Post-pasteurization, live cultures (aka, the good bacteria) go in, and finally the yogurt is cooled so it can set. If the yogurt-maker is straining out whey for a thicker yogurt, they do so without added thickeners, relying only on the yogurt's own weight to drain away moisture.
In the end, conjuring deliciousness from milk and microorganisms is part science, part trial-and-error wizardry, and these six dairy devotees know all the magic words.
Sohha Savory Yogurt
Made in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and sold mainly at Chelsea Market, Sohha Savory Yogurt aims to challenge the perception of yogurt as a milky vehicle for fruit and honey. Instead, founders Angela and John Fout want their customers to explore its savory side via traditional Middle Eastern embellishments like a drizzle of olive oil or a dusting of za'atar. To encourage customers to take home the tastes sampled at the stand, they offer bottled portions like "everything bagel"—a garlic-poppy-sesame-onion medley that also serve to subtly nominate their yogurt as a cream cheese stand-in.
Which is not to say that the texture is exactly cream-cheesy. Sohha describes its strained yogurt as "labneh-like," but it doesn't have the mouth-coating thickness of some labnehs; the variety they label "regular" is pleasingly smooth for a strained yogurt, and creamy with the subtlest tinge of sour, making it easy to eat alone or dotted with olive oil. The "tangy" option fulfills the tart promise that the regular only hints at, making it a pretty seamless substitute for sour cream (though it'll curdle under heat).
Drawn from Angela's secret Lebanese family recipe, the yogurt starts with Hudson Valley Fresh milk. To maintain the milk's omega-3 content, which diminishes as fat is skimmed, Sohha uses only whole and two percent. Active cultures and sea salt round out the mix, and time is a serious factor: the yogurt takes 36 hours from pasteurization to the final step of straining out the whey.
"The moustache isn't a hipster thing," yogurt obsessive and White Moustache co-founder Homa Dashtaki laughingly explains, unprompted. "We didn't even start out in Brooklyn." Born in Iran and raised in California, Dashtaki watched her father make Persian-style yogurt as a child, and named her young company in honor of his luxuriously snowy facial hair. White Moustache only found a home among Brooklyn's DIY set after a protracted battle with California health authorities over yogurt-making methods forced her to shut down.
The owners of Salvatore Bklyn ricotta caught wind of Dashtaki's struggle, and soon she was moving across the country to share their space, where New York City health authorities have been more sympathetic to her desire to make yogurt by hand on a small scale, without any mechanization. "It's a magical process," Dashtaki explains, "Every batch is a little different. If I could name them, I would."
White Moustache makes three basic kinds of yogurt—distinctly tart and soupy Persian style, strained Greek style, and super-thick labneh. All three start with Hudson Valley Fresh whole milk and an active culture blend, but the process varies a bit from then on. Persian-style yogurt, their signature, is unstrained and incubated at a higher temperature than Greek to develop its tartness; the final result is smooth and saucy, ideal for drizzling over rice and other main dishes.
The slightly sweeter, creamier Greek-style strained yogurt comes plain or with specifically Persian stir-ins such as king mulberries, which Dashtaki remembers foraging in the mountains near Tehran. The labneh, strained from the Persian-style variety to the thickness of mascarpone, skews savory in its toppings, which include seasonal brined garlic shoots and Aleppo peppers.
Yogurt power couple Gino and Jenny Ammirati bill their three-year-old, Brooklyn-based enterprise as "an American yogurt company," and its name honors the two factors that led to its existence: the customized cocktail of active cultures that Gino developed over two years of trial and error in his home kitchen, and the widespread tradition of yogurt cultivation common to different cultures worldwide.
Culture's fresh yogurt, sold by the tub out of its two storefronts as well as wholesale to markets, is closest to the Greek style, in that it's a strained blend of milk, cultures, and additional probiotics. The milk arrives from Hudson Valley Fresh (for the skim and low-fat yogurt) and Organic Valley (for whole-milk yogurt) within 24 hours of the cow being milked. After low-heat pasteurization, the freshly cultured mixture incubates for a leisurely eight to 12 hours, with the wiggle room accounting for uncontrollable factors like outside weather and humidity. When the pH levels are within the recipe's bounds, the hustle commences to get the yogurt out of incubation immediately, while the flavor is ideal. That flavor is undeniably milky with a crème fraîche sharpness that finishes clean, bolstered by a slight chewiness.
Some of the finished product is sold fresh, but most heads for the freezer. Culture makes the kind of fro-yo a yogurt-loving consumer can love, a simple frozen version of its fresh yogurt whizzed with whatever seasonal flavors former pastry chef Jenny is cooking up that day. Recent warm-weather offerings have included blueberry, corn, and strawberry-rhubarb (which she was stirring on the stove mid-interview). Take that, big fro-yo!
Blue Hill Yogurt
The process of making Blue Hill's rainbow of vegetable-imbued yogurts begins long before the milk arrives. Already, farmers across the Northeast have harvested summer and fall vegetables—beets, carrots, butternut squash, and tomatoes—and handed them over to the kitchen to be puréed and flash-frozen into brightly colored mix-ins.
Which is not to say that the milk isn't important—it's obsessively procured from local, 100% grass-fed cows, and pasteurized using a high-temperature/short-time (or HTST) method to preserve it flavor. Once milk, cultures, and fruit or vegetable purée have met in soupy harmony, the yogurt is "cup set," or poured while still liquid into individual cups, which are then sealed. A 12-hour, low-heat incubation ensues, which helps to develop the yogurt's creamy texture and overall tang.
The yogurt is closest to a cream-top style, which means that a layer of milk fat rises and settles on top as it cools. That said, the creamline isn't all that prominent because it's cut with 20 to 30% vegetable purée (to put that in perspective, a typical fruit yogurt might have 6 to 8% fruit purée). Those vegetables marry beautifully into the yogurt: a pink funk lingers in the beet flavor while the tomato is sweet and sunny and the carrot bears hints of spice.
While rationing out a stockpile of vegetable purées from last year's fall harvest, Blue Hill has also been experimenting with spring vegetable varieties, which they hope to unveil once they've perfected the taste and texture. "Just because you can do it in the kitchen doesn't mean you can do it in a cup," Blue Hill president David Barber points out, "but we're working on it."
Parrot Coffee's three markets—in Astoria, Ridgewood, and Sunnyside, Queens—cater mainly to the Mediterranean and Eastern European populations of their respective neighborhoods with hard-to-find products from the Balkans and beyond. So when they decided to develop a homemade, unstrained yogurt, they did it with an eye toward capturing the old-world sourness their clients pined for.
The first step toward achieving this goal: goats. According to owner Ronny Sharon, the Coach Farm goat's milk he uses provides more of a tang than cow's milk, but isn't quite as sharp as most sheep's milk. Using goat's milk also results in a firmer yogurt, which Sharon chills overnight in the refrigerator until the top is level. The thick yogurt spreads like cream cheese and will surely have you thinking of chevre, though the flavor is lighter and more lemony.
The recipe used at Parrot—incorporating nothing more than full-fat goat's milk, active cultures, and a few drops of lemon—is based on an old family tome from Bulgaria, the yogurt-loving country for which the widely used culture lactobacillus bulgaricus is named. Sharon's method involves pasteurizing the milk quickly at a high temperature, lowering it for a longer time to preserve flavor, resting the culture-enriched mix at room temperature, and always, always using full-fat milk. "For the culture to be there, you need the fat," he explains. "And the body needs the cultures to be healthy."
In a world of yogurt upstarts, Kesso is an institution, born out of Grecian homesickness back in 1987. Fotini and Stavros Kessissoglou started the company when they couldn't find strained yogurt stateside, and it's still family-run out of the same unassuming storefront in East Elmhurst, Queens.
Kesso's yogurt-making cycle starts with conventional milk, whole or fat-free, sourced from varying producers. It's pasteurized quickly at high heat, and, once it cools a bit, cultures join the party. The yogurt sets, bricklike, in a low oven, after which heat diminishes in increments: the yogurt rests at room temperature, then retires to the fridge for a 24-hour nap. The final step, straining, demands an additional two days.
Co-owner Alex Kessissoglou, son of founder Stavros, credits the quality of the finished product to vigilance, and the practiced ability of his family to eyeball factors like whether enough whey has migrated off the baking yogurt, signaling that it's ready to come out. It's a balancing act, and it's different every time; the yogurt has to stay in the oven long enough to thicken, but if it overstays its welcome, sourness will spike. When it's perfect, it's thicker than more-commercial Greek yogurts—"thick enough to eat with a fork"—and possesses a slight sour-milk twang and lactic fruitiness that lends itself well to traditional Greek toppings of honey or fruit compotes.
In addition to selling yogurt retail at its Elmhurst address, Kesso delivers it by the bucketful to area restaurants, and stocks one-pound tubs in New York markets including Fairway and Zabar's, as well as alongside its small-batch dairy brethren at Parrot Coffee. Yogurt rebels, unite.