What is labneh, exactly? How the Middle East remade yoghurt
BY Ryan Willison
18th Oct 2023 Food Heroes
4 min read
Labneh is a creamy dish popular in Middle Eastern cultures, especially Lebanon. We trace the ancient history of this dairy staple and how to cook with it today
Originating from the Arabic word for “milk”, laban (related to lavan, which is Hebrew for “white”), labneh refers to cheese made by straining yoghurt until it reaches a thick, spreadable consistency.
A brief history of labneh
Though the earliest recorded reference to yoghurt was found in Indian Ayurvedic texts dating back to 6000BC, labneh as a byproduct is believed to have originated around 2,000 years ago in the Levant region of the Middle East.
The diversity of this territory, now comprised of modern-day Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Israel and Palestine, is reflected in the word’s many spellings—depending on where you visit (or where you order takeaway from), you might see it spelled as lebnah, labaneh, labne or labni.
The link between these cultures was a need to preserve dairy amidst heat that made keeping fresh milk untenable.
"Labneh earned a mention in the earliest known Arabic cookbook, the tenth-century Kitab al Tabikh"
Ancient Bedouin tribes especially, whose nomadic lifestyle exposed them even further to extreme temperatures, found that fermenting milk into yoghurt and then straining out the excess moisture to create labneh made it so they could roll the dairy into balls that were easier to transport.
In the centuries that followed, labneh became a staple condiment throughout Middle Eastern cuisine, even earning a mention in the earliest known Arabic cookbook, the tenth-century Kitab al Tabikh.
Regional differences in technique mostly boiled down to the type of dairy used, depending which animals were available—goat, sheep, cow, camel, and even water buffalo milk was utilised.
In today’s supermarkets, cow’s milk labneh is by far the most common, though many epicureans insist goat’s milk gives it the most authentically sour tang.
How is labneh made?
Turning yoghurt into labneh requires nothing more than a one-step straining process, meaning it couldn’t be easier to make at home if you’re unable to find it in shops.
Simply stir salt through full-fat Greek or goat’s milk yoghurt—between ¼ and ½ teaspoon will suffice for a 900g tub—then place the mixture in a fine-mesh sieve that’s been lined with two layers of cheesecloth.
After 24 hours in the refrigerator, with a bowl placed under the sieve to catch the liquid whey that drains out, that yoghurt will thicken into a spread with the consistency of cream cheese.
Feel free to mix with your favourite green herbs (parsley, coriander or dill, to name a few), a dried spice blend like za’atar, or nothing but additional salt according to your taste.
Are there health benefits?
Just like yoghurt, labneh is packed with probiotics. Those healthy bacteria help maintain balance in your body, controlling inflammation, creating vitamins, and boosting the immune system.
While many other cheeses can be difficult to digest, labneh acts as a digestive aid, similar to kefir and other fermented dairy products.
"Labneh can be savoured even by those who struggle with lactose intolerance"
Even better, it’s packed with protein: there are 20 grams of it in a 113-gram serving, in fact. This protein assists with muscle strength and tissue repair, especially when combined with labneh’s high level of calcium and vitamin A.
The cherry (or in this case perhaps, preserved lemon) on top is that it’s much lower in lactose than other types of dairy. As the straining process that removes whey from yoghurt also removes most of its lactose, labneh can be savoured even by those who struggle with lactose intolerance.
What can I make with labneh?
In Lebanon, where eating labneh is often a daily habit, it’s usually spread on warm pita breads as part of a simple breakfast sandwich. Feel free to top labneh pitas with za’atar, olives or tomatoes, as well as a sprinkling of fresh or dried mint leaves.
It’s just as delicious on heartier toasts with a fried egg or avocado, or on the side as a dip, with little more needed than a drizzle of olive oil.
It's a lovely counterpoint to heartier mains as well, like asparagus with labneh, brown butter and burnt lemon from celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi.
According to Katja Tausig of the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen, of the myriad ways they use labneh, their most common application is as a base for roasted vegetables. Next time you roast spiced carrots, chickpeas or even lamb kebabs, try smearing labneh at the bottom of the serving bowl for a creamy counterpoint.
"It's simply a very close cousin of the humble yoghurt"
Especially if you prefer your desserts on the not-too-sweet side, labneh can be an ideal substitution for cream cheese or creme fraiche as well. It brings a rich sourness to cheesecakes and panna cottas, and marries beautifully with macerated berries for a low-effort parfait.
In any dessert application, it naturally pairs with other flavours from the Levant, such as pistachios, honey and sweetly floral rosewater.
If the name "labneh" sounded unfamiliar and even daunting to you previously, know that it's simply a very close cousin of the humble yoghurt.
Yet with its more pronounced flavour and easily spreadable texture, labneh is well worth trying on its own. There’s simply no such thing as having too many delicious condiments.
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