We spoon up so much yogurt at breakfast, lunch and dinner that we spent $7.3 billion on the tart stuff last year.
Its creamy texture and good-for-your-gut benefits are draws. So are the varieties: full-fat, low-fat and nonfat; organic and conventional; honey-sweetened or plain; fruit on the bottom or swirled throughout, or none at all.
Among these cultured denizens of the dairy case, it's Greek yogurt that's getting lots of attention.
Retail sales in the United States of this thicker-than-regular yogurt increased more than 50 percent in 2012 to reach $1.6 billion, according to Packaged Facts, a Rockville, Md., market researcher. Such numbers, it said, have pretzel, salad dressing and cereal makers jumping on the Greek yogurt bandwagon.
Greek yogurt's appeal is easy to understand. It's deliciously thick and creamy, it plays well in recipes, its ingredient list is simple (milk plus live cultures), and its tartness dovetails with our fondness for fermented foods (pickles, beer, etc.).
"There's been a lot of marketing with the Greek yogurts. And people like the thick texture of the Greek variety," said registered dietitian Sarah Krieger, an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokeswoman. "If you're using Greek yogurt in cooking, basically you can use it anywhere that sour cream is used."
Subbing Greek yogurt for sour cream in many recipes cuts calories and sodium, while delivering more protein.
"If you're making a cold soup that uses sour cream, I would swap it out for nonfat Greek yogurt," Krieger said. "You're getting more nutrition with the Greek yogurt."
Its acidity also works well as a marinade for meats and poultry.
"It's great for baked fish or chicken. If you're using it instead of mayonnaise, you're actually using less fat and you're adding a little bit of protein and a little bit of calcium," said Krieger, a St. Petersburg, Fla., mom. She spreads yogurt on whitefish, then mixes dried herbs with breadcrumbs or panko to sprinkle atop before baking.
"With yogurt, almost anything goes. The possibilities of cooking with it are infinite," wrote Arto Der Haroutunian in "The Yogurt Cookbook: Recipes From Around the World" (Interlink Books, $35, 306 pages). The late author, restaurateur and artist suggested using it in place of cream, milk, buttermilk and sour cream.
"It makes an excellent marinade and goes well with vegetables, eggs, meat, poultry, cheese and grains," wrote Der Haroutunian, whose book boasts 200-plus recipes, including a garlic sauce (yogurt mixed with a crushed garlic clove, finely chopped green onion, a bit of salt and dried mint) for serving atop fried (we like grilled) slices of zucchini or eggplant.
Greek yogurt, like regular yogurt, can be temperamental in the presence of heat. If you're using it in cooking, it will curdle if you cook it over high heat, said Krieger, who suggests using low heat or stirring Greek yogurt into sauces at the end of cooking for texture and creaminess.
Nutritional differences between Greek and regular yogurts are due in part to the number of times each is strained. Regular yogurt is strained twice to remove liquid (called whey); Greek yogurt is strained three times, making it thicker and sometimes tarter.
"Regular yogurt has more whey; that is more of the liquid where most of the lactose also known as the carbohydrate is found," said Krieger. "So when the whey is removed, you're left with a higher concentration of protein.
"That's why you'll see more protein in nonfat Greek yogurt than of the same amount of regular nonfat."
Yet another reason to give tart, thick, creamy Greek yogurt a role to play in your culinary creations.
Dietitian Sarah Krieger offers these tips: "Always look at the ingredients first. Know what you're eating." Not all Greek yogurts are created equal. Check ingredients beyond milk and live cultures. Some yogurt makers may be "adjusting their recipes to accommodate what people are looking for," she said. Sometimes that means adding thickeners (i.e., gelatin or cornstarch) to yogurts strained only twice rather than the usual three times.
"People with lactose intolerance may find Greek yogurt easier to digest," she said, because Greek yogurt has less lactose (found in the whey).
Yogurts are made using live cultures (good bacteria such as S. thermophilus and L. bulgaricus, as well as others). Look for the National Yogurt Association's "Live & Active Cultures" seal identifying "yogurt products that contain significant amounts of live and active cultures."
GREEK YOGURT IN THE KITCHEN
Plain Greek yogurt's thickness works for dips, on spicy foods (chili anyone?) and baked potatoes, and it adds another flavor dimension to some condiments (say, Dijon mustard or Sriracha sauce). Remember: Liquid (whey) may pool at the top of yogurt. Dietitian Sarah Krieger says it's a good source of calcium, so stir it back into the yogurt.
Because yogurt is acidic, use a nonreactive dish when storing yogurt or marinating foods in it.
Overstirring yogurt may thin its consistency.
It may be warmed gently, but do not boil.
To stabilize yogurt for a dish that may be cooked at a higher heat, cookbook author Arto Der Haroutunian suggested stirring 1 to 2 teaspoons of flour into a little water, then adding to yogurt before cooking, or beat an egg into the yogurt before cooking.