What is labna and how do you make it?

Karen Martini's fresh labna rolled in homemade zataar with radish and chilli.
Karen Martini's fresh labna rolled in homemade zataar with radish and chilli. Photo: Marina Oliphant

If I see one more gaily festooned plate of hummus, I'm going to scream. Don't get me wrong: I love hummus. But, come on, it's a bit ubiquitous, innit? Dare to be different, I say. Labna can serve the same function as hummus, but with a distinctive mouthfeel – rich, tart, full of umami – and is adaptable to a planet-load of flavour profiles.

First, you'll need some thick Greek-style yoghurt.

A swoosh of labna topped with olive oil and roasted cauliflower.
A swoosh of labna topped with olive oil and roasted cauliflower. Photo: William Meppem

It's called "Greek" because it's similar to a thick, strained sheep's milk yoghurt common in Greece known as "straggisto". Straining, incidentally, removes some of the whey, that cloudy liquid enjoyed famously by Little Miss Muffet.

Labna is yoghurt that's been strained to within an inch of its life, attaining a consistency closer to cream cheese. Most recipes for labna call for Greek yoghurt precisely because some of the whey has already been strained out. Note: because some duplicitous "Greek-style" yoghurts are thickened artificially rather than by straining, read the label and go with the ones that don't have any thickeners (such as gelatin).

Labna can be made from sheep's, goat's or cow's milk yoghurt. It can be of any fat content, even fat free.

Saffron scones with labna and orange blossom marmalade.
Saffron scones with labna and orange blossom marmalade. Photo: Marcel Aucar

The ingredients for labna are, literally, just yoghurt and salt. The equipment you'll need are a colander or sieve, a bowl and some cheese cloth (or clean Chux-style wipes).

Here's how to make it:

1. Set your colander inside the bowl and line it with several layers of cheesecloth, leaving the ends flapping over the side.

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2. Stir the salt – roughly one teaspoon per four cups – into the yoghurt, then scrape it all onto the cheesecloth.

3. Bring the corners of the cheesecloth up and tie or twist them together to make a handy yoghurt sack. Squeeze the sack, oh so gently, to lose some of the whey, then set it back into the colander inside the bowl and place the whole thing in the fridge.

4. After a day or two – the longer you leave it, the stiffer your labna – remove the bowl from the fridge. Give the sack one last gentle squeeze, then scrape the labna into a bowl.

There. Now you have labna.

Here's you: "Great. Now I've got labna. And?"

Here's what to do with it:

Well, you can eat it right away, fresh, or, you can mix in some flavouring ingredients of your choice: parsley, mint, garlic or the spice mix called zaatar would all be fairly typical of Middle Eastern flavour profiles. However, you can add anything you want: herbs de Provence, ginger, chipotle, Sriracha. Think of it as you would cream cheese in terms of its ability to act as a culinary canvas. You could even sweeten it up with honey or maple syrup.

To serve labna fresh, envision its cousins, hummus and baba ghanoush, and schmear it on a platter into a round of attractive concavity, like an inverted frisbee. Drizzle extra-virgin olive oil over the lot and garnish with any of the above herbs and spices or tomatoes and olives.

If you're too famished for pretty things just slather your labna on a bagel. You can also use it like any other condiment: Spread it on burgers, sandwiches or wraps. Scoop a spoonful or two into a bowl of dhal or beans. Whisk it into a vinaigrette or sauce to thicken and enrich.

Any leftover labna can be stored in the fridge in a covered container for a week or so. Or, try this:

Get your hands wet with water or slippery with olive oil and roll the labna into balls the size of walnuts. Place the balls in a jar and submerge them completely in extra-virgin olive oil. They'll last in your fridge for a couple months, easily.

Oh, and if you do that, try this: After fabricating the balls, but before submerging them, roll them in something pretty and flavourful, such as paprika or zaatar.

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