When you open the fridge in search of a quick breakfast or midafternoon snack, there's a good chance you'll reach for a carton of yogurt. The dairy product has never been more popular. And all you have to do is visit the dairy aisle at the local supermarket to see that yogurt has come a long way since the 1970s, when the fermented-milk confection enjoyed its first wave of mainstream popularity in the United States.
Yogurt's appeal goes beyond convenience. It's a good source of protein, calcium, B vitamins, and other nutrients. And because of the live bacterial cultures used to turn milk into yogurt, "it's actually more easily digested than milk. The good bacteria used to make yogurt also break down lactose, the milk sugar some people just can't handle," says Miriam Nelson, Ph.D., associate professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, and author of Strong Women Eat Well.
Eating yogurt has long been associated with good health and a long life. The ancient Assyrians called it lebene (life), and today, food scientists consider yogurt a probiotic food. (Probiotic is the term for a category of cultured foods that contain beneficial bacteria.)
Yogurt has always been a staple food in Mediterranean and India cuisine. Cucumber raita is a refreshing cool yogurt relish that accompanies nearly all Indian meals. "I find yogurt most useful as a remedy for too much chile heat," says Anne Willan, author of Good Food, No Fuss. "A quick spoonful of cucumber raita, and that fiery burn is calmed at once."
But "yogurt is funny stuff in the kitchen," Willan says. "If you heat it, it separates." Her advice: Stir yogurt into hot dishes at the last minute, after they've been removed from the oven or stovetop. Also, heat kills the live and active cultures in yogurt, so a recipe for grilled chicken marinated in yogurt and cumin might taste great and boast protein, calcium, and B vitamins, but it won't have probiotic health benefits. If you want to incorporate yogurt into meals and maintain its probiotic qualities, use it in cool dishes, such as cold soups, dips, or salad dressings. Yogurt is also good as a creamy dessert topping.
Get cooking. Below are recipes that incorporate yogurt.