The search for a better yogurt.
To drink sour milk is human; to eat yogurt is divine. The Hindu god Krishna likes yogurt. So do the sensual French. In some translations of the Song of Songs, the "land of milk and honey" is a haven chockablock with cultured dairy. Today, though, yogurt is less holy than wholesale, and even a devotee must sometimes suffer through the ugly specter of yogurt ennui. The hallmarks of this condition are, so to speak, plain: You buy the yogurt. You put the yogurt in the refrigerator. Eventually, you move the yogurt, untouched, to the trash. This is basically the yogurt version of a long-married couple checking into a lovers' bed-and-breakfast and then dozing off, right after dinner, underneath the Wall Street Journal.The urge to spoon comes with an expiration date.
If your yogurt history is like mine, you've tried to jump-start your desire with the aid of novel, striking, sometimes perverse products. Perhaps you got some kicks from Yoplait's "custard style" line, a bastion of the Clinton years that reimagined yogurt as a low-grade dessert with the texture of an untorched crème brûlée. When this concept got to be a little much, you might have moved on to YoCrunch: a multimedia yogurt project with a trove of muesli in its top.
Yet those were younger, more profligate years. The new ethos of yogurt is earnest. Warding off ennui now means moving beyond colorful and kinky, toward a deeper, more grown-up love for the stuff as it is. Some reading (another feature of your newfound maturity is a zest for product research, not that you're, as some friends have wrongly suggested, "compulsive" about it) has guided you toward yogurts that are geographically diverse, artisanally made, and reflective of the best values with which you live your life. From Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don't Get Fat, you learned to seek the yogurts of the world in their Platonic forms, steering clear of "the host of undesirable ingredients you find in the American versions." Mark Bittman tells you "local yogurt" is the way to go. Sonia Uvezian, who wrote The Book of Yogurt, suggests aficionados simply learn to make their own from scratch.(In case you were unsure: "The milk of cows, sheep, goats, horses, asses, camels, yaks, water buffalo, and even soybean milk can be used as a yogurt medium.")
In this matter, industry has followed opportunity. Last year, America produced 3.6 billion pounds of yogurt. It is unclear whether this figure even includes camel- and ass-milk efforts. Recent yogurt research, meanwhile, points toward more health benefits than ever—boons for the immune system, weight reduction without muscle loss—and the yogurt niche market has grown accordingly. Most supermarket sections these days will offer at least one organic or otherwise rarified line. In regions where "slow food" is de rigueur, you're apt to find enough varieties of upscale yogurt to sustain a NATO quorum.
So where to start? Given the wealth of options, can a jaded yogurt-eater find a product that's at once eco-friendly, adventurous, and delicious? I recently pulled together a panel of Slate staffers to find an answer. Clustered in a conference room one rainy afternoon, we spooned our way through a few of the more upscale and exotic yogurts currently on the market, evaluating each for taste, texture, and aesthetic appeal.
Five yogurt brands— Fage, Liberté, Skyr.is, Stonyfield Farm, and Wallaby —were selected as a cross section of the upper quadrant of the yogurt market, representing both organic and international offerings. (Here's a longer, though by no means exhaustive, list of such yogurts.) Our jury of nine tasted two samples from each brand: a plain yogurt and a red-berry flavor—strawberry in all cases except one. Each sample was mixed in advance and spooned into paper cups to hide its identity.
Every juror awarded each sample a score from zero to 10 in three criteria—taste, consistency, and visual appeal. I averaged the numerical scores together for a group rating.
Below, the results, from worst to best:
Stonyfield Farm Stonyfield Farm is a New Hampshire-based dairy producer that aspires to be to the yogurt industry something like what Paul Newman was to salad. "[W]e use farm-fresh milk from family farms, and fruits that are hand picked to ensure that only the finest ones are used. And they're prepared the same day they're picked to retain the freshest flavor," the company explains. "[W]e offset all of the C02 emissions from our facility energy use. We also started a nonprofit called 'Climate Counts' which shows people how they can help fight climate change. …"
You get the idea. Stonyfield is in all respects a product we would dearly love to love. Unfortunately, we found this yogurt quite disgusting. Its texture, even after extensive mixing, was a blend of mucousy globules and runny bits. One person described it as reminiscent of an oyster, while another found it most evocative of "a cracked egg." The company's whole-milk plain was thought to taste "thinner" than its texture would suggest; someone mentioned feeling unsettled by its "bluish" hue. "This would be good cat food," one panelist averred.
And Stonyfield's fruit failed to improve our verdict much. Although everything in the company's white-chocolate raspberry whole-milk yogurt is natural, it had our phony-flavor receptors tripping. ("It's like the bad cologne of yogurt," someone exclaimed.) Two of our tasters mentioned being put off by a sticky, "gluelike" texture. The fruit itself was pulverized into what another juror described succinctly as "weird bits."
Stonyfield Farm plain
Visual appeal: 2.2
Stonyfield Farm fruited
Visual appeal: 3.7
Skyr.is Skyr is both a brand name and the generic term for this Icelandic milk product. Although it's marketed and eaten as a yogurt, skyr is technically a cheese, traditionally made with rennet in addition to yogurt culture. Its résumé as a diet food is impressive (despite a thick texture and inordinately high protein levels, it has essentially no fat), and it's rumored to keep without refrigeration. Skyr.is—which is also, handily, the URL of the company site—has wisely gone international via a direct Iceland-to-Whole Foods shipping route. Today, it's rivaled on this continent by Siggi's, a skyr producer founded by an Icelandic expat in New York.
Plain Skyr.is sundered our panel: Some people appreciated its sour, "primal," buttery-thick body—"a taste of the farm, and callused hands," as one panelist put it—while others found it "upsettingly thick" and, in one case, suggestive of "a poached egg." It was noted that samples could be turned completely upside-down without suffering yogurt loss.
Strawberry Skyr.is was another story. The fruit flavor was variously pronounced "alarmingly dental," "like a chew vitamin," and "like a Nerds Rope." One panelist said the bright-pink mass "felt a bit tacky." Given that Iceland is not the world's capital for fruit farming, the company probably deserves an E for effort. But if you're keen to try Skyr.is, you should think about buying it plain and adding the strawberries yourself.
Visual appeal: 5.6
Visual appeal: 5.4
Liberté The French are famous for their love affair with yogurt, and although Liberté originates in Francophone Canada, a land whose chief culinary achievement might be fries slathered in gravy and unripe cheese, the brand strives, by its own description, toward the "Méditerrannée yogourts" of the Old World. Liberté explains to us that this means "a limited quantity of ingredients," including "probiotic 'bioghurt' cultures," that supposedly make for a "smoother" product.
In the case of Liberté's low-fat plain yogurt, smoother seemed to mean runny: Although some panelists imagined that this product's thin, slightly sour body would serve as "a great base" for fruit, oats, and other incidental roughage, the general consensus was that it ran too liquidy in its pure form. Our jury had more pronounced reactions to the brand's full-fat "Méditerrannée" strawberry cup. Like extra inches added to the barrel of a woodwind instrument, the higher fat content seemed to transform the timbre of the yogurt, giving it a thicker, "whipped" texture that reminded several tasters of soft-serve ice cream. This was by no means an unwelcome effect. But the fruit additive itself was too sweet—"like eating a NutraSweet packet," as one person put it—and lean on flavor. It didn't exactly court the eye, either, having what someone described as the dusky pink hue of "milk after some sugary cereal has been in it."
Visual appeal: 5.8
Visual appeal: 5.7
Wallaby There's a persistent narrative—originating in the days of ancient empire, hammered down by Marco Polo, and carried in some form or another all the way to the J. Peterman Co.—wherein an intrepid traveler stumbles on a product in the outskirts of the known world and imports it, as a revelation, back home to the motherland. In the case of Wallaby, this land of untold secrets is 1990s Australia, and the product is the ambrosial yogurt of the Australian people, no doubt heretofore untasted in the modern world. Quoth the lore: "They wondered why this style of yogurt was not available back home—they were sure that Americans would enjoy its unique qualities." Australian yogurt, we are told, is completely unlike American yogurt because it is "fresh, subtly sweet and creamy, [using] a slow cooking process to create a naturally smooth and creamy Australian-style texture." Smooth and creamy yogurt? This, our panel had to try.
Generally speaking, we liked the company's organic low-fat plain. Despite its exotic premise, Wallaby—which is based in greater Vallejo, Calif.—was in fact regarded by several people as the most quintessentially "yogurty" product of any we tasted. It dripped off the spoon without being runny; its color was a pleasing, even white. We were less enamored of the low-fat strawberry variety: The flavor once more had the air of something phony and oversugared. Two people said it tasted like Pez. The fruit bits suspended in the yogurt had fulsome, almost rancid-seeming sweetness. It's hard to believe this was the type of flavor that inspired Wallaby's founders Down Under. But, then again, Australia has been known to have curious notions about fruit.
Visual appeal: 7.2
Visual appeal: 5.9
Fage Fage—which, thanks to an unfortunate typography choice, is known in certain circles by the unappetizing sobriquet "Face"—is the largest dairy company in Greece. In 2005, though, the manufacturer set up shop on this side of the Atlantic and since then has produced its U.S.-market yogurt in upstate New York. Like skyr, Greek yogurt is strained of its whey, a process that gives it a thick texture even at low fat levels. This type of yogurt is no longer as novel as it was some years ago—many big yogurt producers today have their own Greek-style line—but so far, its cliquish appeal hasn't worn off.
Fage bills itself as "ridiculously thick yogurt." Our panel did not disagree with this assessment. Several people said that Fage Total (which is to say, full-fat) in its plain form looked and felt a lot like ricotta cheese. We couldn't fathom adding the likes of granola to such a dense product, but some could imagine using it as spread. ("I'd put this on a baguette with raspberries!" one panelist proclaimed.) Even those people who found Fage's heft "a little scary" seemed to like its flavor—"inexplicably good," in the words of one juror.
Strawberry Fage Total was also our favorite of the fruited yogurts. The jamlike strawberry flavoring (which must be stirred in) was described as "natural-seeming" and "the most fruitlike in taste." The thickness of the yogurt kept the fruit from dominating in sweetness, too, even though the fruit bits appeared larger than those in the other products. A couple of tasters said the texture of the yogurt and the distribution of the fruit reminded them of ice cream. Even as we affirm our vows to yogurt, after all, our souls never stop lusting for dessert.
Visual appeal: 6.4
Visual appeal: 8
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.