Earlier this year, I traveled to the volcanic island of Iceland to explore its famously dramatic landscapes. Besides natural wonders like ice caves and geysers, I learned the country also has plenty to offer when it comes to culinary delights like fresh seafood, grass-fed meats, and rich dairy products.
The most well-known of these dairy products is skyr, that cultured dairy product with a creamy texture and tart flavor. I had tossed a few containers into my grocery cart while perusing the yogurt section over the years, but I didn't fully understand skyr's important role in Icelanders' daily life until I visited the country.
I had my first taste of true Icelandic skyr at Gamla fjósið, an unassuming restaurant housed in a former cow shed in the shadow of a volcanic glacier. Still a bit damp from visiting the Seljalandsfoss waterfall just down the road, I tried a savory bite of beef carpaccio with arugula and blueberry skyr sauce.
But the most memorable dish was the dessert — an artful plating of a single scoop of skyr beside a pool of thick cream dotted with crumbled ginger snaps, fresh blueberries, and cherry jam. The textures of the luscious skyr and velvety cream contrasted with each other, while the fruit components offered just the right touch of tart flavors and sweetness to cut through the richness. Until then, I had assumed skyr was just a type of glorified yogurt that sounded like a boring ingredient for a dessert. Boy, was I wrong.
What Is Skyr Exactly?
Skyr, available in grocery stores under brands like Siggi's, Smári Organics, Icelandic Provisions, and others, is indeed marketed to Americans as a type of yogurt. During my travels in Iceland, though, I realized that it's so much more than that.
The cultured dairy product could be considered the national food of Iceland, where it's been a part of the culture for more than 1100 years. Vikings originally brought skyr to the island from Norway. Although the tradition eventually died out there, it thrived in Iceland. The writers of the medieval Icelandic Sagas mention skyr, and three Viking-era jars containing skyr residue are on display at the National Museum. More recently, a crowd of protestors voiced their anger with the prime minister last year by pelting Parliament with skyr instead of tomatoes.
Iceland's early Viking settlers relied on skyr to survive living just below the Arctic circle. "When skyr was brought over here, it was a way of preserving protein that could keep for six months or longer," explains Einar Siggurdson, a former CEO of MS Iceland Dairies, the largest skyr producer in Iceland. The whey, a byproduct of the skyr-making process, was used for meat preservation purposes.
This Is How Skyr Is Made
If you visit Iceland, you're bound to hear that skyr isn't actually a type of yogurt. It technically falls under the quark category of fresh curd cheeses. How does it specially differ from yogurt? "It's the cultures," says Siggurdson."The cultures and the process." In the United States, yogurt can be made only with two specific yogurt bacteria strains, while skyr cultures usually contain other bacteria that fall outside these parameters. Icelandic Provisions, in particular, uses a specific skyr culture that dates back hundreds of years.
Another key component is the straining process — it actually takes four cups of milk to make a single cup of skyr. It was traditionally made with raw milk, and the cream was separated and reserved for another use. A dollop of skyr from a previous batch was added to the warmed skimmed milk as a starter. Rennet, although not used any longer, was also added to encourage coagulation. The skyr was then filtered through a cloth to remove any whey and create a dense and thick product.
Today's commercial brands make their products with pasteurized milk (usually skim) and a bacterial culture. The resulting skyr is thick, slightly sour, and chock-full of protein and very little, if any, fat.
How Icelanders Eat Skyr
You're bound to find a giant bowl of skyr on any breakfast buffet in Iceland, but there are plenty of other ways to eat it besides as a substitute for yogurt.
Icelandic chefs are constantly using skyr in creative ways. The ingredient was featured in some manner on the menu of practically every restaurant I visited: there was a heavenly crème brûlée at Ok Bistro and skyr cheesecake topped with green tomato jam at Friðheimar, Iceland's famous all-tomato restaurant. Fashionable Reykjavik restaurant Matur og drykkur even does a dessert with blueberry granita, oats, and, you guessed it, skyr.
Eventually, I realized that skyr dessert I had on my first day in Iceland was based on the most traditional way to eat it. According to Siggurdson, any Icelander will tell you the best way to eat skyr is as a simple dessert topped with cream, sugar, and maybe even some freshly picked berries during the summer. "When you put cream over it, you'll get a strange sort of flavor of the cream against the tartness," he explains, "So it's very important not to stir it together but to experience the two different flavors and sensations." Give it a try for yourself while the last of the berries are still in season.