I understand why people view yogurt as a substitute.
The problem comes when that becomes not just the headline, but the whole story.
Because of its acidic properties, its creamy richness, and its body, yogurt does indeed make a fine substitute for other cultured dairy products like sour cream and buttermilk. Fact is, if a pancake or waffle recipe calls for buttermilk and you only have yogurt, you can go ahead and replace it. (Consider thinning it with a bit of milk first.) If your favorite dip, cake, or even frosting recipe calls for the telltale tang of sour cream or crème fraiche, you can use a nice thick Greek yogurt instead. The substitution works, so people spread this news far and wide.
But yogurt’s versatility extends far beyond its use as a substitute. It is the base of countless curries; of sippable drinks like lassi, doogh, and ayran; of garlicky marinades; and thick, spreadable, salty labneh topped with overlapping cucumber rounds, or zaatar, or olive oil (or all three).
I would eat a big bowl of yogurt for breakfast or lunch, paired with fruit or even vegetables, while I’d never dream of doing the same with a bowl of buttermilk, crème fraiche, or sour cream. (Okay, a giant bowl of crème fraiche would be delicious. Who are we kidding?)
To get a handle on yogurt’s special role not just in eating but in cooking, look across the globe to cultures where yogurt is an integral part of a region’s cuisine. This is as true in the Mediterranean as it is in the Middle East, as true in the Balkans as it is in South Asia. South Indians regularly finish meals with curd rice, a simple mix of yogurt (curds) and the meal’s leftover rice. Try doing that with buttermilk.
So let’s move on from the substitution-talk. Yogurt deserves a richer, more expansive tale.
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