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January 17, 2019
Yogurt Is a Baker’s BFF

Lazy person’s sourdough, anyone? Introducing: The Country’s Best Yogurt Column.

In the realm of dessert—a category dominated by buttery, fluffy carbs—a bowl of plain yogurt is never framed as the first choice. It is diet food. It is a sad substitute for something sweeter and more decadent, destined to be disappointing at best, an extreme cop-out at worst. What’s more, in the U.S., yogurt is only spoken about in the context of breakfast—served with a swirl of maple syrup or mixed with granola and berries.

Add yogurt to a baked good, however, and the game changes entirely. As it turns out, yogurt is the baker’s back-pocket trick to lifting the flavor and texture of olive oil cakes, black and white cookies, and Middle Eastern pastries. It becomes not a clumsy substitute but an ingredient with its own standalone merits.

No one is a bigger believer in the power of yogurt in baking than Molly Yeh, the host of Food Network’s Girl Meets Farm and the author of the Short Stack cookbook Yogurt. She frequently uses yogurt instead of buttermilk, sour cream, or milk in baking. She says you can use it in a one-to-one ratio, as long as you thin it out first with water to mimic the texture of whatever you are swapping out. “It is an ingredient that lasts forever and ever, is low maintenance, and can be easily tailored to your baking needs.”

What does yogurt actually do, scientifically, when added to a dessert? “Thanks to its acidic property, yogurt, when in the presence of baking soda, helps baked goods swell and rise,” says Cheryl Sternmal Rule, the author of the superlatively named Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World’s Creamiest, Healthiest Food. “It adds moisture and tenderness.”

Maureen Abood’s nectarine yogurt cobbler

The fermentation element of yogurt, too, “takes flavor to another level,” says Maureen Abood, who authored Rose Water and Orange Blossoms: Fresh & Classic Recipes from My Lebanese Kitchen. “It’s a more complex flavor, similar to the way cultured butter is much more flavorful and richer than standard butter.”

Case in point: the tangy grapefruit-and-olive-oil yogurt loaf in Yeh’s Yogurt cookbook, which calls for whole-milk Greek yogurt. The thick yogurt makes for a “denser, tighter crumb” and makes the case more “luscious,” she says. “That is a unique ability of yogurt.” Its inherent sour tang also nicely mellows out the sweetness of the cake. And yes, it just so happens to be more nutritious than, say, sour cream.

Because of the universality of yogurt in Middle Eastern cuisine, Abood has long used it in her Lebanese sweets, like sfouf, a simple tea cake flavored with anise.

She recently started mixing it into her mom’s chocolate cake with American-style buttercream, replacing the milk in both with yogurt. And in her pound cakes (similar to Yeh’s yogurt loaf), she says yogurt “balances the density of the butter with its tenderizing magic.”

Do you find bread making frustrating and overly temperamental? Yogurt can help ease the pain. “I have never been able to keep a sourdough starter alive,” Yeh admits, so she substitutes yogurt for some of the liquid in her dough to achieve that same taste. “It is like my lazy girl’s sourdough.” Yeh’s other go-to bread is a yogurt pita, made with just flour, olive oil, and yogurt. The yogurt adds more bounce and flavor, she says, “that little something-something that makes it a really special piece of pita.”

Molly Yeh on the donut beat

Using yogurt instead of milk in pancakes is a no-brainer, too, Sternman Rule advises—the yogurt creates “lift and tang.” Yeh will mix yogurt into black-and-white cookie dough (it helps to give the cookies their signature cakey texture) and into frosting for a tart element.

In general, both Yeh and Sternman Rule recommend using plain, full-fat yogurt. For thick batters—or ones where you are substituting sour cream, cream cheese, mayonnaise, or ricotta—go for plain Greek yogurt to maintain the texture, adds Abood. And don’t forget to read the ingredient list on the yogurt container! A lot of brands—including Stonyfield and Yoplait—are made with added thickeners that could end up making a baked good “overly gummy,” Yeh says. If you really want to go all in, Abood suggests making your own yogurt, which can have “much more tang, much more complexity, than commercial yogurt.”

But aside from the yogurt being plain and full fat, Sternman Rule says that because yogurt is so forgiving as ingredient, you should use what you have on hand “rather than stocking up a million different kinds of yogurt.” Just thin it out or strain it as necessary.

That said, there are some cases when it is not the right choice to use yogurt. Butter, for example, should never be swapped out for yogurt, Yeh says, since butter has a much higher fat content. Also, if a recipe calls for heating the dairy product up before adding it to a dough or batter, yogurt won’t work as a substitute because it will separate.

In American culture, yogurt may not yet be viewed as a multipurpose ingredient in the way that it is in other countries. But, Yeh adds, the ubiquitous, all-American activity of baking is an excellent starting point for expanding that understanding. Perhaps a bite of her grapefruit loaf, too.


  • For the loaf
  • 1½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup almond meal
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon poppy seeds, plus more for topping
  • 1 tablespoon lightly packed grapefruit zest (from about 1 to 2 grapefruits)
  • ¼ cup fresh grapefruit juice (from about 1 grapefruit)
  • ¾ cups whole-milk Greek yogurt
  • ¾ cups extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1¼ cups sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • For the glaze
  • 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 2-3 tablespoons whole-milk Greek yogurt
  • ¼ teaspoon grapefruit zest
  • ¼ teaspoon almond extract
  • Pinch of kosher salt

I am typically lukewarm about grapefruit, which probably stems from only ever encountering it next to cottage cheese in the diet section of diner menus. Poor grapefruit—it probably gets sick of being thought of as diet food, and something tells me yogurt can sympathize. So let’s put them together and let ’em loose with a ton of sugar for a night on the town. This loaf cake is a total party. The grapefruit here mellows out when it’s paired with almond and olive oil, but it retains its fruitiness and picks up in sourness where yogurt left off. There are a lot of flavors at play here, but they all play together very well.

  1. Make the loaf: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a loaf pan with cooking spray and line it with parchment paper so that the parchment comes up all the way on two of the sides.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, almond meal, salt, baking powder, baking soda, poppy seeds, and grapefruit zest. In a separate small bowl, whisk together the grapefruit juice and yogurt until very smooth. In a large bowl, whisk together the oil and sugar until combined. Add the eggs to the oil-sugar mixture, one at a time, whisking very well after each, then add the almond extract. Add the dry ingredients and yogurt mixture in three alternating batches, whisking after each, until just combined. Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean (begin checking for doneness at 55 minutes). Let the loaf cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then use the parchment paper handles to lift the loaf out of the pan and transfer it to a wire rack to cool completely.
  3. Meanwhile, make the glaze. In a medium bowl, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar, 2 tablespoons of yogurt, the grapefruit zest, almond extract, and salt. It will seem as though there isn’t enough yogurt at first, but keep on stirring. If the mixture is too thick to spread once it’s fully combined, add more yogurt bit by bit until it becomes spreadable. Spread the glaze on top of the cake, sprinkle with poppy seeds, and enjoy.
Lebanese Sfouf Cake

Lebanese Sfouf Cake

30 2- to 3-inch pieces


  • 2 teaspoons tahini
  • 1½ cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup semolina flour (fine)
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon turmeric powder
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground aniseed
  • 1 cup whole-milk plain yogurt, or laban
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • ½ cup neutral oil, such as canola or safflower
  • 1-2 tablespoon pine nuts or slivered almonds

You can adjust the flavorings some if you need to; i.e., leave out the anise if that’s not a crowd-pleaser. Sfouf will keep for a good week in an airtight container.

  1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees with the rack in the middle position. Coat the bottom of a 9-inch square (or round) cake pan with the tahini.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk the flours, baking powder, salt, turmeric, and aniseed.
  3. In a large measuring cup or medium bowl, whisk the yogurt, sugar, and vanilla until the sugar dissolves (it won’t entirely), then add the oil and whisk vigorously until combined.
  4. Whisk the liquid mixture into the dry mixture until everything is well combined.
  5. Scrape the batter into the prepared baking pan and smooth out the top. To end up with a nut in the center of lozenge/diamond-shaped pieces of cake, place the nuts about 2 inches apart in rows, but set the nut pointing toward the corners of the pan (diagonally). It also helps to score the top of the batter in diamonds so you can see where to place the nuts in the center of each diamond. To do this, make five scores straight across and seven scores diagonally, the same way we cut baklawa. Or scatter the nuts evenly over the top of the batter.
  6. Bake the cake for 20-25 minutes, or until a pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Then turn on the broiler and carefully brown the top of the cake, keeping a close eye on it so it doesn’t burn. Cut into diamonds and serve.

Priya Krishna

Priya Krishna is a food writer and the author of the college-centric cookbook Ultimate Dining Hall Hacks and Indianish.