Have you ever stared down the vast yogurt case in the dairy aisle, or looked at a recipe calling for plain yogurt—or maybe plain Greek yogurt—and wondered: What is the difference between yogurt and Greek yogurt anyway?
Greek yogurt is healthier than regular yogurt, right—or is it worse for you? And maybe it’s thicker?
All I can remember is that I started eating Greek yogurt about a decade ago when it seemed to burst into the American marketplace as though it was something recently forged by the gods and not something that had been commonplace in the Mediterranean for several millennia. Like most others born before 1995, I’d been weaned on the conventional “fruit on the bottom” stuff. As an adolescent, a few ounces of a basic dairy product that was supposedly good for me (probiotics!) was a small price to pay to what basically amounted to eating a few spoonfuls of sugar-heavy pie filling.
Then along with the new millennium seemed to come a new American marketing campaign: “Greek Yogurt. It’s What We’re Doing Now.” And boy, did we. Sales of Greek yogurt in the U.S. have increased nearly 25-fold in the past decade, into what is now a 1.5 billion dollar industry. So it certainly begs the question, what is the difference between regular and Greek yogurt anyway?
All yogurt is made by the bacterial fermentation of milk, by any of several strains of bacteria that are believed to have originated on the surface of plants. You can file yogurt under “happy accidents,” along with beer, wine, and a host of other delicious fermented foodstuffs; things that began with spontaneous fermentation that humans eventually figured out how to harness. Lactose, an enzyme present in milk, converts to lactic acid during bacterial fermentation, which causes the milk to thicken (hence that creamy texture) and also gives yogurt its characteristic tartness.
The major difference in Greek yogurt? It’s a strained yogurt. Whereas conventional yogurt is barely strained at all to remove any water as well as liquid whey and lactose, Greek yogurt undergoes a multiple-strain process, resulting in a product that is thicker, more dense, and essentially a concentrated version of conventional yogurt.
Given the same six ounce portion size, one serving of Greek yogurt clocks in with double the protein content and half the carbs; so then it’s no surprise that it started making its way into American refrigerators at the same time as the protein-forward diet trends such as Atkins and Zone were taking hold. Over the next few years we developed a palate for its supremely rich texture and amped up acidity. Now it accounts for 50 percent of the yogurt that we buy in this country. (Coconut yogurt has a long way to go.)
Along with the concentration of desirable nutrients, however, also comes the concentration of fat, and full-fat Greek yogurt…well, just trust me that you’d better be sitting down if you’re going to be reading that label. (Spoiler alert: Some brands contain up to 6 grams of saturated fat per serving, which is 31 percent of your daily recommend amount.)
The good news is, even reduced-fat or fat-free varieties retain a great deal of luxurious texture because of how they are made, and all varieties of Greek yogurt are incredibly versatile for cooking and baking. Try swapping it in for sour cream, or check out some of our recipes featuring Greek yogurt in everything from dips, to dinner, to dessert. And nowadays, you can also find flavored Greek yogurt, which is a much more grown-up alternative to fruit-on-the-bottom.
And if you’re craving more protein, read up on skyr, the Icelandic answer to yogurt.
For when you don’t want to eat it all by itself.
This fresh and versatile dip capitalizes on the richness of two good-for-you fats: avocado and yogurt. Have it as a healthy lunch with sliced vegetables and a few multigrain crackers, thin it out for a salad dressing, or use it to add color and zest to grilled meats. Get our Avocado Yogurt Dip recipe.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was some kind of mayonnaise replacement that was equally creamy and decadent but also loaded with calcium and protein that you could use in everything from deviled eggs to potato salad? Oh, right. Greek yogurt. Give this vibrant broccoli slaw a try with tons of crunch and tang and just a touch of sweetness. Get our Broccoli Slaw with Greek Yogurt recipe.
Greek yogurt can be used in a marinade or brine as if it were buttermilk, texturing the marinating protein and infusing tanginess into the very fiber of the dish. Greek yogurt-based sauces are also good more than just spooning on as the final step of a dish, they can actually function in the cooking process itself, like in this salmon where the yogurt sauce begins to caramelize under the broiler, creating a smooth, rich crust. Get our Cedar Planked Salmon with Herbed Yogurt Sauce recipe.
This just in—Greek yogurt can function in place of oil or butter in many baked goods, adding a welcome hint of acidity to balance out overly sweet things and lightening up the caloric impact. These fudgy brownies are so decadent though, that it almost seems supercilious to mention you’ve done your friends more good than evil here. Get our Double-Chocolate Brownies recipe.