Labneh isn’t exactly yogurt, nor is it quite cheese: The ancient Middle Eastern delicacy stands somewhere between them on the dairy spectrum.
While labneh remains relatively unknown in the U.S., the spread is based on Greek yogurt, which grew its share of the domestic yogurt market from less than 1 percent in 2006 to 19 percent in 2011, according to The Atlantic.
Producers throw around the term “Greek yogurt” with such alacrity that a few of them have ended up in court. The problem for plaintiffs is there isn’t a legal definition of Greek yogurt, although it’s commonly understood to mean yogurt strained of its whey. The resulting product is thick and sour.
Labneh is made by salting Greek yogurt and further straining it through a muslin bag, thickening the already-transformed sheep, camel, goat or cow’s milk. The process also intensifies tang. While Greek yogurt is roughly comparable to sour cream, labneh is more similar to cream cheese in consistency and richness (although labneh is lower in fat.)
It’s possible to cook with labneh, but the fresh cheese does well on its own: In the Levant, it’s typically spread on pita bread, served as a dip or rolled into balls and seasoned with za’atar. Labneh also can make the leap to the sweet side with a stir of honey or fig accompaniment.
Edmund’s Oast (New York strip steak with smoked potatoes, sunflower shoots, turnips, Meyer lemon, egg and labneh, $29)
Jarred labneh balls marinating in olive oil are a standard Middle Eastern grocery item; Jerusalem Mart & Deli stocks it.
At Charleston Grill, chef Michelle Weaver serves a salad of roasted beets and labneh, finished with za’atar, pistachios and pomegranate vinaigrette. Leyla serves labneh in three different guises: blended with mint and garlic, topped with green olive salad and paired with a spicy Armenian sausage.