A Brief Guide to Unfamiliar Dairy Products You Should Know
Bring on the quark
We live in a true heydey of alternative milk products: vegan cheese abounds, coconut milk ice cream is embraced, and cartons of nut milks of every stripe line the aisles of Whole Foods stores and bodegas alike. But, perhaps more quietly, the last few years have also been a golden age of dairy products unfamiliar to American palates. They hail from Europe and Asia, and come mostly from cow's milk, but there are a few from sheep and goat and even water buffalo's milk, as well. They’re meant to be consumed on their own, spread on things, and incorporated into pastries and sweets. Often fermented, these far-more-interesting dairy products often offer a healthy dose of those trendy (but, yes, also good for you!) probiotics. They’ve been mainstays of other cultures (no pun intended) for centuries, and for good reason: they’re really, really delicious.
I first read about ymer in a review of a new Scandinavian food hall in Brooklyn (is anyone surprised?). Described as a Danish “soured-milk product,” ymer got it’s name from Ymir, the first creature to come into being in Norse mythology’s creation story. It’s created from adding a starter culture to skimmed cow's milk. After fermentation, cream is added, and it’s drained of its whey, which means that it’s both protein-rich and fairly low-fat. Sort of in between yogurt and buttermilk, Danes eat it throughout the day, but especially for breakfast and dessert.
When kefir first hit the American food scene, it was touted as a Greek yogurt replacement. That's fair enough, but kefir is liquid, with a similar viscosity to buttermilk. Like ymer, it's a fermented milk product, but the fermentation element comes from kefir grains, and can be made with cow, sheep, or goat milk. Originally created in the Caucasus Mountains, it was traditionally made in a goatskin bag that were hung in doorways, so as people entered and exited they jostled the bag to keep the milk and kefir grains well mixed. While it's mostly used in place of milk, it's also used in soups like borscht, as a buttermilk substitute, and even to make sourdough bread.
Skyr's popularity skyrocketed alongside the number of likes your friends' Instagrams of Reykjavik got. Brought to Iceland from Norway, the skyr-making tradition has fallen out of favor in other parts of Scandinavia, but is a key aspect of Iceland's cuisine these days. These days, skyr is made with pasteurized skim cow's milk to add the right combination of bacteria. Once coagulated, skyr is strained to remove the whey, but allow the milk solids to remain, making for a creamy, ultra thick yogurt-like consistency. Icelanders typically eat it for breakfast mixed with porridge or jam. And if you want to give it a try, too, there's likely a container of Siggi's—the most popular stateside skyr slinger—not too far away.
We have talked about the greatness of labne on Extra Crispy before, but it bears repeating. Like skyr or even Greek yogurt, labne is essentially a strained yogurt and is created in much the same way, but labne is the version that hails from the Balkans and the Middle East. It's more frequently incorporated as a dip, a spread, or a mezze platter accoutrement than a breakfast item, but I don't think anyone is going to be mad about eating labne with honey in the a.m.
Kajmak (or kaymak or gaimar), depending on the country of origin, is made from whatever milk's on hand (be it water buffalo or goats). Traditionally, milk is brought to a boil and left to simmer for two hours or more on low heat. From there, the cream is skimmed off the top, and what remains is left to chill for hours, or even days. Its origin is uncertain, but it can be found in Central Asia, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and other Balkan countries. Usually served with pastries or bread for a quick breakfast, kajmak also makes an appearance on a really delicious sounding Balkan hamburger. To try making something like kajmak yourself, check out this New York Times recipe.
Though quark has the same name as the elementary particles that make up a proton, the dairy product quark is far less complicated. The cottage cheese-like food, made from warming milk to the point of curdling and then straining it, has been eaten all over northern Europe and in Slavic countries since the Middle Ages. It can be used in some way for nearly any meal, but it's most often eaten for breakfast simply with toast or fruit, but you can make pancakes and blinis with it, too.