A secret weapon for your next barbecue: yogurt

Yogurt and kebabs are a natural match.
Yogurt and kebabs are a natural match.
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Yogurt is a bit of a miracle in the kitchen. It’s high in protein, probiotic, and incredibly versatile—and it’s a serious workhorse as an ingredient. The tub of full-fat Greek yogurt that is always in my fridge isn’t just the base for a quick breakfast or lunch, it’s my secret weapon for grilling.

Forget vinegar-based marinades. Yogurt tenderizes meat, especially chicken, much more gently, and makes a great dipping sauce for grilled vegetables or kabobs. All with just the addition of a few ingredients that are very likely already in your pantry right now.

For a day of grilling or picnicking, I like to make one large batch of basic yogurt sauce and use it for those marinades, dips, and even as a salad dressing. It’s customizable to your taste or the cuisine you’re cooking. And it all comes together in about three minutes (so you can also whip it up on a case-by-case basis).

Recipe: Yogurt Sauce

1 cup full fat Greek yogurt (my favorite here in the US is Cabot’s)

2 Tbsp olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, crushed or minced

a generous pinch of salt

freshly ground pepper to taste

zest of one lemon (optional)

Instructions: Whisk all ingredients together in a bowl.

Here’s the versatile magic of this creamy mixture: Add any chopped fresh herbs or spices you like to make a dip for anything from crudités to potato chips. For an Indian raita, stir in chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, or carrots, along with cilantro and ground cumin; for a Greek tzatziki, shred the cucumbers and stir in chopped mint. Toss a little of the mixture with half-moons of peeled cucumbers for a quick, refreshing salad. (A half teaspoon of tumeric will make the whole thing very pretty.)

Yogurt? As a marinade?

Or—and this is key, for a day of grilling—thin the mixture with a little milk, water or lemon juice, add whatever spices or herbs you want, and it’s a multipurpose marinade.

Yogurt as a marinade might sound odd, but the technique has a long history in cuisines around the world, where meats are marinaded before being cooked in ovens, on grills, or in curries. There’s yogurt in Cornell Chicken, a recipe developed by Robert C. Baker, a food science professor at Cornell University, and in Alabama “white barbecue,” a mayonnaise and vinegar-based marinade and sauce. A yogurt marinade works best with chicken or lamb.

Acidity is essential in a marinade, to tenderize the meat and keep it moist, as well as to penetrate it with flavors, but it’s possible to overdo it, and yogurt’s milder acidity makes it much more forgiving than vinegar or citrus. With a vinegar-based marinade if there’s a sudden thunderstorm, or you end up drinking a bottle of rosé and forgetting about dinner, an extended soak in the fridge can give meat a weird, mushy exterior. Not so with yogurt.

I’m a huge fan of the kabab. Chicken breasts are fine, but to save a few bucks—and get juicier meat on a stick—go for chicken thighs for the grill.

Cut skinless, boneless thighs into two-bite-sized chunks, and thread them onto skewers. (Metal ones are a good investment, but if you have wooden skewers, soak them in water for 10-15 minutes before loading them up so they are less likely to char on the grill.)  On a hot grill it will take something like 3-5 minutes per side—here’s a more formal recipe, and another, if winging it makes you nervous.

With yogurt-marinated meat, more yogurt

As a salad dressing, yogurt works best with cucumbers—though its creaminess is also stellar on top of grilled vegetables, especially eggplant. And there’s a reason yogurt is eaten in so much of the world: It’s really possible to add whatever herbs and spices you want to it—cumin, coriander, or smoked paprika are great in marinades; a little za’tar adds a Levantine kick to a dip for fresh vegetables.

For an ideal summer meal that is a little off the beaten path from burgers or steaks, I like to mix up a big batch of this yogurt sauce, toss part of it with my cut-up chicken thighs, and let sit in the fridge for a few hours, or even overnight. Then I grill the kebabs along with some oil-brushed zucchini and eggplant (halved and criss-cross-scored). I serve it all with the rest of the yogurt sauce, with a handful each of cilantro and mint mixed in, and warm pita bread.