Better Breakfasts: A Love Letter to Skyr

billowy clouds of skyrEven though I am, sadly, growing more lactose intolerant by the day, I love dairy products dearly — perhaps more than ever. Luckily, there are some that I can still consume without too much unpleasant consequence (including kefir, certain aged cheeses, butter, and some yogurts) and I am deeply thankful that one of my most beloved of all — a glorious Nordic product with a nutritional profile that sounds like the stuff of myth — is still within my safe zone. [Cultured dairy products in general are easier for the lactose intolerant to stomach, because the bacteria digest some of the milk sugars for you. And strained cultured dairy products are even easier still, since much of the remaining sugars are strained away along with the watery whey.]

I first discovered skyr ten years ago, on a summer trip to Iceland to visit some friends. When my friend Eyjolfur brought me to a local Krónan supermarket, I was as thrilled as I always am on a first visit to a supermarket in a new country. (Hint: pretty darn thrilled.) Salty black licorice coated in chocolate: wild! Jugs of whey: Who knew you could buy that? But what really caught my eye was an entire refrigerated wall full of colorful tubs of endless flavors of what appeared to be yogurt. “Not yogurt,” said Eyjo. “Better than yogurt.”

Better than yogurt?! This, I had to try. I’d actually never been the hugest yogurt fan until I’d moved to Italy the year before, but discovering that yogurt was not necessarily a watery, gelatinous, preservative-filled substance tasting of chemicals and sugar was quite a revelation. Italian brands such as Mukki and Parmalat already knocked any U.S. brand on its ass, but I fell quickly and deeply in love with Müller, an incredibly rich, creamy German brand with flavors that sounded (and tasted) like a dessert list: coconut, banana, pineapple, lemon, coffee, walnut, hazelnut, chocolate chip, and my favorite, “crema Chantilly” (whipped-cream flavor!). And all with very short and easily comprehensible ingredient lists. No gelatin or other weird fillers. No artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. And so my obsession with European yogurt began. It was also in Italy that I first tasted mind-bogglingly thick, smooth Greek yogurt (and on a trip to Greece I was fortunate enough to try the real deal).

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When Eyjo and I got back to his place and set up our Icelandic breakfast, I sampled the blueberry-strawberry skyr that we’d bought and found that he was right: This stuff relegated all those others (wonderful though they are and remain) to the second tier of fermented dairyland. Skyr was even thicker, creamier, richer, and more velvety than full-fat Greek yogurt, and without yogurt’s characteristic strong sour tang. Plus it had more protein than even a strained yogurt like Greek yogurt. And yet — via some sort of Viking black magic — it was entirely fat free. How was this possible??

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As Eyjo informed me, skyr is not really a yogurt at all, though it has been marketed as one since it was introduced to the UK and the US. Yogurt is made by fermenting whole, low-fat, or skim milk with bacterial cultures. Greek yogurt is made by then straining the liquid whey and concentrating the milk solids, resulting in a thicker texture, less sugar, and more protein. While many yogurts are generally well-tolerated by those cursed with lactose intolerance since the bacteria digest most of the lactose (milk sugar) as part of the natural fermentation process, any strained yogurt is even easier to digest since much of the remaining lactose gets strained away as well.

Skyr, meanwhile, also starts with milk fermented by bacterial cultures (different cultures than those used to make yogurt, however), but it is made from skim milk that has already had the cream separated out (to make butter). Rennet is also added to this fermented milk so that it coagulates, and the liquid whey is then strained away, leaving only the milk solids. This makes skyr, technically, a fermented soft cheese.

skyr.is skyr

First available here in 2005, skyr is still slowly making its debut in the U.S. My favorite brand, Skyr.is, is the only one currently sold in this country that’s actually made in Iceland. Though only available in four flavors here (plain, vanilla, blueberry, and strawberry) and only in Whole Foods markets in select regions, it is authentic, made with milk from grass-fed Icelandic cows.

There are a couple of American-made, skyr-inspired products on the market as well, which are more widely available: Siggi’s (made in New York by an Icelandic immigrant named Siggi) and a newcomer called Smári (made in California by an Icelandic immigrant named…you guessed it…Smári). I’ve tried both, and while I think Siggi’s tastes like a very good strained yogurt, to me it’s not quite the same as either the skyr that I tried in Iceland or the imported skyr. It has a thinner consistency, slightly lower protein content, and a more sour taste — closer to Greek yogurt.

Smari skyr

I found Smári to be much closer to Icelandic skyr in terms of texture and nutritional profile, though it’s still tarter — and more yogurt-like overall — in terms of both taste and texture. It does offer the additional benefits of being organic, however, and made with milk from grass-fed cows. I’m not sure that the U.S.-based skyr makers use rennet as there’s no mention of it on their websites — I wonder if perhaps that’s why they don’t resemble the Icelandic skyr as much as you’d expect? Or it could be due to different bacterial cultures.

All this is not to say that I no longer love Greek yogurt (Fage is my favorite brand) or regular yogurt. I still have love for them all, and sometimes prefer them. But skyr is still not as well known in this country as it should be, especially for those looking for the most protein bang for their caloric buck. And in a super thick and creamy texture, to boot. Skyr is so thick and creamy, in fact, that sometimes it’s a bit hard to eat an entire 6-ounce container of it. (But I have a fantastic solution for that, which I shall reveal soon in an upcoming post! Stay tuned.)

For the purposes of this comparison chart, I’m only comparing plain skyr and yogurts with nothing added, because that’s how I prefer to buy them, and add my own fruit or other flavorings. Skyr.is is, sadly, only available in plain, vanilla, strawberry, and blueberry in the U.S. (in Iceland the flavor varieties are breathtaking and seemingly endless), Smári offers the same flavor options, and Siggi’s is available in many unusual flavors, including: grapefruit, orange & ginger, pineapple, and peach.

NUTRITION STATS COMPARISON (per 6 oz/170 g)

Calories

Fat

Protein

Sugars

Calcium

Organic

Grass-Fed

Skyr.is Plain 110 0 g 22 g 6 g 20%

Y

Smári Pure 100 0 g 20 g 6 g 20%

Y

Y

Siggi’s Plain* 90 0 g 17 g 4.5 g 23%

Y

Fage 0% Greek Yogurt – Plain 100 0 g 18 g 7 g 20%
Stonyfield Organic Plain Nonfat Yogurt 80 0 g 8 g 12 g 25%

Y

Y

Dannon All-Natural Plain Nonfat Yogurt 80 0 g 9 g 12 g 30%
*NOTE: Siggi’s is sold in 150-g (5.3-oz) containers, at 80 calories for plain; I scaled Siggi’s data up for comparison purposes, as all the other brands are sold in 170-g (6-oz) portions.

Some of my favorite ways to enjoy either skyr are:

  • with a handful of fresh blueberries and a dollop of lemon curd
  • topped with fresh raspberries, blackberries, or sliced strawberries
  • with a generous spoonful of blueberry-vanilla-chia jam (recipe coming soon!) and sprinkled with Ezekiel 4:9 cereal (which closely resembles Grape Nuts in appearance and flavor, though it’s  more nutritious)
  • in place of sour cream or yogurt in toppings and recipes (it’s particularly wonderful in baked goods, keeping them rich and moist without adding any fat)
  • in a smoothie (e.g., with kefir, bananas, and cocoa powder)
  • drizzled with olive oil and za’atar and eaten with pita bread and some of my homemade kibbeh
  • mixed with chopped mint leaves, Persian cucumbers, and a little salt
  • stirred together with a dollop of spicy Indian mixed pickle

Have you tried skyr yet? How do you like to eat it?

Better Breakfasts: Blueberry-Walnut Steel-Cut Oats

Blueberry-Walnut Steel-Cut Oats

Lounging lazily in one corner of the freezer, there’s a bag of at least a pound of plump blueberries left over from a slightly overzealous blueberry-picking expedition last summer. Every now and then, a handful gets tossed into a smoothie, but they’re starting to show signs of freezer burn and I’ve been trying to come up with other ways to use them. This morning, as I reached into the freezer for the steel-cut oats to make some porridge for breakfast, my eye landed on the neglected bag of berries and I thought of stirring some in with the oats as they simmered. I added some walnut pieces as well (toasted first to bring out their warm, nutty flavor) and a little vanilla extract. The result was fantastic: not only did the porridge taste almost freakishly like a blueberry muffin (a much healthier version, however), it had a gorgeous lavender color, swirled with streaks of bright violet. A cheerful touch to a rather bleak and snowy morning.

Blueberry-Walnut Steel-Cut Oats

1 cup water
1 cup milk (I used 2% — you can substitute with your dairy replacement of choice, or use all water, though the result will be less creamy)
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup quick-cooking steel-cut oats (I used Bob’s Red Mill)
1 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen
2 TB walnut pieces, lightly toasted
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

  1. Bring water, milk, and salt just to a simmer in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.
  2. Stir in the oats, turn the heat to low, and simmer 5-6 minutes, stirring frequently with the handle of a wooden spoon (or a spurtle, should you happen to have one). When there are about 4 minutes left (for frozen) or 3 minutes left (for fresh), stir in the blueberries.
  3. When the oats have reached your preferred tenderness, turn off the heat, stir in the walnuts, and let sit for 2 minutes to thicken.
  4. Just before serving, stir in the vanilla extract. Serve as-is or topped with brown sugar, maple syrup, honey…or your sweetener of choice.