For students of the great 21st-century Greek-yogurt boom, all recorded time can be neatly divided into two dairy-defining epochs: BT and AT. Before Total, the pioneering crossover Greek-style yogurt, we subsisted on fruit-on-the-bottom and Frenchy custard styles. After Total infiltrated Manhattan supermarket shelves, in 1998, everything changed.
Suddenly, yogurt connoisseurs demanded heft and density, mouth-coating creaminess, high-protein-low-carb nutritionals, and the unfamiliar tang that distinguishes so-called Greek yogurt, a product that’s traditionally strained to separate the whey from the cultured milk. Ten years after Total’s parent company, Fage, established an American foothold, it opened a processing plant in upstate New York, strategically close both to the state’s abundant dairy farms and to the home and office fridges of major urban centers. But by then, Fage had company: Chobani, launched by Turkish expat Hamdi Ulukaya in 2007, had already bought its own upstate plant, which now churns out a market-dominating one and a half million cases a week. While the runaway success of Chobani and Total has inspired every domestic wannabrand to launch its own Greco-sounding copycat (see Oikos, Eros, Athenos, ad infinitum), there has been another local consequence. A handful of New York dairy farmers have savvily started to manufacture their own “value-added” cheeses and yogurts, rather than simply sell all their milk at the going rate to megaprocessors. Out of this entrepreneurial spirit have come farmstead Greek-style yogurts from the likes of Argyle Cheese Farmer, Tonjes Farm Dairy, and Simply Greek (a sheep’s-milk sideline of the Mohawk Valley’s Maple Hill Creamery). To determine how they stack up against the major players, plus a couple of outer-borough specialists, we convened a panel of experts: the headstrong, tough-grading Turkish chef Orhan Yegen of Sip Sak and Bi Lokma, who considers “Greek yogurt” more a marketing gimmick than a bona fide foodstuff; Maria Loi, a.k.a. the Martha Stewart of Greece; and, as informal referee, the suave, diplomatic Eric Ripert, who begins each day with a tub of nonfat Fage, topped with nuts and honey.
Methodology: All yogurts were made in New York, unflavored, tasted blind, and ranked in order of collective preference.
|Fage Total 0%||Culture Nonfat||Chobani 0%||Argyle Cheese Farmer||Fage Total Full Fat|
|$1.99 for 6 oz. at Gristedes
The judges' overall favorite in the nonfat group. Loi called it a "New York–style Greek yogurt." Ripert liked it a lot (it's his go-to breakfast brand, after all). Yegen, the odd judge out, summarized thusly: "This is not a yogurt."
|$6.26 for 16 oz. at Culture, 331 Fifth Ave., nr. 3rd St., Park Slope; 718-499-0207
Yogurt from a shop better known for its fro-yo. Loi approved: "If you go to the villages in Greece, this is how you get the yogurt." Yegen did not: It tastes like "they added things to this yogurt." What kind of things? "I don't know; I'm an artist, not a chemist."
|$1.79 for 6 oz. at Gristedes
"Can you smell?" asked Yegen. "Can you smell good like me? It's bad." Ripert agreed that it was not an inviting aroma, but said it had nice acidity and thickness, if not "the flavor profile of a good Greek yogurt."
|$5 for 8 oz. at Garden of Spices stand at Abingdon Square Greenmarket, Saturdays only
Raves from Loi, a few measured but favorable comments from Ripert, and a grudging admission via Yegen that it tasted good (but left a bad aftertaste) earned Argyle a first-place finish among the full-fat group.
|$1.99 for 7 oz. at Gristedes
The progenitor of the trend took second place among the full-fats, although it had a typically polarizing effect on the panel: Loi liked it. Yegen hated it. Ripert split the difference.
|Kesso Foods||Tonjes Farm Dairy||Culture Full Fat||Simply Greek||Four Brothers Dairy Goat Farm|
|$5.29 for 16 oz. at Westside Market, 2171 Broadway, nr. 77th St.; 212-595-2536
This Queens-made yogurt baffled Yegen. He said it tasted like "80 percent something non-yogurt," but admitted he liked the other 20 percent a lot. "Strange," responded Ripert, (referring to the yogurt, not Yegen), who along with Loi praised the texture.
|$3 for 8 oz. at Union Square Greenmarket, Saturdays only
Finally, a yogurt that Orhan Yegen can get behind. "That's a yogurt," he said, for the first time all morning. But Loi demurred, criticizing the aftertaste; Ripert detected a grassy, vegetal note.
|$7.35 for 16 oz. at Culture
The good news: Our fractious panel had finally found something upon which they could all agree. The bad news: That something was a yogurt that tasted "industrial" (Ripert) and not unlike mayonnaise (Yegen).
|$2.89 for 6 oz. at Whole Foods Market
Despite the name, this one's not strained in the Greek style, resulting in what Ripert called a stringy texture. Yegen correctly pegged it as sheep's milk, manna of his Turkish youth, but wished that he could say he liked it more.
|$5 for an 8 oz. cup, or $45 for a 5 lb. tub at Victory Garden, 31 Carmine St., nr. Bleecker St.; 212-206-7273
Our crackerjack panel immediately identified this exceedingly tangy sample as having been made from goat's milk, but they didn't love it. "Too acidic," declared Monsieur Ripert. "Eeet tastes like cheese."