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Dharma Kitchen


Burning Questions: Cookbook Author and Yogurt Lover Cheryl Sternman Rule

Carrie H

We go through a LOT of yogurt in the Dharma Kitchen. It's a regular, go-to food for breakfast, where it gets topped with granola or fruit and honey or maple syrup gets swirled in. It's great for your digestive system and that's what counts: it's where anywhere between 70-80 percent (depending on who you believe) of our immunity lies.

It's been a very yogurt-centric couple of weeks. Last week, it played a part in a series about breakfast I wrote for the Kitchn and it also popped up in a series of articles author Cheryl Sternman Rule wrote for that site, too. I talked with this self-described "global yogurt cheerleader" about her new cookbook Yogurt Culture. (She's also the founder of the online community Team Yogurt.) 


1. Why is most yogurt loaded with sugar? Is this really necessary? 

It depends on who's eating it, and why. "You're talking about a product that has tart profile naturally and has to meet the needs of the marketplace," says Sternman Rule. Enter sugar. And remember how we used to be so obsessed with fat grams, and in order to compensate for that, manufacturers started adding more sugar to food? (Cue Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, et. al.) Thank goodness times are changing, albeit slowly. "Now we know fat is no longer the enemy. Sugar is the bigger problem in America," she says. However, when consumers speak, manufacturers listen: she notes that both Dannon and Yoplait recently pledged to lower sugar in their products.

When I mentioned that a certain popular organic yogurt brand offers a variety with more than 20 grams of sugar, she offered an important distinction: "That's dessert." Again, it goes back to the marketplace demands, but with an Important Lesson: There are as many yogurts as there are eaters—and cultures—who love it. There are so-called virtuous yogurts (stevia-sweetened, nonfat) and voluptuous yogurts (the full-fat, luscious, grass-fed kind) and then there are dessert yogurts, with lots of added sugar and flavors that take their cures from cake and pie. (And I'm just barely scratching the surface; we haven't talked about Greek/strained, goat or sheep's milk varieties, savory applications or salty drinkable yogurts popular in the Middle East, either.) But do most people read the labels and see yogurt and its full range of mealtime options? That's the million-dollar question. 

2. What is yogurt nirvana?

Simple, clean and robust are the rules here. "I like to taste my yogurt," says Sternman Rule. "I love a yogurt dish with a contrast in flavor. The yogurt has to have a distinct presence, whether it's layered with another flavor on top or underneath." There is a beauty in, say, something like plain yogurt mixed with her recipe for strawberry rhubarb compote, or her cookbook's savory approach: Greek yogurt with lemon vinaigrette (sprinkled with za'atar and toasted pine nuts). In both scenarios, you can taste all the ingredients, and each offers something delicious—and different—to yogurt. 

3. What is yogurt sacrilege?

This is pretty easy to figure out. When yogurt gets invited to a party it's got no business being at, when it's the odd man out among less tasty or nutritions (or both) kin, that's a no-no for Sternman Rule. "To me, when it's added to an unhealthy food where it doesn't belong—when it gives a product a 'health halo'—it confuses people and perpetuates the notion that it's a high-tech, modern food. Yogurt is simple and ancient and doesn't belong in things like cereal or snack mixes." 

4. What is your favorite yogurt and why? 

The array of yogurts in the supermarket is dizzying; she offers suggestions here. As you might imagine, Sternman Rule eats a lot of yogurt, and the landscape is shifting and growing every day. Plus, it's a worldwide food, so how could one possibly choose? "Brand matters less. Some of the best yogurts are regional. There are pockets of great yogurt all over the country. I only buy plain organic yogurt; grass-fed yogurt is lovely," she says. It's a more versatile player in the kitchen; a silky-smooth tabula rasa.

5. What's the most unusual or surprising thing you learned about yogurt while writing your cookbook? 

"Dannon started marketing yogurt in the 1950s to doctors as a health food product," she says. So when the company introduced Activia, it wasn't some new approach to jump on a probiotic-driven bandwagon; Dannon was going back to its roots. "It's almost come full circle," she says. 

Next week, I'll post a recipe from her cookbook, Yogurt Culture. Do you make homemade yogurt? What's your favorite yogurt? Do tell!