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There’s nothing skyr-y about Iceland’s popular signature dairy product

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S-K-Y-R, skyr. If you live anywhere in the Bay Area — or, really, anywhere in the U.S. with a chain grocery store — you’ve most definitely encountered this magical mystery of the dairy aisle.

Whether it’s your friendly neighborhood Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Kroger’s — you name it — you can’t miss the shiny white tubs proudly bearing the same four letters in bold print, atop rustic-esque doodles of various fruits and vines that read like some mythical incantation straight out of Lord of the Rings. 

SKEE-R (as it’s pronounced) has seemingly found its place amongst the new-age “hipster” yogurts — bottles of kefir to its left and tubs of cashewgurt to the right. And yet something besides its trendiness must have kept skyr on the shelves of American grocery stores, steadily multiplying in brand availability and flavor variety, since its 2008 Whole Foods debut. 

Despite being somewhat of a yogurt-virgin (I only recently discovered that I’m an exception to the “all East Asians are lactose intolerant” myth), I felt inspired to take it upon myself to figure out exactly why Americans are so into skyr. 

Is there anything skyr-y about skyr? 

Nutritionally, not at all! In fact, it’s quite the opposite; packed with plenty of protein, calcium and other essential nutrients, in addition to its low caloric content, a large part of skyr’s popularity comes from people’s belief that it’s a miracle food. For those who like numbers, a cup (eight ounces) of plain skyr contains over 20 grams of protein in fewer than 150 calories. 

That being said, skyr does have one deep, dark, dirty secret: it actually isn’t even a yogurt. Rather, it’s a traditional Icelandic cheese that’s been around since the time of the Vikings!

Or at least, it’s supposed to be. According to an article from “Cook’s Illustrated,” more authentic skyr-making methods utilize a fermentation process in which skyr from previous batches is combined with the beginnings of the new product, effectively allowing old bacteria and yeast to mingle with the new. Rennet, a mix of enzymes typically used to curdle milk into cheese, is also added. While this might sound a bit gross, the human gut microbiome is thought to benefit more from the increased bacterial diversity (think probiotic effects!). 

Unfortunately, a study conducted by researchers from the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity found that industrialized skyr production has been unable to replicate the time-honored process —  grocery store skyr varieties show reduced bacterial diversity compared to the traditional stuff. Interestingly enough though, in addition to rennet, the two fermentation cultures requisite for categorization as a yogurt product were notably present, further blurring the lines between yogurt and cheese.

Either way, the characteristically smooth, glossy surface of a fresh cup of skyr has made it a major contender in the yogurt (cheese?) market. As Americans continue to seek “healthier,” protein-rich products, skyr is sure to become a breakfast or snack staple in many households. So, in conclusion, no, there’s really nothing skyr-y about skyr.

What my adventures in the Safeway yogurt aisle did prove, however, is that the real thing to fear is sugar content — wake up, America: yogurt is just dessert in disguise! A six-ounce container of Yoplait’s iconic strawberry flavor, for instance, has a whopping 26 grams of added sugar. Plain skyr, sporting a humble four grams of naturally-occurring sugars, is a great alternative that can easily be “dressed up” with a healthy dose of fresh fruit and honey. 

The bottom line: is it tasty? 

Well, I’m writing about it for a reason! Taste-wise, skyr is thick and creamy with a more pronounced tanginess than Greek yogurt. The natural sourness is not heavy at all, and it adds a refreshing brightness and zing to each pillowy spoonful. One of the reasons I dislike Greek yogurt is its curdiness, so I immediately noticed the smoother, more even texture of my first bowl of skyr — it was love at first bite. Note, however, that some stirring is required to achieve optimal consistency, since the yogurt tends to naturally separate.

Being somewhat of a purist, the bulk of my yogurt consumption leaned toward plain, unflavored skyr. Surprisingly, there was no noticeable cheesiness to the two brands I tried (Siggi’s and Trader Joe’s), though I found Siggi’s was generally more flavorful. Both brands also recommend using the plain yogurt as a smoothie base, which I admittedly have yet to try, but imagine would work well due to skyr’s relatively neutral flavor profile and perfectly creamy, almost custard-like texture. My personal favorite way to eat skyr is to use it as a dip for sliced fruits like peaches and apples.

Recommendations!

Fortunately for us Palo Altans, we have easy access to an abundance of skyr varieties. Chain grocers like Safeway or Whole Foods carry the whole rainbow of flavors for bigger brands like Siggi’s and Icelandic Provisions, while smaller markets like Sigona’s at Stanford Mall offer more elusive, “authentic” brands like Norr Skyr at the expense of reduced flavor variety. Trader Joe’s skyr is also a best-seller, and it’s easy to see why given the 99 cents per cup price tag. 

As a fellow newbie to skyr culture (haha, get it?), I, too, have yet to taste all that the skyr-verse has to offer, but I’ve done my best to put together a short guide to assist you in your future skyr endeavors. The yogurt section can be rather intimidating, but just remember: don’t be skyr-ed to try new flavors!

Best for yogurt virgins: Trader Joe’s Icelandic Style Skyr Lowfat Vanilla Yogurt (Image from @traderjoesaficionado on Instagram)

This yogurt is actually a new product, having recently replaced the old Trader Joe’s Norwegian skyr that I originally tasted, and it’s available in three varieties: vanilla, cherry and plain (for the purposes of this list, I went with vanilla, since who doesn’t love vanilla?). I have a marginal preference for Siggi’s yogurt, but if you’ve never had skyr before, it’s absurdly easy to throw one of these in your cart along with your usual grocery staples — especially when it’ll only set you back 99 cents a cup.

Best for the 9:30 a.m.-class student: Siggi’s Simple Sides Vanilla & Cinnamon Skyr with Apples, Almonds, & Oats

The perfect lecture hall breakfast! Throw one of these conveniently and beautifully packaged cups in your bag as you head out, and you’ll be sure to resist falling asleep as you munch on this delicious, energizing mix of fall-flavors.

Best for athletes (high protein): Siggi’s 0% Milkfat Plain Icelandic Skyr

This stuff is my absolute favorite, and it just so happens that it contains a hefty 25 grams of protein per serving (and no added sugars!). Just mix in some fruit, honey, nuts, granola — whatever nutritious bits suit your fancy — and you’ve got a stellar athlete’s breakfast.

Best for the health nut (low carb, low fat): Norr Organic Probiotic Skyr – Plain, Non-fat

The most premium and elusive brand on this list, Norr Organic doesn’t play around when it comes to their skyr. The only ingredient is Organic Pasteurized Skim Milk, and it contains more active cultures than both Siggi’s and Icelandic Provisions. Health enthusiasts can pick up one of these nutrient-packed, low-calorie cups from Sigona’s Farmers Market at the Stanford Mall.

Best for indulgence: Icelandic Provisions Krímí Vanilla Skyr

Just when I thought it surely couldn’t be possible to make skyr any creamier, Icelandic Provisions accomplished the impossible. Seriously, this stuff is so rich that they advertise it as a cupcake frosting replacement. As Donna Meagle puts it best, sometimes you just really need to “treat yo self.” 

Contact Carissa Lee at carislee ‘at’ stanford.edu.