With its coal-black volcanic rock beaches, bright blue glaciers, steaming hot springs, and thundering waterfalls, Iceland is stunning. Most of its 325,000 inhabitants call Reykjavik—the inherently cool capital bursting with Scandi-style bistros, minimalist coffee shops, and gritty bars—home.
But while the chilly island nation has natural beauty and modern comforts in spades, its food scene can be polarizing. Many foreigners reel at the thought of traditional Viking grub: ammonia-scented hákarl (rotted or fermented Greenland shark, which brings about its own ethical food dilemmas), whey-fermented ram’s testicles, whale blubber, and slippery headcheese. These foods, celebrated during the mid-winter Þorrablót festival, have their roots in survival and divide locals and visitors into two camps: love it or hate it.
One Nordic food that is universally adored, however, is skyr, a cultured dairy product made from skim milk that resembles lush, ultrathick Greek yogurt. To learn more about making skyr, I visited Efstidalur, a working farm near Reykjavik that produces some of the best. The chef there, Sölvi Arnarsson, shared the popular origin story: As a proverbial ninth century Norseman sat astride a galloping horse, the milk in his calf-stomach saddlebag sloshed around with bacteria and rennet, causing it to separate into curds and whey. Skyr was born.
Skyr is virtually fat-free and full of protein—a veritable superfood that Icelanders eat around the clock. At breakfast they whip skyr with brown sugar and crowberries, and then blend it into cakes, tarts, and shakes for afternoon snacks. It’s so ubiquitous in the country that “not my cup of skyr” is used in place of the common idiom “not my cup of tea,” says Icelandic food and dairy technologist Thorarinn Egill Sveinsson.
Although Sveinsson insists that you have to travel to Iceland for the real thing— the local soil, weather, and milk plus the make process create a superior product, he says—Siggi’s and other commercially produced skyrs are now available worldwide. And with a little patience and the following tips from Sveinsson, it’s easy to craft your own version.
- 4 cups skim milk
- 1 tablespoon plain yogurt
- 1 drop rennet
- Fill a large saucepot halfway with water and set over low heat. Add milk to a metal bowl small enough to fit snugly inside the saucepot without being submerged. Place bowl of milk inside the saucepot and heat milk to 200°F. Keep temperature steady for 2 to 3 minutes, then stir milk.
- Remove milk from heat and cool to 107°F. Once milk reaches 107°F, slowly whisk in yogurt. Continue whisking for 2 minutes,then add rennet.
- Keep temperature at 107°F for 4 to 6 hours (do not stir the mixture and be careful not to move the bowl). If you don’t have a temperature-controlled water bath, let mixture cool at room temperature for 1 hour. Place a kitchen towel over the bowl and cool for another 15 to 19 hours at room temperature, until mixture is thick and the curds and whey have separated.
- Gather curds in cheesecloth and suspend from a sink faucet over a pot. Let curds drain for 4 to 6 hours at room temperature. (Use collected whey for baking or in another recipe, such as polenta.)
- Eat or let it drain further in the refrigerator (the longer it drains, the drier and more sour the skyr will be). Keep skyr covered in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.