I love yogurt. It’s my go-to lunch and snack. It’s the food I can always get in the mood for even when I’m super hungry and nothing sounds good. I add fresh fruit, nuts, coconut flakes, maybe some flax seeds for a filling and nutritious bite to eat. Or I throw it in smoothies for a little extra nutritional umph or lunch on the go. Strain it and eat it with a little honey and maybe some walnuts for a treat. My kids like it with vanilla extract and a few drops of stevia, but I prefer it plain. Oh, a dollop in some pickled beet kvass or beet borsht is heavenly too. Mix with grated cucumber, cumin and cilantro for a raita, a delicious accompaniment to Indian dishes. Mmm mmm.
We go through several quarts a week of the stuff, so it can get pretty expensive to buy organic cream top yogurt made with grassfed Jersey cow milk. Did you know Stoneyfield has changed their recipe and is now homogenizing their organic yogurt? No more cream top. And the local organic creamtop version is delicious, but sells at my Whole Foods for $1.69 for a 6 oz cup. Way too expensive for my budget, but perfect as a good quality starter to make my own. Even at $7/gallon which is what I pay for grassfed, non homogenized milk, it’s half the price of Stoneyfield to make it myself. So that is what I have been doing. (Of course, if you don’t care about organic or all that jazz, you could do it for LOTS cheaper than that with regular grocery store milk!)
I’m not an expert by any means, but I have been doing this long enough (4 years or so) to have made pretty much every possible mistake. So, I’m hopeful that sharing my process with you will help you get started, or at least just motivate you to put it on your “things I would like to do but won’t ever have time for” list.
a stock pot that can contain the amount of yogurt you are making with several inches to spare (in case of boiling over)
clean jars with lids
a thermometer (optional)
a whisk or spoon
a starter batch of yogurt (previous batch or good quality storebought – about 2-4 tbsp per quart of yogurt) – UPDATE: I have found that a greek yogurt starter (from the store is ok) works GREAT and makes quite thick yogurt every time.
a place to incubate the yogurt between 90 and 115 degrees (oven with pilot light, a cooler and towels, or a dehydrator/yogurt maker)
a few hours where you are not going anywhere
a spouse who doesn’t mind coming in after you and cleaning up pots and pans (optional)
Some recipes call for powdered milk. I do not use powdered milk, since I’m not sure the process renders the milk healthful. Instead, to achieve a creamier consistency, I add cream, and/or strain a bit of the whey out of the yogurt once it’s done to my desired consistency. (More on that later.)
Let’s get started.
I like to run really hot water in the jars (you could pour boiling tap water in and let it sit, too for extra security) and let it sit there until the yogurt is ready to pour. This also helps keep the jars warm so you’re not losing heat when you pour in the pre-incubated yogurt.
Then, in the stockpot, add milk and cream and slowly bring to about 180 degrees. (Sometimes I make raw milk yogurt, which only needs to be heated to about 120, but if you use pre-pasteurized milk it’s best to bring it up to 180 to ensure any pathogenic bacteria are gone). If you don’t have a thermometer, you can tell it’s hot enough when the entire milk surface is giving off steam. If it gets too high it will boil, and that can be messy, so keep an eye on it and stir it every few minutes. This can take up to an hour (depending on how much you are making at a time).
The temptation is (or is that just me?) to put the stove on really high to get it to temp faster, but I have been sorry for doing this as it causes the milk to burn on the bottom and stick and can give your yogurt off flavors. Just keep it on medium (or medium-high if you must). The higher you put it, the more important it is to babysit the temp and the more often you should stir.
Finally the watched pot will reach 180 or so. At this point, give it a final stir and let it cool down.
It’s fine to continue stirring every so often while it’s cooling, which helps prevent that layer of cooked milk skin to form on the top. If you are good enough about stirring you might not even need to strain the yogurt in the last step – but if you don’t strain it, and there is a skin, you risk getting a bit of a gritty texture in your delicious yogurt. (It won’t hurt anything, though.)
You want the yogurt to cool down to about 110-115 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can tell it’s right when it’s still warmer than body temperature, but doesn’t burn your clean finger when you touch it. When it does reach this magical temperature (not before, or you’ll kill your starter), pour some of the warm milk into a bowl or jar, add the yogurt starter and stir to thin it down. (This is just to make it easier to incorporate and make sure the good bacteria that make yogurt get evenly distributed throughout the batch. Skip this extra step and dirty dish if you feel like it by just dumping your starter into the pot and stirring well.)
Once it’s all stirred in, go ahead and strain it into your jars. (If you find it unwieldy to pour from pot to strainer into the jar, you pour it into a wide mouth pyrex measuring cup for ease. But that adds another dirty dish. If you have the optional cleaning-spouse mentioned above, go for it.)
If you are using an oven with an oven light, and it’s cold in your kitchen, you can pre heat the oven for about 2 minutes (set a timer!), turn it off, and add the jars of yogurt and let it stay there for 3-12 hours depending on how thick and tangy you want it (it will get more tangy the longer it sits – I personally prefer it longer rather than shorter).
If your oven doesn’t have a light, just wrap the jars in kitchen towels. Or you could wrap the jars in towels inside a cooler. If you do want to try the cooler option, go ahead and fill up another jar or two with hot water and set those in there too. That will help keep the temp in the right range.
The easiest option is of course a dehydrator or yogurt maker where you can set the temperature to the correct setting. I put mine at 110-115.
Check the yogurt at 3 hours and see how it looks. Tilt it. It shouldn’t act like milk anymore, but should be thicker. It probably won’t be done at 3 hours but if you use more starter, it might. I don’t find it is quite ready until 8 hours so I usually leave it overnight. (No harm done, especially if you have it in the oven or a cooler – because eventually it cools down to room temperature and slows the culturing process.) Many recipes I’ve read online say 3-5 hours, so I don’t want to mislead you and tell you forget it until morning, just in case it’s different in your kitchen than mine. But if it isn’t done by then, and you want to leave it longer, it should be just fine.
Here’s a chance to learn from my bad experience (dare I say, many more times than once! Doh!):
Stick a sign on your oven (right on top of the button or dial that turns it on) that says “YOGURT!” if you don’t want to forget it is in there, preheat for something else, go to put your roast in and notice there is a bunch of weird looking, bubbly, hot mason jars with cooked yogurt cheese in your way.
Here is what mine looks like after being in the dehydrator overnight:
You can see there are clear pockets of whey that have separated out from the curd – just like if you have started a container of storebought yogurt and put it away, the next time you open it, it has a puddle of whey in there that you can stir back in. If yours doesn’t look like this, it’s probably just because it hasn’t been incubating as long. As I said, I like mine on the tangy side, so if you have decided from the tilt test that your yogurt is done in 5 hours’ time, it probably won’t have separated like this, and that’s okay too.
(I was too lazy considerate of my cleaner-spouse to strain it, but as I said, it won’t hurt anything. Heh.)
One thing to keep in mind is that it will thicken up a bit more in the fridge, so even if it looks more runny than you’d like, after getting cold it might have a perfect consistency. If not, or if you like it more to the consistency of greek yogurt, you can go ahead and take a strainer in a bowl, line it with a tea towel, and pour the yogurt in to strain.
(Be sure to save the whey! If you don’t use it as a lactic acid starter for fermenting your own veggies like sauerkraut (surprisingly easy) or for soaking your oatmeal or other grains overnight, you can still use it as a base for smoothies instead of milk, and get a little boost from the fresh whey protein and beneficial bacteria!)
After straining, it is much thicker and will stay on an upside down spoon.
So that’s basically it!
Heat. Cool. Mix. Wait. Done!
If anything sounded confusing or you have follow up questions, feel free to shoot me a comment.