As non-fans of drinking milk on its own, we love making fresh yogurt as an alternative. It’s quite versatile in the kitchen, usable for everything from breakfast to dessert, and we easily go through 2 quarts a week or more. Before we established our own year-round milk supply, we found that we could make a batch of yogurt from local organic milk for about half the price of buying the equivalent volume of organic plain yogurt, with what we considered superior flavor and not shipped in from far away. Whether with our goat’s milk or your own preferred source, learning to make yogurt at home can be a really rewarding and cost-efficient process if you have a little time to spare.
We’ve used this $40 yogurt-maker (above right) for years with great success. It’s basically a 2-quart plastic container that fits in a styrofoam thermos; only slight downsides are that the container is plastic with unknown BPA content, and the styrofoam itself is nearly impossible to clean if it gets dirty. We still find it very effective, though. We’ve had farm workers who made smaller batches of yogurt in a coffee thermos. Some food dehydrators such as the Excalibur can also be used for yogurt making; all you really need is a clean, sealed way to hold the cultured milk at around 110ºF for 6-8 hours. The preparation takes a bit of time, maybe 30-45 minutes, though not much actual work (mostly monitoring and stirring occasionally). I find I can easily integrate it into other household work like washing dishes, cooking, folding laundry, etc, setting a timer to go off every 5-10 minutes to remind me to check it if I’ll be distractingly busy.
You’ll need a starter culture of some kind; several area groceries sell one-time-use yogurt cultures in little packets. You can also order reusable cultures that effectively act like sourdough starters; once you’ve made one batch, you can use 1/4 cup of the yogurt to culture the next round if you don’t wait too long. This is what we do most of the time; we order several packets at once and store the rest in the freezer for when (not if) we wait too long between batches. You may or may not have success trying to reculture fresh yogurt from store-bought versions with live cultures. We’ve read that the cultures from store-bought yogurt tend to be too weak to get a good batch going at home, but we’ve seen references to success with that method as well. We haven’t tried.
Materials needed (for 1/2 gallon batch)
- 2 quarts whole milk
- yogurt culture (either purchased packet or 1/4 cup previous batch)
- double-boiler (a large mixing bowl over a pot of boiling water works very well for us; we find that it helps if the bowl doesn’t have a rim so the thermometer can clip to it easily)
- reliable, calibrated thermometer
- yogurt-maker/thermos of some kind
Directions (also usually available on starter packet)
1) Heat the milk to 180ºF in the double-boiler (above left). (Put an inch or two of water in the bottom of the pan & bring it to a boil; the bowl should be above, not in, the boiling water.) This also happens to pasteurize it if you’re using raw milk. The double boiler keeps the milk from scorching.
2) Chill the milk down to 110-116ºF by placing the bowl in a tray of cold water (above center; a filled sink works too).
3) While the milk is chilling, thoroughly clean the yogurt maker, setting aside the quarter cup needed to add to the new batch. The boiling water from the bottom of the double boiler can be put to good in the cleaning step.
4) Add the starter to the milk and mix quickly but thoroughly (so as not to lose too much heat). Pour the results into the yogurt maker & close the lid.
5) Place the container in the warm incubation environment (thermos, food dehydrator). Allow to sit undisturbed for 6-8 hours, then taste for texture and flavor. If it’s still really runny, put the lid back on and lit it sit a bit longer. When you decide it’s done, put it in the refrigerator. Often we’ll make this at the end of the evening, while washing up after dinner, then let it sit overnight 10 hours or so to no harm, though the flavor will get stronger the longer it sits.
Troubleshooting: Occasionally something will go wrong and a batch will turn out runnier than desired. One question to ask is whether the starter culture was strong enough in the first place. The starting temperature for incubation is also important. Adding the culture when the milk is too hot may weaken the culture. Too cool a temperature may not be conducive to the growth of the culture, either. Adding the saved starter yogurt from the refrigerator or the freeze-dried culture directly out of the freezer may reduce the temperature of the milk that it has been added to. Various sources give different temperatures in their instructions, and I think some assume a certain amount of temperature drop when the starter is added. Sometimes, for example, it is tempting to throw a leftover half cup of starter yogurt in rather than just a quarter cup; if it is straight out of the refrigerator, that may cause the milk temperature to drop more than desired. The ideal incubation temperature seems to be in the 108-112ºF range. If the temperature drops too low, it can be gently reheated to the desired range before beginning incubation, but be sure not to overshoot.
The texture of home-made yogurt tends to be runnier than store-bought, particularly if made with goat’s milk. We’ve read that you can buy milk powders to add if you really want it thicker; we’ve never tried it because we’re quite happy with the thinner kind. Seasonality makes a difference, too, at least with our milk: spring milk tends to make thicker yogurt than fall milk. It will still set up, but may not hold its shape in a spoon like store yogurt. The taste is often stronger, too, and make take an adjustment in taste buds if you’re used to the blander commercial varieties.
Using homemade yogurt
We like to eat fresh yogurt with our own preserved fruits and/or jams, sometimes with honey added. This makes a sweet fruit yogurt like the store kind, but with no additives and more locally sourced. It’s the standard base for much of our leavened baking, such as coffee cakes, scones, and cornbread. Having lots of yogurt around means not having to buy buttermilk, something that always used to annoy me because I didn’t like buttermilk other than for baking. Now we can bake whenever we want.
If you prefer thicker yogurt, one option is to make yogurt “cheese” simply by draining some whey. Hang the yogurt in fine cheesecloth or butter muslin over a bowl to catch the whey. Let hang at room temperature for a number of hours…exactly how long depends on whose recipe you look at and how thick you want your yogurt, but a full day isn’t too long. The resulting thick yogurt is especially delicious. We also use whey from this process to jump start vegetable fermentation (such as for kraut making); this pasteurized whey from a cultured product seems to work quite well in that context.