Making yogurt is easy, affordable, and (if you’re a kitchen nerd like me) fun. It can also give you a much better product than you’ll find in stores. The process is simple: heat milk to get rid of existing bacteria and denature the proteins, cool it, then add good bacteria and give it some time to work. That’s it.
I like writing, so this recipe will be wordier than strictly necessary. Don’t let that make the process feel daunting! It isn’t.
The tricky bits, and there aren’t many, are in the details. It helps to have a thermometer. It helps to have an oversized heavy-bottomed pot, a few things like a canning funnel and conveniently-sized jars, kitchen towels to help keep the yogurt warm as it cultures, and a Post-it to keep you from hitting the oven’s on button with your yogurt inside (ask me how I know!).
None of those things are necessary, however.
Search for information on yogurt-making and you’ll find a variety of alternate recipes and methods, from counter-top to Crockpot. We’ve distilled that information and found a way that makes thick, tangy lactose-free yogurt and works for us. Tweak at will!
Yogurt, Plain but not Boring
- 1 gallon/4 Liters milk, whole or 2%
- ½ C. plain yogurt with live and active cultures (~2 T. per quart)
1. Scald the milk: add milk to a large pot over low to medium-low heat. Cover and heat to 195℉, or until just simmering with bubbles forming around the edges.
2. Denature the protein: reduce heat to the lowest setting and hold the milk at 190-195℉ for 15 minutes.
3. Cool: remove from heat, uncover and cool to 115℉, or pleasantly warm to the skin.
4. Inoculate: Preheat the oven to 115℉, then turn off. Add a half cup of the milk to your yogurt starter, whisk together, then add the mixture to the milk and whisk until smooth. Leave in pot or move milk to containers. Fill one jar with ½ C. to use as starter for your next batch.
5. Culture: If using jars, place on a cookie sheet. Insulate containers with kitchen towels. Place in oven or other warm spot. Let sit for 6 to 20 hours, then store in the refrigerator.
Transfer the starter to the refrigerator after ~6 hours to keep bacteria healthy. Longer cultures produce thicker and tangier yogurt. If you’re lactose-intolerant, culture for 18 to 20 hours to give the bacteria time to digest the lactose for you. No pills necessary!
Bacteria at work. Yum.
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Those are the basics. For a distillation of the tips and tricks we’ve learned over the years, read on!
- You can make yogurt with lower-fat milks but the resulting taste tends to be chalky and not as nice. We use 2% because Mr. Man is reasonable. I prefer whole milk myself;)
- We bump this up to 5+ liters of milk (that’s four bags if you’re in Canada) but keep the amount of starter the same; it works fine.
- For your starter, you want a plain yogurt with minimal additives and no sweeteners. We’ve had the best luck with more industrial-strength brands like Dannon or Stonyfield or (in Canada) Astro or Western than with some of the boutique varieties. There are other culture sources (like chili peppers!) but the grocery store is the easiest way to get started. Whatever you choose, you want bacterial cultures that are tough and ready to work. Rawr!
- The heating and cooling cycles are somewhat time-consuming. I don’t recommend rushing the heating part of this process as that way lies hard-to-clean pans and nasty flavors, but you can speed cooling by sitting the pot in a sink of cold water. Be careful not to splash or otherwise contaminate the milk.
- There are ways to make mesophilic yogurt at room temperature without the heating and cooling cycle but this thermophilic method works for us.
- Precise measurements aren’t required. You need enough starter for the bacteria to get off on the right foot, but as long as you have live cultures and eliminate any competitors by heating the milk, the good bacteria will have room to work. If the yogurt isn’t thickening as fast as you like, feel free to start your next batch with an extra tablespoon or so of starter, or give it another hour or two to set up.
- The longevity of your starter will depend on the strength of the original bacterial strain and how you treat it. We often go six or more months before buying replacement starter, and we make yogurt about once a week. If your finished product isn’t as thick as before, takes longer to set up or (heaven forfend) smells off, it’s time for new starter. We keep the starter in its own container to avoid contamination, try not to let it culture longer than ~6-8 hours, and whisper encouragements. Your mileage may vary.
- The jars we use (see below) are perfectly sized for our needs (Mr. Man strains one for breakfast, I now use two per smoothie) but you can use any option you like so long as it’s clean and non-reactive. You could re-use quart-sized yogurt containers or, if plastic isn’t your thing, mason jars, jam jars or the pot you used to make it.
- If you like additives, add them just before serving. Jam, honey, fruit or other flavors are great additions.
- Straining the yogurt to make a Greek-style thick version is also easy. Use a yogurt strainer, a bag of cheesecloth in a strainer over a bowl or with a filter in your drip coffee maker.
- Strained yogurt is a great base for dip too. I like to add grated cucumber, lemon, minced garlic, salt, pepper and herbed Boursin with a sprinkling of bourbon-smoked paprika.
Optional: for your information only, here is the list of the tools we use to make yogurt:
- 8-quart stainless pot
- remote thermometer
- stainless whisk
- stainless cup measure
- canning funnel
- glass jars with lids
- cookie sheet
- kitchen towels
- yogurt strainer
- one yellow Post-it
We didn’t get all of these things at once, but as we realized we needed them and that we were in it for the yogurt long haul. I’ve found the remote thermometer to be the most useful tool for this, as it lets us be precise and to do other things while the milk is coming to temperature. We use an older version of this one, but there are a lot of options out there. Your needs may vary!
For even more information on the technique and science of making yogurt, I recommend these sources:
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