As I was getting more and more into doing from scratch food preparation I really wanted to but was always intimidated by the thought of doing anything with dairy. Making your own cheese or yogurt sounded like nothing but a ton of trouble and something I was bound to screw up. After talking to a friend about the concept of making fresh yogurt he said he doesn’t eat store bought yogurt anymore and that it was incredibly simple to make. I’m here to say that he’s totally right, but having tried lots of different techniques to get “store bought” texture without the additives, I can tell you there are definitely ways to screw it up too. Bottom line is if you can bake a Duncan Hines box cake, you can make yogurt.
I may be exaggerating a bit. Certainly you can’t get any simpler on the ingredients: milk and store bought yogurt with active cultures, but you do have to be a little bit more careful and plan ahead a bit. While I have several books that talk about making yogurt, the best resource I found for doing it actually comes in the form of this website: How to Make Yogurt. I do not know what Michael Reep’s credentials are in this matter, but I will say that his technique and website is spot on. I highly recommend following his site’s suggestions step by step. I’ll summarize them below, but his site has them in detail and with pictures to boot.
Just like when you make beer or anything fermented, you are going to want to be careful about making sure all your equipment is sterilized. That’s pretty easy to do, just boil everything. Your pots, your spoons, your lids, your jars (or whatever you are going to put it in). This is a very important but easy step. If you skip it you could be asking for trouble, but probably will be okay. Still, it doesn’t hurt to be cautious.
Once you have everything sterilized you want to heat your milk. Because milk can burn on the bottom of the pot very easily you don’t want to put it directly on the burner. Instead you want to do it in a double boiler. I don’t own one so I found a smaller pot that fits inside of a larger pot that will make the same effect. You pour your milk in, turn the burner on medium and then just keep stirring until your milk gets to about 180 degrees. Once there you want to keep it between 180-185 degrees for about 30 minutes. This does two things, it kills any potential bacteria in the milk and it helps to make your yogurt thicker. A simple candy thermometer or meat thermometer would do the trick. I have one of those $20 digital thermometers for grilling or cooking poultry and it works great.
After the thirty minutes you take it off the heat and let it cool down to 110 degrees. You can just keep stirring and wait, which will take a good 15-20 minutes, or you can plunge the pot into a sink full of ice. All you are trying to do is cool the milk mixture down to a point where you aren’t going to kill your starter culture (more on that later). I’m torn between the two methods, because the slower cooling seems to make things a little thicker. Basically between the heating and cooling you will lose about 15-20% of the volume. That just means thicker yogurt, which is great. Think about what that means though, you are looking at making half a gallon to a gallon of yogurt (depending on how much you start with).
Once the mixture is cool enough you add your “starter culture.” There are two ways to do this. You can order one online and they will ship you all the live bacteria cultures you could want to make great yogurt. Alternatively, and what I’ve done every time, you can just buy a package of plain yogurt with active cultures already in it. It’s literally the same thing. I choose one that has no added stabilizers, sweeteners or chemicals. My go to one is Chobani plain yogurt. The ingredients should be as simple as yours: yogurt and live bacteria. That’s it. You take a heaping spoonful or two and add it to the milk and just stir it. That’s about it. Now you just have to put it in a warm place and wait.
So where do you put it? You can find expensive crocks online made just for making it. I found that if I leave my oven light on it gets the oven to a temperature of about 90 degrees. Technically you want to have your mixture sitting at about 85 degrees, but a little hotter (not a lot) won’t hurt anything. So basically you leave it in the heated box with the lid on for 7 or more hours. If you like tangy yogurt you want to keep it in longer. If you like very mild yogurt you want to take it out at 6:59:59. I may even experiment with trying a little less than that, but you can’t go too short otherwise it won’t have time to set.
After the 7-9 hours you have yogurt. You will be able to tell because your oven and the vat will smell like a big bowl full of yogurt. It’s delicious. I store mine in glass canning jars with loose fitting lids. You can simple stir it up, there will be a little liquid on top, pour it into jars and store in the fridge for 2-3 weeks while you eat through it. You have never tasted yogurt so good. I shit you not.
Now, the biggest problem you will find with homemade yogurt is the consistency. It’s going to be runnier than you are used to. Unlike store bought yogurt it’s not going to have that pudding consistency. Most of those yogurts achieve it by adding things to thicken it up. The Greek yogurts which are even thicker just add a lot more of those things (in the cheaper ones) or they strain it through cheesecloth to let some of the water drip out (the good ones like Chobani). There have been several suggestions for thickening yogurt and I’ve tried them all.
The first idea was to add powdered milk to it. The idea behind that is similar to the straining or boiling down, you want to add more milk proteins and sugars compared to the water. I went to the store and bought premium organic powdered milk. I added it along the lines of the suggestions on the internet and made my third batch of yogurt, but the first one thickened. When I tasted it the next day it tasted like something between yogurt and chalk paste. It was vile. The whole freshness aspect of the homemade yogurt was gone and instead it tasted like I was liking the inside of a cardboard box that at one point had Carnation creamer in it. I dumped the whole half gallon out rather than trying to power through eating that crap. So you could say, I don’t recommend trying that trick.
The next trick I tried is to add gelatin to the milk. This idea is pretty simple, the gelatin is a thickener and you will therefore get a little bit of a pudding effect from it. I tried mixing the gelatin directly into the huge vat, which created lumps. I tried mixing the gelatin into some preheated milk and then adding that to the milk and that did the trick. The gelatin imparted no flavor on the yogurt, which was a bonus. It is still an additive though. I could have tried cooking the milk longer, to boil off more water. I could have tried wresting with straining through cheesecloth. In the end I didn’t see the point in any of this. I like the slightly thinner yogurt as it was anyway, what was the point?
The best part about making your own yogurt is that you know exactly what the ingredients are and where they came from. You can hypothetically start another batch from your previous batch in perpetuity, like sourdough bread. However that takes a lot more doing and it’s easy enough to just buy a small thing of yogurt at the store. I love eating the yogurt with some cinnamon and honey added to it, or on top of frozen fruit. It makes a healthy-ish snack. Better still is my yogurt fills me up, even just eating a one cup serving. Why? Because it I use whole milk. Yes, I know that is evil in this day and age (maybe less so than in previous years) but I need a good mix of fat, protein and carbs to feel full. Full fat yogurt does it but you can’t find organic whole milk yogurt at the store. This is the only way I’ve been able to do it.
I said the best part was knowing the ingredients, but the best part maybe the price. For yogurt at the grocery store you won’t find anything in the small packets for less than 10 cents an ounce. In bulk you can get it down to 7 cents an ounce. Even with that these yogurts are going to be non-fat or 2%, they won’t be organic and most will probably have additives. You go and try to buy one of those organic yogurts or ones without additives and you are looking at 15 to 20 cents an ounce. Again though, those will be non-fat yogurts because that’s the target property for most yogurt buyers. Meanwhile between the gallon of milk (assuming you are making a gallon) and the one little thing of yogurt you are using as a starter you will spend $6-7. That makes it about 5 cents an ounce for your homemade yogurt. You get to eat the yogurt you want without all the additional crap in it plus it’s anywhere from 2-4 times cheaper, sounds like an all around win to me.
Since you probably have all the equipment you need anyway you might as well try to make your own yogurt. One ingredient, 30 minutes of your time and 7-9 hours of waiting will leave you with the best tasting yogurt you ever tried, and will save you some money while you are doing it.