Saturday, August 13, 2011

How to Make Yogurt (and what is actually going on in all those steps, anyway?)

We usually go through a lot of yogurt.  It was my go-to snack when pregnant with Bean and needing to eat at the drop of a hat, lest I barf.  I was scarfing down a 32oz tub of yogurt every other day, or even every day.  Hey.  I couldn't eat Saltines!

And now I have a yogurt-loving preschooler whose favorite dessert when there is no actual dessert in the house is chocolate yogurt (plain yogurt with honey and cocoa powder, sometimes with a few chocolate chips thrown in, or banana slices). 

We also sometimes use yogurt in place of sour cream and make yogurt cheese (with fresh dill?  drooooooool).  And, of course, yogurt with granola.  Yogurt is a staple food over here!

And it's a very healthy food choice.  Here is a thorough run-down of the nutritional benefits at Kitchen Stewardship.

But why make my own yogurt?
  • Save money - you pay the cost of milk ($2.49/gal on sale here) rather than the cost of yogurt ($2.99/32oz tub, on sale, which works out to $11.96/gallon!).  That is some serious savings, and it's even greater if you go from buying the individual serving cups to making your own.
  • Less packaging - After all the 32oz tubs of yogurt I ate, we have many empty tubs sitting around.  They've been great toys for the kids, and I have not missed them when I've taken food to friends and never seen them again.  But the clutter...  These days, I'm all about getting rid of clutter!  (This is impossible with two kids, but I do what I can!)  And, you know:  environmental impact.  Yada yada. 
  • Control ingredients as well as taste and consistency - A label on one of the tubs I have from plain yogurt tells me that the ingredients are:
    Alright then... 
    So it's a lot more than fermented milk.  Or even fermented milk with added vitamins.
    Anyhow, making your own allows you to also make it more or less tart and also more or less thick.
How to make homemade yogurt:

The basic how-to of yogurt is this: 
1.  You get some milk hot enough (185-190°F) to kill all the bacteria in it. (If it's not already pasteurized, you boil it for several minutes.)
2.  You cool it off enough (110-115°F) so that the bacteria you want to grow will not be killed.
3.  You add that desired bacteria (either in the form of a heaping tablespoon of yogurt from a previous batch, or a packet of starter) and make it a happy home in which to multiply by keeping the milk warm.  Hours later, you have yogurt.  The number of hours is determined by how tart you like your yogurt and the temperature at which you kept it as it fermented.  The more tartness you like, the longer you should ferment the yogurt.

There are several methods out there for accomplishing those steps (the trick is keeping it warm during fermentation).

At first, I made yogurt using my crockpot using the method at Crockpot365.  That worked great through the summer and fall after Bean was born.  But then winter hit and my kitchen was colder, and the crockpot didn't stay warm enough.  I briefly considered this method from Kitchen Stewardship, but it seemed so cumbersome!

In the end, I got a Cuisipro Donvier Electronic Yogurt Maker as a gift, and it sees regular use.  I'm even hoping to get a second set of cups for it at some point soon.

Tricks and Tips From Three Years of Yogurt-Making:
  • Start with a good quality starter - I start with Stonyfield Farms, because it's readily available and not too terribly expensive.  It does contain pectin, which is a thickener.  You want a good yogurt starter, though, because you want lots of probiotics (the good bacteria that you're growing).
  • Freeze (in an ice cube tray) whatever starter yogurt you don't use, or freeze a bit of your first batch. You can thaw it later if someone eats all your homemade yogurt, or if you end up with a spoiled batch, if your culture gets diluted, or generally if something goes awry!  I freeze in an ice cube tray and then store them in a jar in the freezer.  To use, take out two cubes and microwave for 10 seconds at a time, mashing and stirring with a fork between microwaving.  It should be about room temperature when you add it to the warm milk.
  • To prevent anyone from eating all of the yogurt, I mark one yogurt lid with an "X" in permanent marker.  That one has to have a tablespoon of yogurt left in it, and can't be eaten out of directly (because the spoon from someone's mouth going back into the yogurt would contaminate the culture).
  • Incubation time changes the thickness and tartness of the yogurt.  Longer incubation gives you thicker yogurt that is more tart.  Shorter incubation gives you sweeter yogurt that is less thick.  If you like thick yogurt but don't like tartness, you can add a thickener like pectin, gelatin, or cornstarch.  If you like thin, tart yogurt...I don't know what to tell you.
  • Another option for thicker yogurt, especially if you're using nonfat milk, is to add non-fat milk powder and stir it into the cold milk before heating.  I've added 1/4 cup of powder to 4 cups of non-fat milk.
  • And another option for thicker yogurt is to make Greek yogurt by draining some of the whey (liquid) out using a cheese cloth.  If you do this overnight, you get yogurt cheese (and a good amount of nutrient-rich whey, which you can add to soups).  
  • To hasten the cooling of the milk from kill-the-bacteria hot to add-the-starter warm, I use a cold water bath.
    Photo Credit:  Average Jane on Flickr.

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