I like the idea of useful critters. Chickens come immediately to mind. They turn the scrappy bits from the kitchen into delicious eggs, they do entertaining things around the yard, then they themselves are edible! Such a fantastic pet. Lately, however, we’ve been cultivating much tinier organisms to make good things happen here on the farm. Specifically the beneficial varieties of bacteria that turn plain old milk into creamy, delightful yogurt. As a family we were feeling overwhelmed by the cost and waste associated with buying tons of yogurt in plastic containers and decided to try our hand at home made yogurt. We like Greek yogurt best, and were also disappointed that some of the yummiest varieties were made by adding thickeners and protein rather than the traditional method of just straining off the liquid whey portion of the yogurt. Turns out the real process is easy, forgiving, and intensely satisfying. Really and truly like magic. Bacterial magic!
Here’s how you do it:
1. Buy a plain yogurt you enjoy to use as a starter. Or the plain yogurt cousin of the flavored yogurt you like best. After your first round you can use your own yogurt as starter, just pay some attention to not contaminating your yogurt too much along the way (e.g. don’t taste and reuse the spoon to taste again, cover the milk/yogurt when practical, etc.). Also make sure you have milk (some percentage of fat is better than none), a thermometer, something in which to keep your incubating yogurt warm, and a strainer if you like Greek yogurt.
2. Heat milk to 180 degrees. I use about a half gallon of 1% milk in a large Pyrex measuring bowl that I pop in my microwave. It takes exactly 23 minutes in my micro and there is no chance I will scald the milk or have it boil over. This step denatures the proteins in the milk and makes the yogurt magic possible.
3. Let your milk cool to 120 degrees or a little less. With the usual temperature in my house this takes about 50 minutes to an hour, so I set a timer and leave it out on the counter.
4. Wisk in a dollop of yogurt so it is completely incorporated. I find this step drops the temp of my milk a bit, often down to the perfect 113 degrees that yogurt bacteria like best. Apparently more starter is not better, btw, so don’t go overboard. We use around a tablespoon.
5. Your milk/yogurt will now need a cozy spot in which to spend the next 5 to 8 hours. I have a warming zone on my stovetop that works nicely. I put the heat as low as it will go and place the Pyrex bowl on a metal cooling rack so it is not directly on the warm stovetop. Then I wrap the whole thing in a couple of hand towels for insulation. I have also heard of heating an oven and then turning it off and letting it coast, or using a warm water bath inside a cooler.
After about 5 hours under my conditions I find that the yogurt has usually set and is very mild in flavor. If making vanilla yogurt for O this works well because it takes just a little sugar to sweeten it. The longer incubation times make for more sourness and taste better to B and me, so we usually wait at least 6 hours but sometimes go as long as 8. If you want regular yogurt, voila! Bacterial miracle! You’re done!
6. For Greek yogurt just strain the yogurt you’ve made to remove the desired amount of whey and leave a thicker, more concentrated product. You can use a regular strainer lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter, but with the volume of yogurt we make I decided to splurge for an ultra fine strainer (a.k.a. chinoise or bouillon strainer) to make clean up easier and less wasteful. Scoop the first few spoon fulls into the bottom of the strainer so you don’t lose any solids when you pour in the bulk of the yogurt. Apparently some folks reserve the whey and use it, but we just let it drain off. I set the strainer back into the Pyrex bowl and let the whole thing sit for about an hour and 15 minutes to reach the thickness we like.
7. Once the straining is done I dump the yogurt back into the Pyrex and wisk it smooth. If I’m making vanilla I add sugar, vanilla extract and vanilla bean paste to taste- the needed amounts vary some from batch to batch. Finally I pour individual servings into Mason jars and feel terribly satisfied as I line up the jars in the fridge. The paste adds little bean flecks to the vanilla yogurt, making it easy to tell the jars of plain from the vanilla even without labels.
And yes, having a handsome man in plaid do all the actual work in the process makes the yogurt taste better. Thank you, B.
The process takes the better part of a day, but is almost entirely unattended. Don’t panic if things don’t go exactly as planned. We have messed up the timing, let things cool too much and reheated, etc. and have yet to lose a batch. We estimate it costs about half of what we would pay for store bought and ours has the strong advantage of being organic.