Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hands On - Homemade Yogurt

Today I am going to show you how you can make yogurt at home.  I like to make a quart jar every week or two.  For about ten minutes of work, I can have plain, unsweetened yogurt whenever I need it.  If your household goes through a lot of yogurt -- just make two quarts at a time or make it more often.

Once you get into the habit of homemade yogurt, you will never have to buy yogurt again.  You can  use yogurt from your current jar to start the next one.  I confess that once in awhile I use up all my yogurt and don't set aside any starter.  No big deal - I just buy some more store yogurt and start all over again.  Maybe you even have a friend or neighbor who could be your yogurt starter buddy.  Between the two of you, you could keep your friendly starter bacteria family going for generations.

Making yogurt would be a great project - even a science project - for children.  Perhaps there is a child in your home who could take on this task as a regular duty - kind of like walking the dog or taking out the trash.  This job does require a modicum of skill and judgment.  You have to know something about biology and chemistry.  You have to measure and check temperatures and keep things clean and follow step by step instructions.  You can experiment with variables such as the fat content of the milk or the type of starter.   It is fun and you get to eat the results of your experiment.  Maybe you have the makings of a dairy entrepreneur living under your roof?  Who knows?  I want to talk to Ben and Jerry's mothers.  Maybe they were making ice cream when they were 12??  You have to start somewhere.

Yogurt can be an excellent substitute for buttermilk in baking, soups or beverages.  It can also be an excellent substitute for sour cream - especially whole milk yogurt.   I like this efficiency - one jar can play many different roles in the kitchen.  So making homemade yogurt doesn't complicate your life - it simplifies it.

Equipment Needed
One cooking pot to heat milk
Instant read thermometer  (These are not expensive and can be found wherever basic kitchen equipment is sold.  Cooking is all about temperatures - it is handy to have one of these around whether or not you make yogurt.)
Quart jar (s) and lid (s)  - I prefer wide mouth - they are easier to work with.  Treat yourself to a package of plastic jar lids.  They look great and are easy to keep clean.
Measuring cup and measuring spoon (tablespoon size)
Small bowl for stirring the starter yogurt
Some type of heat retention system for keeping the yogurt warm while the culture works its magic (I will discuss this in greater detail below)

You can use skim, low fat or whole.  Experiment to see what you like best.  2% is a nice compromise.  If I use skim, sometimes I add about 1/2 a cup of powdered milk/dry milk solids to thicken the yogurt a bit.  Whole milk will give you a thicker and richer product if you don't mind a little extra butterfat.    Give some thought to your choice of milk.  I have used ordinary not organic grocery store commercial milk,  milk bottled and pasteurized at a nearby dairy farm (that is what I am using today) and whole, unpasteurized milk a few hours out of the cow.  And I have noticed differences in the end product.   I really like whole fresh unpasteurized milk for the flavor, but that is unrealistic most of the time even for me who has friends who are dairy farmers.    I encourage you to experiment a bit to find the milk you like to use for yogurt.  No matter what you use,  you are going to end up with a product that is much better than almost any kind of storebought yogurt.

Starter bacteria

Use a starter from yogurt that is made from only milk and a bacteria culture.  No pectins, gums, stabilizers, sweeteners, etc.  This can be a little hard to find these days.  Ask your grocer to get it if it is not at your favorite store.  Now that I am learning a bit more about the bacteria part of all this, I  think I will make more of an effort to find a yogurt with a particular bacteria culture that I especially like.   I will let you know what I find out.  I might even figure out how to buy just the culture bacteria online and skip having to buy starter yogurt.

Cool the boiled milk - 100 degrees is what you are aiming for
The Process
Bring one quart (4 cups) of milk to a boil, stirring fairly constantly.  (This step helps encourage a smoother product)  Cool milk to between 95 and 110 degrees.  This is where you need your thermometer.  I am sure there are millions of women in the developing world who can - and do - do this all the time without a thermometer.  The same way our great grandmothers checked oven temperatures in their wood stoves. Feel.  Experience.  Good for them. 

Remove any skin that has formed on the milk.  Whisk 3 tablespoons of plain yogurt (commercial or taken from an earlier home batch) into the milk and pour into a clean quart jar - or even a bowl that has a cover.

Now you need to incubate the milk for about 5 hours.  The ideal temperature for incubation is 100 degrees.  The temperature can be as low as 85 degrees, but then fermentation will just take longer.

Here are some ways to keep the milk at about 100 degrees:
1.  Use an insulated container manufactured for this purpose.   I have used my Easy-Yo container for at least 15 years.  (see the equipment picture above) It does not have to be plugged in.  These are still available for about $30.  Here is a link to the Easy-Yo company.

2.  It is not necessary to buy special equipment.  You could put the jar(s)/bowl in a closed oven that has a pilot light.  You just need to check the temperature to make sure it is staying at about 100 degrees.

3.  You can put the jars or bowl in a pan of 100 degree water and wrap with towels or a blanket.  Check temperatures every so often to make sure they are staying at about 100 degrees.  You could try setting the pan of water on a heating pad set on low to keep the temperature steady.

After about 4 - 5 hours - check the yogurt.  It should have the consistency of delicate custard. Once you see this - refrigerate and it will firm up as it chills.   My yogurt keeps fine for up to two weeks.

Flavoring yogurt
You can sweeten your yogurt to taste with honey, maple syrup, sugar, jam, preserves or jelly.  You might need more sweetening at first if you are used to commercial yogurt.  See if you can slowly reduce the sweetening and learn to appreciate the tanginess of yogurt.
You can cook up some fresh fruit with sugar and add that to yogurt.  You can put the fruit on the bottom of individual containers or stir it in or just add fresh fruit to a bowl of yogurt.  Start the kids off with plain yogurt and sliced bananas with sugar on top.  If you have to add a few Froot Loops on top to get them started, I say go for it.  In this case the ends justify the means.
Almost any kind of spice or flavoring can be added to yogurt:  cocoa, cinnamon, vanilla, citrus peel or juice.  You could even add instant coffee crystals. Or some espresso if you don't mind thinning the yogurt.
You can focus on savory flavors -- grated vegetables, minced onion or garlic, fresh chopped chiles, sunflower seeds or other nuts or seeds, chili powder -- the possibilities are endless.

Here are a few recipes using yogurt.
Raita is a yogurt based condiment often used with Indian dishes.  Raita is just plain yogurt with some  vegetables, herbs, spices or fruits added.  Here is one version to get you started:
2 cups plain yogurt
1 cup mixture of chopped tomato, onion and cucumber (peel, seed, salt and drain the cucumber first)
1 t. cumin seed, crushed
1 clove garlic, crushed and fined minced
1/2 t. salt
Chopped hot chiles - if desired

Testimonial - I have made thousands of pancakes using this recipe - both for my family and friends and for 18 year's worth of guests at my bed and breakfast.  Memorize it.  You will be glad you did. 

Wet ingredients: 1 cup plain yogurt, one egg, 1/4 cup melted butter or flavorless oil
Dry ingredients:  1 cup flour (you can use a mixture of flours or grains.  I like to use half whole wheat pastry flour and half cornmeal.  If that is too hard core for your family, start with all plain white unbleached flour.  Sometimes I throw in some ground flax seed or toasted black walnuts or even chocolate chips when the grandchildren are visiting), 1 T. sugar, 1 t. baking powder, 1/2 t. baking soda, 1/2 t. salt.
Mix dry ingredients in a bowl.  Whisk together wet ingredients in a larger bowl.  Whisk in dry ingredients, taking care not to overbeat.  Add a little more yogurt or even a spoonful of water if batter seems too thick.  Cook on a hot griddle as you would any pancake.

These are the pancakes we had for breakfast this morning -- with creme fraiche (basically fermented cream instead of fermented milk.  An occasional indulgence in our house) and wild blackberry jelly.

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