When I made my first batch of homemade yogurt seven years ago, I was not inspired by a desire for self-sufficiency, a commitment to frugality, nor any particular dissatisfaction with the stuff I was buying at the supermarket. Rather, it was the sheer number of empty yogurt containers that I had amassed around my home. Like many communities, my town did not recycle #5 plastic containers, and they had really piled up on me. Sure I managed to reuse some for storing nuts, bolts, and the like; various painting projects; and lots of leftover food storage. But I had thrown out equally as many, and then some. So how to stop the flow of polypropylene through my home?
Make your own yogurt
I headed to the Interweb and learned that I could easily make my own yogurt at home – without a yogurt maker – just as others have done for thousands of years. Great! Of course, not everyone has time to make their own yogurt. If this is the case for you then you can check out this cuisinart cym-100 review to see if you want to buy it.
As an avid cook and experienced home-brewer, I already owned a good cooking thermometer and various sized stockpots. So I grabbed a half-gallon of milk and got to work cooking up my first batch.
The process was quite simple: heat some milk on the stove to a temperature of 110 F, add a few tablespoons of plain yogurt, let it sit for eight hours, and voila! Well, the results were less than great: a bit runny, tangier than I like, and a slightly burnt taste from where I scalded some of the milk at the bottom of the pot. But for a trial run it was encouraging, and a heck of a lot cheaper than buying quarts of Dannon’s plain yogurt, my preference at the time.
One of my friends likes to make her own yogurt and she recently told me that she prefers to heat the milk using an induction hob. She likes traveling and camping a lot, so she takes her portable hob wherever she goes! If you are tempted to make your own yogurt and are looking to buy the best induction hob, check out the Buyers Impact website for an overview of some of the most popular options out there. There are lots of different makes and models, so it is always a good idea to do some research to find one that meets your expectations.
So, how do you make your yogurt more like Dannon?
Rather than heat the milk directly on the stove, I placed the pot of milk into a larger pot of water. Then I brought the water in the outer pot to a boil, which heated the pot of milk without direct contact from the burner. I did not have to stir it nearly so often this way, and the burnt flavor was history. But the consistency and overall flavor was still not to my liking.
I started to think that I’d have to lower my expectations due to equipment and ingredients not available in the home kitchen, like when you have to first stock up before making homemade pizza or even beer. Tinkering only gets you so far sometimes. I decided a little research was in order.
A brief history of yogurt
Yogurt (or Yoghurt) is a Turkish word to describe a cultured milk product originating in Central Asia at least two thousand years ago, and maybe even five or six thousand years ago. Probably discovered accidentally by storing milk in sacks made from animal stomachs, it is safe to say that the first yogurt was very different from what we consume today.
But the essentials of the process are the same. Helpful bacteria found in the gut of animals consume the sugar in milk (lactose), and convert it to lactic acid, which is what gives yogurt it distinctive tangy flavor. During the conversion the milk thickens, or curdles, and is much slower to spoil. Prior to the invention of refrigeration, it was the only way to make milk last for long periods of time, and was surely part of the reason for its widespread popularity over the subsequent millennia. Like most things discovered by accident – wine for example – favorable results and much tinkering lead to specialization of both technique and equipment.
So, has the industrialization and commercialization of yogurt production created a product no longer attainable at home? Yes, and no.
The sugary, gelatinous goop that make up much of the yogurt at your local market is a modern invention, and is YINO (yogurt in name only) in my opinion. Pectin, corn starch, and other thickeners have been introduced to give yogurt a “hang upside down from your spoon” consistency, and many don’t even contain active bacterial cultures. But this is the good news! If you want to make lousy yogurt that is not very healthy, you’ll find it hard to do at home, and should just stick with store-bought. But to make thick, creamy yogurt, full of active healthy cultures at home, is just a matter of technique.
So in addition to the water jacket, I picked up a few other tidbits that have made all the difference in my yogurt making.
I considered a yogurt maker at one point early on, but didn’t want another appliance kicking around the house, and ultimately the landfill. But I did notice that most of the better models first brought the milk up to 185 F, before cooling it back down to 110 F. Why would they do that, I thought? Without getting into the particulars, heating the milk to 185 F denatures the protein in milk, which produces a thicker set in your finished yogurt. And using another trick from home brewing, cooling the pot of milk in a cold water bath gets it down to 110 F very quickly and evenly, with no skin forming on top. Now I was getting somewhere.
Back to the drawing board
My next batch was so much better than the previous ones, and almost what I was looking for. It was still a little tangier than I like. The solution to that was to let it incubate for less time. The longer you let the bacteria have at the milk sugar, the thicker and tangier the finished yogurt will be. So I cut the incubation down from eight to seven hours, and got the flavor and texture I wanted. Whoo hoo!
But the next time out was not quite the same – too thin and not tangy enough. The time after that was closer, but not quite the same as the first batch. What gives, I wondered? Was it the milk? My starter cultures? Or maybe my equipment was not clean enough?
Elementary, my dear Watson!
The answer was staring me in the face every time I used my thermometer to get the milk to 110, but I just didn’t see it.
The cultures do their best work at a range between 98 – 120 F. So 110 F is a nice mid-point for optimal bacterial production. But over the course of the seven hours of incubation, the milk in my pot was getting cooler and cooler, especially when making yogurt in the winter. So how to keep the yogurt nice and warm for seven hours? Well there are many possibilities, but my preferred technique came at the suggestion of my darling wife. She had been nursing a sore back and suggested trying the heating pad she was about to put away. While I was pretty sure this would not be looked upon favorably by the manufacturer, I gave it a shot.
Setting the pot of milk on top of the heating pad made perfect yogurt every time. Visitors to my website have written to me saying that they have used everything from crock-pots to plate warmers, as well a no/low-energy solutions such as coolers stuffed with hot water bottles and solar ovens. Whichever technique you choose, keeping the milk at or close to 110 F during the incubation will allow you to make yogurt as good, or better than store-bought. And you’ll never have to worry about what to do with another empty yogurt container again.