Obsession and Homemade Yogurt

Amelia offers up a confession, alongside a recipe and tips for making your own yogurt at home.

I have to start with a confession: I have a serious obsession with dairy products.

In fact, a college roommate once remarked that my personal food pyramid had milk and its derivatives on the bottom, with everything proceeding from there. She was sort of right, but I have my reasons; there’s nothing like a really good cheese (or some heavy whipping cream) to bring out the flavor of pretty much anything else.

Yogurt1, for me, is the Holy Grail of breakfast foods. It’s so hard to find the right one; most of them are thin, pretending unctuousness with a touch of carrageenan2 here, a spoonful of modified corn starch there. And that’s just plain old standard yogurt. Don’t even get me started on Greek yogurt — as soon as you find one you like, get ready to drain your trust fund because you’ll be spending a minor fortune on what is essentially regular yogurt… but thicker.

The News: Hold onto your hats, folks… Greek yogurt is just regular yogurt that’s been drained overnight. It’s pretty much run-of-the-mill yogurt, but with slightly less water. It’s kind of like a professional wrestler just before weigh-in. (Unlike a wrestler, however, Greek yogurt doesn’t go rehydrate after it makes its weight class.)

So admittedly, I might be an amateur dairy snob, but I think that the only way to make a really nice yogurt is to do it yourself. Luckily, the process is simple. All you have to do: heat milk to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, cool to 110 degrees, whisk in a bit of pre-made yogurt, and keep it warm (but not hot) for 4-8 hours. Voila! Dairy magic.

Only one question remains: what shall you stir into it? If I may, I’d like to recommend a bit of homemade granola or some fresh fruit. Or maybe both, if you so choose.

The Do’s and Do not’s

A few quick pointers for making your own yogurt:

  1. Don’t buy “yogurt culture.” Get yourself one of those small tubs of yogurt, ideally one with live cultures and no weird thickeners or artificial sweeteners, and stir that into your warm milk. That’s all you need to get started.

  2. Whole-fat milk will yield a creamier, more robust yogurt than skim or 1%. Non-dairy milks (like almond, soy, and coconut) may require additional additives to get them to set up nicely, since the protein structure is different from that of cows’ or goats’ milk. Be sure to do your research before you begin!

  3. Probably the most reliable way to make yogurt is in a commercially-available yogurt maker. That said, there are people who cure yogurt in an oven or a cooler; I’ve even had success using a heating pad to generate gentle heat overnight.

  4. The warmth of your yogurt is the single most important part of this recipe; if the yogurt culture gets too cold, it can’t grow and activate. If it gets too hot, the good bacteria (which make milk into yogurt) will die. If this makes you nervous, remember: people have been culturing milk for literally thousands of years. Do a little extra research, be methodical, and you will most certainly succeed.

  5. The longer you cure yogurt after it is set, the thinner and sourer it will get. For a really mild yogurt, cure it just until set, then sweep it into the refrigerator to finish setting up. Homemade yogurt is much milder than the store bought version because it’s generally cured for a shorter time, meaning the bacteria in the yogurt culture can’t eat as many of the milk’s natural sugars.

  6. Save about a cup of homemade yogurt as a starter for your next batch.

Set some Yogurt

These instructions make use of a yogurt maker, an appliance designed to keep your cultured milk at the right temperature for the right amount of time. If you don’t have a yogurt maker, you can check out instructions for curing yogurt in an oven, a cooler, or on a heating pad here: Six ways to incubate yogurt.

You will need:

  • 6 cups milk (1.4 liters)
  • 1 small tub yogurt, with live or active cultures (about 2/3 cup, or about 140 grams) – the actual quantity doesn’t have to be exact
    Warm the Milk

  1. On the stovetop, bring your milk up to 82 degrees Celsius (180 degrees Fahrenheit), stirring every once and a while to prevent it from scorching. This step breaks down the proteins that inhibit the yogurt culture and kills any other bacteria in the milk.

  2. Meanwhile, take your yogurt culture from the refrigerator and let it start to warm up.

  3. Once the milk reaches 82 degrees, remove it from the heat and cool to 43 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit). You may want to stir it every once in\ a while to keep a skin from forming on the top.

  4. Culture & Cure

  5. When the milk reaches 43 degrees, whisk your yogurt culture in, making sure to combine it thoroughly.

  6. Pour your milk into glass containers or jars (if applicable), and prepare it for curing according to whichever method you are using.

  7. Leave the cultured milk, covered and warm, for 4 to 12 hours, or until set.

  8. Once set, place in the refrigerator and chill at least 3 hours. This is the final step in the curing process, and will help the yogurt set up a little bit more.

Serve with honey, jam, fresh fruit, or granola! Homemade yogurt can be kept in the fridge, covered, for 1-2 weeks.

  1. Used to a different spelling of yog(h)urt – See here: Yogurt, yoghurt, yogourt, or ?
  2. Carrageenans are linear sulphated polysaccharides extracted from seaweeds. They are widely used in dairy and meat products for their gelling and thickening properties.

10 thoughts on “Obsession and Homemade Yogurt

  • May 27, 2015 at 5:31 pm
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    I’ve been making yogurt at home for 40 years. I agree with most of your statements, although since we mostly use it for smoothies I use powdered dry milk. (Once you get used to what 110 feels like you won’t need a thermometer but yogurt isn’t very fussy.) I incubate in an ice chest filled with slightly hotter water.

    I keep a frozen starter. Freezing causes ice crystals to form which pierce and kill the cells so you need to counter-act that. I drain (as for Greek) commercial yogurt thoroughly overnight and mix that with a large amount of sugar, enough to make a paste and supersaturate the remaining water – preventing ice crystals from forming. I portion that into little 2 ounce snap lid mini-cups and freeze them. I then have many small inocula, and I just thaw one out for a new batch, or maybe every other batch. (It isn’t much but I’ve found over the years that it is better not to use too much inoculum anyway.) The sugar in the inoculum will be greatly diluted out in the resulting batch.
    I’ve never gotten into different yogurt strains but maybe sometime in the next 40 years….

    Reply
    • June 23, 2015 at 10:14 pm
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      Fantastic tips about the freezing, do you have any idea what amount of sugar compared to strained yogurt you use?

      Reply
      • June 25, 2015 at 3:19 pm
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        Actually I haven’t measured – this is just one of those home-maker things I’ve done for years. When I make another batch of starters in a few weeks I’ll come back to give you more exact amounts. I just add enough sugar to the strained yogurt to make a very thick paste and it’s always worked. But I will return to let you know. I use dry milk. I started culturing at home when I was young and poor in the 1970s because it then cost one seventh of commercial yogurt. I’ve noticed dry milk is no longer as relatively cheap as it was then. However because I use dry milk I’m not constrained by the concentration of store milk so I do make mine a little more rich and concentrated. Can’t beat the convenience of having dry substrate, and frozen starter.

        Reply
      • July 17, 2015 at 12:21 pm
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        Sorry for the delay. To make this last batch of starter I bought a 32oz of Dannon plain (907g) and strained it for 12 hours in a coffee filter. That yielded 550g of thick yogurt (and 275ml of liquid I discarded). I added enough sugar to make the paste I mentioned which was 350g sugar. I don’t think that’s critical but it does need to be sufficient to prevent ice formation. I portioned that into small 2 oz snap lid cups and got 15 starters to freeze. Previously I used some from the last batch (it wanders after a few generations) but this is so easy now I generally use a frozen one. (To make the inoculae I have sometimes drained and used a vigorous first generation homemade batch rather than buy another Dannon’s but I’ve found their quality control worth the few dollars.)

        Long ago I worked in cancer research and we maintained cell lines in tissue culture. When we froze a line we used cryo-protective chemicals but of course we weren’t concerned with the end result being edible. That’s what made me think of sugar as an edible cryo-protectant. I’ve never seen this technique used by anyone else and I hope others will find it useful if they read your blog.

        “Greek” yogurt was unknown to me 40 years ago. I would apparently make it in the first step. To see if your readers could simply use viable commercial Greek I also bought a small Chobani Greek Plain (only brand of Greek available in my rural store). The package said it contained 150g (but it only weighed 138g… which is another issue) and to that I added 150g
        sugar and portioned it. That made 4 starters. I used one of those today and it worked fine. I find Chobani Plain acceptable but inferior to Dannon. These may also be different strains from Dannon.

        Incidentally, the dry milk packaged as 20 quart costs about $16. Dannon Plain was $3/quart at the store. I do make mine more concentrated so I may not be getting 20 quarts – but mine comes out nearly as thick as the Chobani Greek was. It appears dry milk is now relatively more expensive than it was 40 years ago when homemade cost one seventh as much as commercial. Still considerably cheaper to make at about one fourth commercial. I can also add flavorings and sweetener before incubation to make a non-fat pudding type dessert (with, or without, gelatin for extra firmness). Coffee/mocha flavor is popular at our house. You may hear from me again if I try Fage, Activia or some other brand to report how they worked but I have no reason to believe they also wouldn’t if they contain live cultures.

        Reply
        • July 20, 2015 at 2:45 pm
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          Powdered milk used to be really cheap here in the UK, but it’s not very cheap at all anymore and it’s getting more and more difficult to find. I wonder why that is.

          Reply
          • July 21, 2015 at 3:38 pm
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            Here in the US too and I don’t understand it. Many stores don’t have it at all and often only in small sizes. Costco stopped carrying it. Using dry milk does allow me to make it more concentrated than store bought milk – but I’ve considered just adding it to increase the concentration of store milk.

      • December 12, 2015 at 11:13 pm
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        So much time has passed that it may be immaterial, but the amount of sugar I used was about equal to the strained yogurt. In the last months I’ve found other things as well. The reader can also just use commercial Greek style to make frozen starter. Each brand I tried revived into normal yogurt when cultured from frozen as described. Additionally in the meantime I’ve changed starter brand. My husband has, if not an irritable bowel, one that is peevish. I’ve always found he does well with the fruit smoothie we generally use yogurt for. A few months ago he did have a small problem and it appears many other people do as well because many recommended a product called Align to him. That is a capsule of dried Bifidobacterium, this one branded ‘infantis’ supposedly found in breast milk. (I used a capsule as starter and the milk did start to thicken. Using several would probably make a culture.) However the idea of breast yogurt wasn’t a treat so I investigated Activia, marketed as good for guts, and found it was also a Bifidobacterium. I use that for starter now. He’s had no gut attacks. Activia’s overly sweet tiny cups are expensive and this makes Bifidobacterium cheaply. Makes okay yogurt, not as good a yogurt as other but we blend it anyway. To make frozen starter, I put Activia Greek vanilla in a paper towel lined bowl to drain more (even their Greek isn’t as thick as mine). After it has thickened appreciably more, I add an equal volume of sugar (more or less..you know..) and portion it into the 2 ounce snap lid cups to freeze as starters so each batch is first generation.
        In case a yogurt maker stumbles across this, hope it was useful.

        Reply
  • June 25, 2015 at 8:25 pm
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    “what shall you stir into it?”

    Finely chopped apple and pear and some toffee sauce works for me!

    Reply
    • July 20, 2015 at 2:46 pm
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      and surely some cinnamon if you are using apple and pear?

      Reply

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