How and why to make your own yogurt

It's lovely, miles better than most stuff you can buy, creamy and custardy. And takes about eight minutes of work

Topics: Eyewitness Cook, Food,

How and why to make your own yogurt

Have you ever taken a swig of milk that’s gone sour? Pure liquid trauma. I did it once, and ever since I’ve lived in fear of this moment: I’m on my deathbed, my life is flashing before my eyes, and that memory forces its stanky way back into my fading mind.

But sour milk, baby, I ain’t mad atcha. Because really, without you, we’d have no yogurt (or cheese, or any of the rest of our friends in the dairy aisle). Controlled spoilage is the name of this game. The idea is if you inculcate friendly bacteria into your milk, they will grow and spread and defend their turf from other, icky bacteria — making it tangy and thick and tasty besides. Yeah. Come on home, baby, we can break up to make up.

And making yogurt is incredibly easy — you heat milk to a bare simmer, stir in a spoonful of existing yogurt, keep it warm for a few hours, and just like that, you’re Queen Isabella, your bacterial Columbus colonizing new lands. And the yogurt you make is cheaper and about 68 times tastier than most commercial product — smoother, softer, clear-tasting, stabilizer and gunk-free, with a level of tang that you can control.

You see, the tartness in yogurt is the acid produced by those swarming friendly bacteria. Since they multiply best at around 110 degrees Fahrenheit and slow to a crawl below 40, you can basically decide when there’s enough sourness in the yogurt and stick it in the fridge to put the process on hold.

Not only can you customize the flavor in homemade yogurt this way, but the texture is miles beyond what you can usually buy. When fresh — just-cultured and set — it quivers ever so slightly, like a perfect custard. I confess to having trouble restraining myself from eating half of it like this. But if you can wait and chill it, it firms up a bit; it can sit unperturbed in your spoon, or loosen up into a smooth, thick, just-pourable liquid when stirred. (For fascinating details behind how and why the texture of milk and yogurt changes, read Harold the Good Man McGee.)

How to make yogurt

Take some milk — your choice, but I really, really suggest whole milk; the fat helps the texture and it balances the tartness, giving you a delicious, rich flavor that lingers. Heat it up. I stir it constantly while this is happening, ostensibly so that the bottom doesn’t scorch, but really it’s because I find the smell of warm milk to be so lovely, one of those fundamental pleasures you can find yourself missing for years. When it’s 180 degrees F, or when you start seeing some bubbles and the top is steaming noticeably, take it off the heat, pour it into the jar, crock or bowl you want to keep your yogurt in, and let it cool to 110-120 F, or until you can hold your finger in it for 10 seconds without it getting too uncomfortable. It should be hot, but not painful, unless you have particularly delicate or asbestos-y hands. (And in either case, make sure they’re clean first.)

While the milk is cooling, set up your keep-it-warm situation. Some people like to use a cooler, like an Igloo, filling it with towels and maybe bottles of warm water. McGee suggests pouring the hot milk into an insulated canister or jar; he likes to just wrap his jar in towels. I like to do that and keep it in my oven, heated only by the pilot light. I sometimes leave it on my radiator, sitting on top of a nice thick book. You’ll find a warm spot in your home, but don’t really sweat it. The worst that will happen if you end up putting it in a spot that’s not quite warm enough is that you might have to leave it out for a few more hours.

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Take one tablespoon of active-culture yogurt per pint of milk. (Most yogurts you can buy will work, but just make sure the label says there are live cultures.) Mix the yogurt with a little bit of the milk in a separate bowl. When it’s smooth, stir that into your warm milk, give it a good stir, cover it with plastic wrap and place it in your snug little warm spot.

After four hours, depending on the culture and how warm you kept it, the milk should be set into something yogurty, but the taste may still be quite mild. Here is where you can exercise your aesthetic choice. The first taste of warm, just-cultured yogurt can be magic. Tender like the softest custard, it’s sweet, creamy, eternally round milk, leaving you with the aftertaste of a soothing, buttery sip. I wouldn’t blame you if you put it in the fridge now, to keep it from getting any sourness and to firm up the structure. But since I like a bit of tartness, I leave it hanging out in my pilot-light-warm oven for another 3 hours or more, occasionally turning it on for like 30 seconds just to warm it up slightly. When the yogurt is pretty much as tart as you like it, refrigerate it. (Don’t worry about the little bit of whey that will seep out eventually; either stir it back in, drink it, or use it in cooking.)

(Note that these times are really pretty loose, and can vary greatly depending on how warm you keep the milk, how active your starter yogurt culture is, etc. If it doesn’t thicken up after 8 hours or so, try adding some more starter yogurt and gently warming up the jar by dunking it in a warm-water bath, and leave it out for another few hours.)

Enjoy the yogurt, but remember to keep a few spoonfuls of it for your next batch, when this one is running low and you have more milk lying around. I don’t know exactly how the tradition of eating yogurt for breakfast started, but it’s a lovely symbol. Mornings are about renewing, and yogurt is a perfect symbol of rejuvenation — of making old milk new again, living and breathing and good. 

A couple of delicious things to eat with yogurt

I love to make sorbet with yogurt; I also use yogurt as a dressing or condiment for spicy stews that want a little bit of tangy creaminess, and in baking, but I most love it with some tasty fruit and honey, so that I feel like I’m living out some minor Mediterranean fantasy on a Sunday morning. Here are a couple of my favorite mixtures.

Mint, orange, honey

Ingredients

  • Oranges, segmented
  • Honey, to taste
  • Fresh mint, chopped, to taste
  • Touch of salt and black pepper
  • Dash of orange flower water, if you’re fancy

Directions

  1. Combine ingredients and let sit for at least 10 minutes. Serve on top of, underneath, or in yogurt.

Pear, rosemary, honey

Ingredients

  • 1 large pear
  • 2 tablespoons honey, or to taste
  • 12 or so leaves of rosemary, minced
  • Pinch salt
  • Pinch sugar
  • Extra virgin olive oil, to taste

Directions

  1. Combine ingredients and let sit for at least 10 minutes. Serve on top of, underneath, or in yogurt.
Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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