There is just something special about fermentation in all it’s forms. Sauerkraut, cheese, beer, pickles, wine and of course, yogurt. In the modern day, we have become so terrified of the word bacteria that we can’t openly admit how the process works and why. Sure, yeast gets a pass, but when is the last time you heard a commercial espousing the joys of eating bacteria-laden foods? No, we feel the need to call them probiotics now. IE: things that increase the number of beneficial bacterial colonies in your gut. Not all bacteria are bad. A number of them are actually symbiotic to human existence and can do a lot to help keep you healthy.
So for starters, try a little experiment. Go make some yogurt. I know, you can buy it at the store, but this is going to be special. Well, yes, you are going to have to buy some from the store as a starter. Don’t let that dissuade you though, doing for yourself is a joy and certainly a lot cheaper. So go out and buy a pack of plain yogurt and some milk. Remember, pick a yogurt with live active cultures and no additives. Don’t worry, I will wait and be here when you get back.
You’re back? Great. Now, we are going to need some sterile jars and a cooler. Go fill those up with warm water. Why? Well this is going to make sure they are all very warm when you go to incubate the yogurt. If you skip this step, the yogurt will probably drop too low in temperature and won’t turn out right.
What milk to yogurt ratio are we using? Meh, it isn’t that important. More yogurt means it gets a quicker start, but 4 tablespoons of yogurt starter for a gallon should be fine here. More starter actually leads to a less firm finished product. Now pour your milk into a pot and begin to heat as slowly as you can manage. The slower the better. Stir often so it stays moving. Why slow? Slow means that you don’t get proteins clumping up. It means your yogurt isn’t going to end up with a grittiness to it. Yuck.
When the milk reaches 180 degrees F, allow it to slowly cool to 115. This heating kills off any unwanted bacteria present and affects the structure of the casein so that you can have a good thick yogurt. As the slow cooling is almost complete, empty out the water from your jars and prepare them to be filled.
When the milk has reached the desired temperature, remove a cup of liquid into a bowl and mix in your yogurt starter. Once the starter is entirely dissolved, pour it back into the main container of milk and stir it a few times to ensure it is fully mixed. Pour or ladle the milk into your heated quart jars and lid them tightly to seal. Place these in the cooler (still mostly full of warm water) and close tightly. Check your temperatures. 115 degrees F will ferment in 3 hours, but the ideal temperature is closer to 110 degrees F. At that temperature, the yogurt will thicken more slowly and produce a higher quality product. This will also result in a lower level of lactose in the final product. Leave somewhere relatively warm and undisturbed to ferment. At the lower temperature, it should take 4 to 8 hours before it thickens properly.
A Step Beyond
Okay, so now you made a commercial knockoff. Sad news: It isn’t going to be a perpetual starter. Each time you make a new batch, it will come out a little different until it stops being usable. Why? Well as it turns out, yogurt companies aren’t making cultures of blended bacteria, but are instead making individual bacterial cultures and adding them at the last minute. Instead of traditional ‘guilds’, these varied cultures don’t really know one another and often don’t play well with one another long term. Eventually one of them wins out over all the others and you end up with a very different product.
So how do you get around this? I am so glad you asked. You buy a traditional yogurt starter. Now, of course you can by a modern starter that is going to last a long time for you, but why not go with an heirloom starter. You know, sort of like the quality version of sourdough starter compared with the modern quick sourdough starters. It just isn’t a contest.
Varieties of Heirloom Yogurt
You can find these at specialty stores or online. They are often passed down from generations of immigrants or are still in use today in their native lands. This is by no means an absolute list, just one of some of the more easily obtained varieties. One note of caution is that most heirloom starters need a small batch to get going before doing a larger amount. It is a lot like proofing a dormant yeast before adding it to bread.
- Bulgarian – Sourced from Bulgaria somewhat obviously. It is described as “smooth” with a “classic yogurt taste”. It is the go-to yogurt for the American sense of taste.
- Filmjölk – Sourced from Sweden, it is a bit unusual. You might be able to find it at an Ikea as well. The flavor is described as “different, non-yogurt taste sometimes described as slightly cheesy”.
- Greek – Sourced from Greece, and the most popular thing to call your yogurt these days. Some commercial brands of Greek yogurt are actually mock Greek made through the removal of moisture in a regular yogurt as opposed to a true Greek variety. The description is “slightly tangy, rich and decadent”. Bonus, if you make your own, you aren’t going to have to pay a dollar for half a cup of store bought.
- Matsoni – Sourced from Georgia, not the state, but rather Caucasus. The quoted flavor profile here is “somewhat tart, more strongly flavored than many yogurts”.
- Piimä – Sourced from Finland, this yogurt has a lot in common with modern buttermilk. Oh what? You didn’t know modern buttermilk is created with bacteria instead of from the remaining milk after making butter? Learned two new things today! Anyway, it is said to be “similar to buttermilk” and “an excellent base for salad dressing, cultured butter or for making Piimä cream”
- Viili – Sourced from Finland, this one is the least likely to be familiar to the average American sense of taste. This variety is described as having a “mild flavor” and “moderately thick, jelly-like consistency”. Yogurt sauce comes to mind rather quickly.
So now that you have knowledge of just how simple it is to make yogurt, go give it a shot. Start with the store bought stuff until you get a feel for it so that you don’t get intimidated. The worst you are out is 4 dollars in milk and starter and even with a product that doesn’t turn out right, you can still convert it over into a makeshift cheese product. Once you have a few tries under your belt, go buy an heirloom starter or two and begin enjoying some amazingly good yogurt for a few dollars per gallon! It is frugal, it is healthier and it is a way to improve the quality of your meals.