Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Easiest Yogurt Yet

I've been making yogurt for years, but within the last several, I've been getting lazier and lazier about the process.  I realized somewhere along the line that yogurt is a natural thing.  When using a yogurt culture to get the process started, the result is not going to poison you, it might just turn out less good or really good depending upon how you do it.  

In Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries, I've read that the diets include much more yogurt than do our typical American diets.  But it's not generally the sweetened flavored yogurts to which we in America are accustomed.  It is used as an accompaniment, condiment, or topping, similar to how we might use sour cream.  In some areas, they even use it as a beverage. 

I've read that in these regions, they just stir starter into milk and let it sit.  They use the product at whatever stage it's at.  Sometimes more cultured, sometimes less; sometimes tangier, or thicker or thinner.  Besides from cows' milk, it can be made from the milk of goats, sheep, yaks and even camels and water buffalo.

So, if you want to try it, don't be too stressed out by the process.  It's very forgiving.  Just go ahead and try it.

There is a basic process.  But the basic process is easy. 
  • In America, where we are used to thick yogurt, heat the milk to 170-200F.  Some instructions say to maintain that temp for 20 minutes.   Allegedly, the higher the temp and the longer it's maintained, the thicker the yogurt.
  • Let it cool to 110F.  
  • Stir in your culture, about 1 c starter to 1/2 gallon final product.  Any store bought yogurt that says it has live or active cultures will work for starter; I use Dannon Plain when I need fresh starter.  Once you make yogurt, you can just use your own yogurt for the starter.  Starter can be frozen and used later.
  • Maintain the temp at 110F for six to eight hours.  
Tada!  You will have yogurt. 

That's the "correct" way to make yogurt. For my easiest yogurt yet method, you'll have to read on, through all my tips and mistakes, etc.  It's waaaaay at the end.

Before I had a yogurt maker, I used quart jars in a gas oven, using the heat from the pilot light to keep it warm. Then we moved and I had an electric stove, so lost my pilot light. 

There are many recommended alternatives to an "official" yogurt maker.  Warm water in a beverage cooler, with a quart jar within; setting your container on a heating pad, and wrapping it with towels; using a crock pot to heat the milk, and after it cools and you've added your culture, just wrap the entire thing in a baby quilt...I'm sure there are many other methods.

I eventually got a very nice yogurt maker as a gift.  And I used it faithfully.  As the family continued to grow, I bought another at a second hand store and used them both faithfully.  But eventually our yogurt needs outpaced the little jars.  We use a significant amount of yogurt, so it's just easier to have it in bigger containers. 

I go through stages during which I just buy it, always in the big quart sized containers of plain yogurt.  Usually three or four of them at a time.  Only for a vacation treat or when I have to pack lunches for the kids during our church's VBS, do I buy the sweet, flavored stuff.  I know, I'm a hard Mama.  "We never get anything good," my kids tell me.  So be it.  "You'll thank me for it someday."

One time, however, when I was still using the little jars and the "official" yogurt maker, I had warmed about a quart too much milk.  So I poured the extra into a jar and figured we'd use it for a Yo-J type drink if it didn't thicken.  But guess what.  It thickened just as well as the stuff in the little jars at the "official" 110 degrees for six to eight hours.

Eventually memory of that accident led to my current yogurt making system.  We prefer our yogurt thick, so I generally heat the milk first.  But that's about the only "rule" I follow.
  • I usually fill up my dutch oven, so I suppose that's 5 quarts of milk, or so.  But I don't get too particular about amounts or the the heating process.  
  • I set it on low and after it gets a little foamy I turn it off.  With the volume of milk and heat setting I use, it probably takes an hour or so to get the frothy look .  
  • After it cools to blood warm, I stir a ladleful of milk into 1-2 cups of  starter culture.  
  • Then I wisk the starter/milk mix into the milk in the dutch oven.  Sometimes I run the immersion blender through it if it doesn't seem to want to mix in well.
  • I put the lid on and let it sit until I feel like dealing with it.  Sometimes it's overnight.  Sometimes it's a couple of days.  
The result might be a bit thicker or thinner; it might be a bit tangier or sweeter.  Because I'm not very consistent, my result is not either.  But it works for me.  The higher proportion of original culture you use, the faster it will culture.  The riper the yogurt is, the tangier it will become.  The warmer your home, or the location in which you culture it, the faster it cultures.

In case anyone wants to try not heating the milk first, I've also gone through stages of skipping that step.  This also makes a tasty yogurt, but not thick.  It's about the consistency of heavy whipping cream, but tastes like yogurt.  It has the same pro-biotic properties as yogurt. We drink it from a juice glass or pour it over oatmeal or other cereal.  But it's definitely a pouring product.  It is a bit clotty, so if that turns you off, you can whip it with an immersion or regular blender.  This will result in a silky smooth beverage or topping. 

So, in short, don't be intimidated by the process.  It's very forgiving.  There are as many right ways to make yogurt as there are people who make it.


J. Jacobsen said...

Is the thinner yogurt kefir? We ran across that for the first time in Norway, where they use it on granola-type cereal, from what we saw. On returning to Wisconsin, we then began noticing it in the grocery stores, except here it's flavored and sweetened -- like most yogurt.

Wait... does "kefir" mean "yogurt?"

theMom said...

Jesse, No, the thin yogurt is not kefir, but it's a similar consistency. We use kefir, also.

They come from different micro-organism cultures.
The above page compares the two. As the page explains, Kefir has many, many more live cultures, which are alleged to provide a more rich probiotic experience.

Kefir can be made with a starter powder, which can provide a handful of benefits as the linked pages states. It can also be made with what is called grains. This method provides I think I've read somewhere, like 27 micro-organisms.

The grains are clusters of gunk, similar in looks to lumps of flour that doesn't mix well in a batter. After culturing, these lumps (grains) are strained off the kefir product and stored in a small amount of food source (milk) in the fridge until you want to culture another batch at room temp.

The Kefir grain colony will eventually grow in size and can be shared. (Like Friendship bread starter)

Kefir can also be used to ferment juices and sugar water, making a slightly alcoholic beverage. There are recipes for making Gluten free beer this way. If I remember right, if one lets it sit long enough, the alcohol percentage gradually increases and you use it at whatever alcohol level want. Also many people formerly of the "drink pop all day long" lifestyle, when they decide to eat healthier, replace their pop with the carbonated fruit juice kefir products.

An interesting factoid, these Kefir grains have been used in Eastern European/Western Asian countries from time immemorial. There is no record of where they came from or how they got started. But, in modern times, nobody has figured out how to produce a similar colony from scratch. All the kefir grains we have today are offspring of the ancient ones from those countries formerly of the southwestern USSR.

If you want to know still more about Kefir, Dom's Kefir pages is a veritable font of information.