Friday, May 21, 2010

The Yogurt Experiments

One thing I’ve learned is that there are usually many ways to accomplish the same thing whether it’s knitting, sewing, gardening, cooking or most anything else. There have been many bloggers lately that have posted about making yogurt – each of them slightly differently and each of them says that their method works. I believe them. But being me, I just had to tinker some more with the method or “recipe” for making yogurt until I had a method that worked best for me. You might find that my method works for you too. If you just want the “recipe” and not all my wordiness – scroll down for it.

I started my home made yogurt quest for two reasons: I was concerned about all the little unrecyclable yogurt containers that I was throwing away (in our area we can’t recycle #5 plastic – your area might be different) and since I’m doing things like washing my clothes with homemade laundry soap and hanging them to dry even in the winter it just seemed wrong to be throwing away all those little yogurt containers. My digestive system really appreciates yogurt if you know what I mean and so I eat a lot of it and that means a lot of yogurt containers.

Secondly, I’m always on the lookout to be more frugal and it really does save money to make your own yogurt. And as a bonus the yogurt you get is fabulous! Way better for you and it tastes scrumptious too. I made yogurt years ago with one of those Salton yogurt makers and really that stuff was pretty bad. If that’s what you think homemade yogurt is like then think again. This stuff is wonderful. Anyway, the Compadre did some seat of the pants figuring and with our prices for milk and dry milk here in Minnesota (about $2.39 for the whole milk and 75¢ for the dry milk needed) a gallon of yogurt costs us $3.10. Add your own jam if you want and some sugar if you’re me and you might raise the cost to a little under $5.00. For a GALLON! of good yogurt with no high fructose corn syrup, gelatin, cornstarch or preservatives. A bargain at half the price! Yoplait yogurt was 49¢ for 6 oz. in the food ad this week – that’s a sale price. That works out to about $10.45/gallon and all those foreign ingredients were what I just read on the label. Yikes.

The basics of making yogurt are to heat up the milk/dry milk mixture to a high enough temp to kill any bad bugs and then to cool it off to the right temp to incubate the good bugs, add the starter yogurt, and incubate at the optimal temp for the right length of time. There are many ways to accomplish this. My old Salton yogurt maker would have worked fine for me if I had known what I know now about the amount of dry milk and had access to better starter yogurt. All that yogurt maker did was hold the milk mixture at the right temp – I kind of wish I hadn’t gotten rid of it, but as the Compadre would remind me – you can’t keep everything and it’s very rare that I regret getting rid of something. (Don’t hold me to that Compadre!)

After reading many posts and articles (even scientific ones!) about making yogurt I tried several ways of doing it. Many of the instructions said to use no more than 1/3 cup of dry milk to ½ gallon of milk but I wanted my yogurt to be thick and not like the thin runny stuff I got years ago. I found one article that recommended as much as 2/3 cup per half gallon of milk and so I went with that. I tried two ways to heat the milk. I first tried the crock pot method and found that it took forever in my slow cooker and the milk scorched on the bottom. I have the kind of slow cooker that is like a plate with a pot on top of it so all of the heat comes from the bottom. So even though I kept the temp low it still scorched. I then went to the double boiler method. My double boiler doesn’t hold the whole half gallon of milk though and I had to stand over the stove and stir so this method, while it works well and takes much less time wasn’t as good as it could have been. But I made yogurt by this method for a while. Then I went to visit my daughter in Maryland because my grandson Elliott was born. While there I showed them how to make yogurt and they didn’t have a double boiler so I used their crock pot – the kind with the crock in it that heats more evenly. Now that worked great! I was able to heat the milk on high and it took about 2 hours to heat – your mileage may vary depending on your crock pot. When I got home I went to Target and bought a cheap crock pot for $12.99 and have been using it ever since. I figure that I recouped the cost after only a few batches of yogurt.

There are also many ways of incubating the yogurt. I incubate my yogurt in the oven. Some people cover the yogurt with insulating layers of towels or something and leave it on the counter. Some people invest in expensive equipment to keep the yogurt the right temp. And some people didn’t get rid of their Salton Yogurt makers! I started by putting the whole crock, pan, bowl, or whatever of yogurt with the culture into the oven to culture it. My oven lets me see what temperature it is inside it as it rises and the optimal temperature for incubating is about 110 to 115 degrees. I usually incubate for about 6 hours, again there are differing opinions about this. Some incubate longer and some shorter. The longer you incubate the more tart your yogurt will be. You can adjust the time for your own needs. I turn my oven on every once in a while to check the temperature and to try to keep it at the best temperature. Some people just put it in the warm oven and just leave it until morning – I haven’t tried that yet. My method requires me to be home for the day and the overnight method would be wonderful if you work. I’ll have to try it.

When you incubate your yogurt in a large quantity like the crock or a bowl and then scoop out what you need the yogurt separates and you’ll notice liquid whey in the place where you took out the scoop of yogurt after a while. You can stir it back in but I don’t like to do that because I like thick yogurt. You can strain it out and I did that for a while. I used a coffee filter in a funnel and let it sit for a long time. You can buy expensive equipment for this is you want. The result is a very thick yogurt that some call Greek yogurt – it’s good. The whey can be used to make the very best pancakes you’ve ever had. The Compadre thinks that he substituted the whey for the liquid in the pancake recipe and added a little dry milk powder. We’ll have to try it again and document what we do. They were light and fluffy and tasted wonderful. But the Compadre always makes good pancakes! As it happens, I am bugged by my yogurt separating and having to deal with the whey. So I put my thinking cap on and thought about how we used to buy our yogurt in small containers in the grocery store. Hmmm, why couldn’t I incubate it in small containers and then eat it all at once – the whey wouldn’t have a chance to separate then. So what I did and still do is use 8 ounce canning jars to incubate the yogurt. I have a collection of caps that I’ve saved from other bottles that I use to cover them. When we need yogurt we just grab a jar and either eat it straight out of the jar or scoop it into a bowl. How neat and tidy and it works great! When I incubate then this way I don’t screw the caps on tight until after the incubation time is over and I put them in the fridge. I don’t know if this is necessary but I just think that a little air is good while the yogurt is incubating.

A few words of caution. I’ve taken microbiology and had many classes in food safety and it really worries me to be keeping food for so long at the danger zone. So please make sure that all your equipment is clean, clean, clean. I prefer to take my jars, crock, spoons, etc. straight out of the dishwasher and use them. That’s not always possible but I always make sure that I’m using clean stuff. And it goes without saying that you should wash your hands! One of the online instructions even went to far as to say that you should use store bought starter every so many times. I have been using my own yogurt for starter for several months now but if it ever starts to look funny or smell “off” I’ll toss it and start over with store bought. By the way I use Stonyfield Farms yogurt because it was recommended as having the most beneficial bugs of the commercial yogurts out there. I usually look for plain but I’ve also used vanilla with success.

So, here’s the “recipe” that I use for making yogurt.

You'll need 1/2 gallon of whole milk, 2/3 cup of powdered milk and 1/2 cup of Stonyfield Farms commercial yogurt or 1/2 cup of your previous batch of yogurt.

Put ½ gallon of whole milk and 2/3 cup of dry milk powder in the ceramic crock for your crockpot. Whisk it until it’s mixed well and set the crockpot to high. Using an instant read thermometer monitor the temperature and whisk it occasionally until it reaches somewhere between 180 and 200 degrees F.

Remove the crock from the crockpot and let the milk cool down to 110 to 115 degrees F. Whisk it occasionally – this seems to hasten the cooling process (at least it makes me feel like it does). The milk will develop a skin on top and you can just stir this in or you can remove it.

When the milk is getting close to the right temperature turn on the oven and heat it to about 115 degrees. (I always forget and let it get too hot and then have to open the oven door a couple of times to cool it off – sheesh). Take at least ½ cup of your starter (either Stonyfield Farms yogurt or some you’ve saved from your last batch) and put it in a bowl or the pitcher and add a cup or two of the warm milk to it. Whisk it well and then pour the starter mixture back into the rest of the warm milk. (This is to make sure that the starter is well distributed in the milk). Pour the milk/starter mixture into 8 oz. jars or leave it in the crock if you want. Cover loosely and put in the oven for about 6 hours. Make sure to monitor the oven temp occasionally and heat it up again if needed – don’t let it get too hot when heating so that you don’t kill the yogurt bugs. I usually stand and watch it heat because I know myself – see above!

When the 6 hours is up take out a jar and tip it slightly to see if it is thick enough. If not let it incubate a little longer. When it’s done to your liking cover tightly and put in the fridge.

I always add something to my yogurt – I’m not a purist. I’ve added jam, vanilla, favored syrups, homemade rhubarb sauce (yum), and canned fruit. The Compadre likes to eat his plain. Both of us can’t eat store bought yogurt any more – it just doesn’t taste right!