Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Homemade Yogurt

We love yogurt. We eat it in some way, shape or form nearly every day!  Real deal yogurt, mind you, not that sugar-laden, artificially flavored stuff you find in the stores, that doesn't even come close to resembling yogurt. Eating just one serving of flavored yogurt might put you over the limit of your recommended daily sugar intake! Did you know that the average American consumes 22 tsps of added sugar each day?  22!!!  That's about 88 grams of sugar.  Go into you kitchen and measure out 22 tsp of sugar into a bowl - it's almost 1/2 a cup... that we are blindly dumping down the hatch everyday.  Yikes!  According the American Heart Association, they recommend the following guidelines for added sugar consumption (we're talking about sugar added to foods, not naturally occuring sugars in food like fruits and milk):
  •   Men should consume no more than 9 tsp a day (35 grams)
  • Women should consume no more than 5 tsp a day (20 grams)
  • Children should consume no more than 3 tsp a day (12 grams)
Take a minute to let this sink in...  Read the label on the yogurt you're packing in your kid's lunch (or your own lunch).  Bet that one tiny yogurt cup has more sugar than you are supposed to consume in your TOTAL diet for one day.  "But wait!", you say, "Every one out there tells me that yogurt is such a healthy food!!!".  Well, it is healthy, once you remove all the added sugars, thickeners and artificial colors.
Real yogurt has two ingredients - milk and cultures.  Real yogurt is tart like sour cream, not overly sweet.  Real plain yogurt is such a versatile food, delicious on it's own or in other foods.  We eat it mixed with fruit and honey, use it to make veggie dip, salad dressing, use it as a sour cream substitute, use it in baking and even make "cream cheese" with it.  We love yogurt so much that we eat about 3 quarts of it a week.  And since we eat so much of it, I prefer to buy Organic yogurt (foods that we consume on a regular basis I try to buy Organic).  But sometimes our food budget starts to complain - that's about $15 a week for yogurt!  One gallon of milk can make 4 quarts of yogurt, so if you make it yourself, the savings is significant - even if you are buying Organic milk. I decided it was time to try making our own.  Lo and behold, making yogurt is not nearly as scary or complicated as one might think. 
It's pretty simple, really.  All you need is milk, a "starter" (yogurt from a previous batch or powdered culture) and a way to incubate the milk so the starter can "grow" and multiply in the milk ("incubate" is a fancy way to say "keep warm").  Making your own yogurt is a great way to control your sugar intake - if you want flavored yogurt, you can flavor it yourself and know exactly what you are eating!  Also, it cuts down on waste.  I'm guessing that lots of people don't bother to recycle all those little yogurt containers.  I pack yogurt everyday for my kindergartner in a reusable small glass jelly jar with a screw top lid. Easy peasy. 
When I started researching methods for making yogurt, I discovered there are dozens of ways to do it.  Seems like everyone has a favorite method for incubating the milk.  I was searching for a method that 1. Involved minimal amounts of dirty dishes, and 2. Didn't require me to babysit the milk.  This method I'm sharing with you works best for me! 
Here is what you need to make yogurt:
  •   Milk.  Whole milk is best, but you can use 2% if you'd like.  Low fat milk yogurt really does not taste good.  That's why almost all low-fat yogurt in the store is loaded with sugar!  You can use raw milk or pasteurized milk, un-homogenized milk or homogenized milk, organic milk or conventional milk... but you cannot use Ultra-Pasteurized milk.  Read labels carefully.  Many organic milks are Ultra-Pasteurized, which gives the milk a longer shelf life, but also means it's been heated so long and so hot that there are no bacteria left in the milk to turn into yogurt.  This is "dead" milk.  Avoid it.  Remember, most bacteria are actually good for us!
  • Starter.  This is yogurt from a previous batch, store bought yogurt or culture packets available from some health food stores.  If you are starting with store bought yogurt, make sure you buy "plain" yogurt, that clearly states on the label "Made with Active Cultures" or something along that line. If you like thicker yogurt, you may want to buy a Greek yogurt starter. 
  • Thermometer.  A handy tool that helps you regulate temperature.  Make sure to get the kind that clips onto the side of a jar or pot. 
  • Incubator.  There are lots of ways to incubate your milk (keep it warm).  My preferred tool is a cooler (keeps cold foods cold and hot foods hot!),
Here is the basic process of making yogurt.  While the steps may seem a little funny, I assure you they will save you time and work in the end. The beauty of this process is the lack of clean up - the only thing you need to wash is the thermometer and the bowl/spoon for the starter!  The yogurt is made directly in the container you will use to to store it. 
1.  Prepare the pot.  Select the largest stock pot you have and lay a clean dish cloth in the bottom.  Now fill the stock pot with as many clean quart sized mason jars as you can comfortably fit (mine fits 3).  The jars should not be touching each other.  The dishcloth on the bottom keeps the jars from rattling around.
2. Prepare the starter. You will need about 2-3 tbsp of starter (yogurt from a previous batch) for each quart of milk.  I measure this out into a small bowl and set it on the counter so it can come to room temperature.   

3.  Fill the jars and the pot.  Fill the mason jars with milk, about an inch below the ring.  Now transfer the pot to the sink and fill the pot with water until it is about 2/3 the way up the mason jars. 

4.  Heat the milk.  Transfer the pot to the stove top.  Turn on the burner and heat the milk to 180 degrees.  This is the beauty of having the milk in the glass jars - no need to worry about scorched milk on the bottom of a pan - and you don't get a pan dirty!.  You can do something else in the kitchen while the milk heats - you don't need to babysit it. 

5.  Cool the milk.  Once the milk reaches 180 degrees, use a canning jar lifter to carefully remove the jars from the hot water.  Set the hot jars on a clean dish towel on the counter.  Allow the milk to cool until it reaches about 100-110 degrees.  If you are in a rush, you can try cooling them more quickly by immersing the jars in lukewarm/slightly cool water in the sink (don't transfer hot jars into cold water - the glass might crack). 

 6.  Prepare the incubator.  While you are waiting for the milk to cool, place the lid on the stock pot and transfer the whole pot full of boiling water to a cooler lined with a thick bath towel.  Wrap up the pot in the towel and shut the lid of the cooler to "preheat" it.

7.  Add the starter.  Once the milk cools to 100-110 degrees, you can add the starter. If you add it when the milk is too hot, the heat will kill the bacteria in the starter and the yogurt will fail (just like hot water will kill yeast when making bread).  Add about 2-3 tbsp of starter to each quart and stir gently to combine.  Place a lid on each quart and transfer the jars to the warm cooler.  Wrap them up in the towel snuggled next to the warm pot of water.  Shut the lid and now you wait!
8.  Refrigerate the yogurt.  Once the yogurt has incubated for the appropriate amount of time, you will transfer the yogurt to the fridge to chill and firm up.  How long do you incubate?  Tricky question to answer.  Some people incubate for 4 hours, some for 6, some 8, some 12.  The longer you allow the milk to incubate, the thicker the yogurt gets... but it also gets more tart (which is good or bad, depending on your taste).  I usually let mine incubate for at least 8 hours, sometimes closer to 18 hours (I often forget about it until I notice the cooler the next morning).  It is perfectly fine to incubate it for 24 hours. 
There you have it!  Once the yogurt has chilled, it's ready to eat.  You may find that real yogurt is runnier than you are used to.  If you read the labels on most store bought yogurts, you will find that they add all sorts of ingredients to thicken the yogurt (remember, yogurt should have 2 ingredients - milk and cultures).  Real yogurt will have a different consistency and texture than that "fake" yogurt.  If you prefer thicker yogurt, you can set a colander over a bowl and line it with cheesecloth or a tea towel.  Scoop the yogurt into the lined colander and allow it to drain for a few hours on the counter.  The whey will drain, leaving you with thick Greek-style yogurt  (Greek yogurt is not a special type of yogurt - it's simply yogurt that has had most of the whey drained off).  I usually drain 2 of my quarts of yogurt and keep the remaining runnier yogurt for making smoothies or salad dressing.  The drained Greek yogurt is used for dip and eating with fruit and honey  If you allow the yogurt to drain for a long time, you will end up with yogurt cheese, which is much like cream cheese.  Add some savory spices and you have a delicious spread for crackers!  Or add honey and cinnamon and you have cream cheese icing!
If you don't have the time to make your own yogurt, but still want real yogurt there are some options out there in the store (but you will have to look hard).  Seven Stars Farm Organic is my favorite, though Dannon also makes a good plain yogurt.  Stonyfield Organic Plain Whole Milk yogurt is also good, but be aware that they add pectin to the yogurt to create a thicker consistency. 
Do you make yogurt too?  What is your favorite method???

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