January 30, 2011

letting bacteria take over: or, making yogurt

This piece about homemade yogurt by Francis Lam made me think seriously about whether I should be making my own yogurt. I do derive a silly amount of pleasure from making foods -- often, that I could easily buy -- from scratch. But yogurt? I never considered it, primarily because the list of foods I prefer to make from scratch is already out of control. On the other hand, Francis made homemade yogurt sound infinitely better than the store bought variety, plus I can't resist fun food projects. Some people love shopping, some people love knitting, some people love building furniture -- I love devoting afternoons to simmering chicken pho and rolling out tortillas. It's a bonus if they turn out better than anything I could buy, and at a fraction of the cost.

Besides, my sweet parents recently gave me a yogurt maker. Thank you, parents! (Note: A yogurt maker isn't essential by any means; Francis Lam says he mixes up his cultures in a Pyrex bowl and lets it hang out in a warm spot all night, which is also how I make creme fraiche. Low-tech and cheap! And Andrea Nguyen's technique for Vietnamese-style yogurt calls for a warm water bath. But I have a yogurt maker, so I used that.)

a new yogurt maker, thank you parents

Humankind has been making yogurt forever, and it is a neat concept: you extend the life of milk by heating it, adding cultures and allowing bacteria to colonize it. The general idea is to pour your milk into a saucepan and heat, stirring constantly, to around 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it hits 180, you let it cool to 110-120 degrees. When the milk is ready for the culture, it's time to stir in 1 tablespoon active-culture yogurt per pint of milk and mix until smooth. (My yogurt maker came with packets of dried yogurt starter, and it says to stir in 10 grams of dried yogurt starter per liter of milk, so apparently that's an option if you prefer not to buy yogurt to make yogurt.)

Now all you have to do is wait. I've learned that the longer it sits, the tarter and firmer your yogurt becomes. After 3 hours, mine tasted like thickened milk; after 5 hours, it had developed a hint of tartness that tasted good to me, so I set it in the fridge to chill overnight.


I used high-quality, organic whole milk for my first batch and thought it was excellent plain, but I couldn't resist stirring in a spoonful of Mark's mom's delicious blackberry jam. Either way, the texture was lovely -- creamy, custardy, drizzle-able -- and the flavor was just to my taste, creamy and slightly tart. And when I asked Mark if he thought this could replace his favorite yogurt, he said yes, if only the texture were thicker. So I set a cup of yogurt in a fine mesh strainer above a bowl; after a few hours in the fridge, some of the whey had seeped out and I was left with something closer to Greek-style yogurt. 

 So, I guess it's official: I'm adding yogurt to my list of foods I prefer making myself. Other things I like to do with yogurt, besides eating it plain: Stirring in some sugar and running it through the ice cream maker for the best frozen yogurt you can imagine. Mixing in chopped garlic, minced herbs and salt to make a sauce that is perfect for drizzling on crispy fish, slathering on lamb meatballs, or topping roasted cauliflower. Making a quick raita with grated cucumber, chopped cilantro and toasted cumin seeds to accompany basmati rice and a spicy lentil dal. Using it instead of mayo on an avocado sandwich or in dips. Mixing into all kinds of batters, from biscuits to cake to pancakes. All I have to do is remember to keep a few spoonfuls to make the next batch. 


Rani said...

Being South Indian, yogurt is my birth right and I make it every week. You are right you don't need a yogurt maker -- my way is to microwave the milk, pour into a bowl, then cover it and set it on top of the fridge. The heat from my fridge helps my yogurt firm up in 7-8 hours. I especially love to eat it with rice, I mix cooked rice with yogurt and eat it with a little pickle. Good luck with your yogurt making!

Lauren said...

What is Mark's fav yogurt that you replaced? Just curious what this is comparable to.

Kim said...

Rani - I love the South Indian tradition of finishing a meal with rice, yogurt and pickle! I also agree that there is something funny about buying a yogurt maker when people have been making yogurt for centuries, simply by setting out milk in the sun. Your way sounds great.

Lauren - His favorite is the full fat Liberte, which is definitely the best commercial brand I've found. I think that Liberte tastes slightly richer than the one I made, but that's because they use cream and milk. Next batch, I'm planning to add a little cream to see what happens.

Lauren said...

Liberte is my favorite, too. Yummers.

robin said...

Now you can make your own labeneh from scratch using your home-made yogurt. Mix the yogurt with salt to taste, then have it hang in cheesecloth overnight (I line a strainer with cheesecloth and put the yogurt in there, with the strainer hooked onto a big bowl to catch the liquid). Magically, it turns into the delicious soft cheese that you drizzle olive oil and zatar on and eat with pita. Delicious. Especially for breakfast.

Kim said...

Thanks for the idea! I will definitely try that.