Of all the do-it-yourself projects I wanted to try, homemade yogurt was not at the top of the list. After all, it’s a lot easier to find a decent yogurt on the market than it is to track down, say, preserved lemons or cabbage-free kimchee.
But then I fell in love with a whole-milk yogurt that was so smooth, thick and milky tasting that it blew away anything I’d had before. Naturally, it was made by a local artisan, it cost a fortune, and it was in such high demand that the fancy shop where it was sold often was out of stock.
So I decided to try making my own. If I used the expensive yogurt as a starter, maybe I could approximate that beloved flavor for a fraction of what I was paying. And I’d never have to worry about running out.
The Internet has plenty of yogurt how-to’s, but I found the most accessible and complete guide in a book called “Yogurt Culture,” by Cheryl Sternman Rule, published last year.
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Her book made homemade yogurt seem not only easy, but also kind of essential. She persuaded me that making my own yogurt was one of those techniques that, like baking bread, every passionate cook should try at least once — if for nothing more than to connect with an ancient tradition.
Yogurt making turned out to be so simple that it’s become part of my weekly routine. I can throw together a batch in the morning while I’m drinking my tea, and it’s ready that same night. All I do is heat a pot of milk until it steams, let it cool down a bit, and stir in some yogurt to act as a starter. Then I leave the pot in a warm place to ferment.
During fermentation, the milk thickens into something delectably custardy and satiny smooth, with a clean, fresh, tangy flavor that is even better than the fancy artisanal stuff — a pretty big payoff for what ends up being about 10 minutes of active work.
After several months of yogurt making, I have learned a few little tricks to make the process go seamlessly.
The first, from Sternman Rule’s website teamyogurt.com, is to rub an ice cube over the inside bottom of the pot before adding the milk (or rinse the pot first with cold water). This can keep it from scorching as it heats.
Next is that where the pot of milk ferments doesn’t really matter as long as it’s warm. I’ve tried placing it in a turned-off oven with the oven light on, in a corner swathed in a heating pad, on the countertop wrapped in a big towel, and tucked on the top of the fridge. They all worked, though the warmer the spot, the more quickly the milk fermented.
Once the yogurt thickens and you think it may be ready, taste it before you stick it into the refrigerator. If it seems too mild, let it sit out for another couple of hours to increase how tangy it is. You can leave it for up to 24 hours at room temperature if need be without worrying about spoiling.
You can use your homemade yogurt as the starter for the next few batches, but it can weaken over time and lose its thickening power. As a precaution, I’ve been buying new yogurt for every five batches. (Any brand of plain yogurt will do as long as you like the taste of it.) This may be overkill, but I’m addicted enough at this point to want be sure of the outcome rather than do without yogurt for breakfast.
And by making my own, I’m guaranteed to have a steady supply of the good stuff.
Creamy Homemade Yogurt
Yield: 10 servings (7 cups); total time: 20 minutes, plus chilling and resting.
2 quarts whole milk, the fresher the better
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
3 to 4 tablespoons plain whole milk yogurt with live and active cultures
1. Rub an ice cube over the inside bottom of a heavy pot to prevent scorching (or rinse the inside of the pot with cold water). Add milk and cream, if using, and bring to a bare simmer, until bubbles form around the edges, 190 to 200 degrees. Stir the milk occasionally as it heats.
2. Remove pot from heat and let cool until it feels pleasantly warm when you stick your pinkie in the milk for 10 seconds, 110 to 115 degrees. (If you think you’ll need to use the pot for something else, transfer the milk to a glass or ceramic bowl, or else you can let it sit in the pot.) If you’re in a hurry, you can fill your sink with ice water and let the pot of milk cool in the ice bath, stirring the milk frequently so it cools evenly.
3. Transfer 1/2 cup of warm milk to a small bowl and whisk in yogurt until smooth. Stir yogurt-milk mixture back into remaining pot of warm milk. Cover pot with a large lid. Keep pot warm by wrapping it in a large towel, or setting it on a heating pad, or moving to a warm place, such as your oven with the oven light turned on. Or just set it on top of your refrigerator, which tends to be both warm and out of the way.
4. Let yogurt sit for 6 to 12 hours, until the yogurt is thick and tangy; the longer it sits, the thicker and tangier it will become. (I usually let it sit for the full 12 hours.) Transfer the pot to the refrigerator and chill for at least another 4 hours; it will continue to thicken as it chills.
Tip: To make Greek-style yogurt, pour the yogurt into a colandar lined with at least two layers of cheesecloth before transferring to the refrigerator to chill. This will strain out some whey, thickening your yogurt even more.