Thursday, March 4, 2010

Yogurt Trials

Lactobacillus Acidophilus.
Streptococcus Thermophilus.


Music to my ears.

The key to my lactose intolerant heart.

Yogurt and I have a close relationship. In fact, if I were to calculate the cost of my yogurt consumption over the past, oh, 23 years, it would surely outnumber the money I’ve spent on any other relationship by some absurdly significant amount. I spoon it over granola and mix it into biscuits for breakfast, dollop it on soup for lunch, and dash it with cinnamon and honey for dessert. I eat it frozen, stirred, lumpy; full fat, non-fat, goat-fat. As long as it isn’t full of flavorings and or soymilk, I’m game. It was only a matter of time until I tried to make it myself.

I’ve read enough and heard enough (my mother has fantastic stories about her hippie days and electric-blanket culturing) about yogurt creation that it just seemed like a no-brainer. Heat milk, cool it a bit, add yogurt, and stir? Easier than high-school chemistry.

Or not.

For my first batch, I sought out the best local milk I could easily get my hands on (Perhaps one of these days I will get my hands on some raw milk for my “pet,” but such delayed gratification is just not in the cards right now). I had been enjoying Atlanta Fresh Yogurt, and a little research revealed the source of their dairy: Johnson Family Farm, who luckily sell their milk retail just ¼ mile from my house, at Sawicki’s in Decatur. I snagged a half-gallon of whole milk and brought it home to my lab/kitchen.

I’ve read that larger brand yogurts make better starters than artisanal creations because they tend to contain a larger number of precious cultures, and thus yield a more consistent product. We already had some Stoneyfield Organic non-fat in the fridge, so I used it for my first batch.
The heating and cooling steps seemed straightforward—the first recipe I found directed the cook to heat the milk to 180-190 degrees and then cool to 115 to 120 before adding the starter (2 tablespoons per quart). I was careful to monitor the temperature during these steps, and then placed the mixture in a 1-quart mason jar wrapped in kitchen towels. I then stuck the whole thing in my oven with the oven light (but nothing else) on for four hours. After this period, the “yogurt” was pretty viscous—kind of like ooblek—but certainly not yogurt textured. However, the directions specificied “setting time” in the fridge, so I figured this would lead to the desired consistency.

Um, nope.

Whether it was the too high heating temperature, non-active starter, too short culture time, or just the milk, this never became yogurt. It tasted great: fatty in the way that only whole milk can be, with a distinctive tang upfront. I just couldn’t spoon it on to anything, and it dripped and oozed and slimed its way all over the counter every time I tried to eat it.

But, damn, this milk was expensive. Not to be wasted.

Hence, the ice cream maker.

Another snowstorm and a freezer full of other cartons of frozen decadence notwithstanding, I was determined to create something edible and worth the effort (and hopefully yummy). But this yogurt was totally cursed. Manufacturer’s directions are there for you to read, people. Ice cream paddles will not fit into the container once the mixture has started to freeze. All milk mixtures generally make ice, no matter how long and hard you churn. And these icy mixtures will freeze into a hard block when there’s not enough sugar or fat to keep it spoonable.

I like to think of my yogurt ice block kind of like a Dairy Queen Blizzard: it won’t fall out of its container when you flip it upside down. And scraped on top of raspberry sorbet, the ice eventually melts into a creamy sauce that tastes pretty good.

But it’s still not yogurt

So I tried again yesterday.
This time, I bought less local but still grass-fed and organic milk (vat pasteurized!) from the Dekalb Farmer’s Market and chose Danon low-fat yogurt as a starter. Urged on by different directions, I lowered the initial heating temperature to 170 degrees, let it cool all the way to 108, and mixed in a full ½ cup starter. I followed the same swaddling/oven-light culturing strategy, but I left it in incubation for almost 6 hours.

The result? See for yourself:

It’s still not perfect: I’d like it to be tangier, and I could probably push the incubation up to 7 or 8 hours for a firmer product. But this will do for today’s, tomorrow’s, and possibly the next day’s breakfasts, snacks, and desserts. And there’s no ice cream maker to clean.


  1. Couldn't you let it drain overnight in a sieve/colander lined with cheesecloth (refrigerated) to leach out excess liquid?
    Greek stylez.

  2. I tried draining the original batch, but it was too thin and went through 4 layers of cheesecloth! I could definitely drain the second batch, though.