I am an on again/off again yogurt person. I don’t particularly like it, and since my bariatric surgery having a great deal of dairy (well, a great deal of anything at all, but particularly dairy) puts my intestines on warp speed. However it’s a great source of calcium and protein, is relatively cheap and easily available, and comes in a variety of flavors, fat levels, sugar levels, and consistencies.
I’ve come to realize in my years after surgery that eating a small amount of full fat foods is far more satisfying than eating a large amount of chemical-laden low fat, potentially high sugar foods. I think time will bear me out here. Unfortunately only eating a little bit of something delicious requires either iron self-control (don’t have that!) or a stomach that limits your food intake (got that, thank goodness).
Lately I’ve been eating the yogurt – greek or otherwise – that’s commercially available in a small container that has granola, shredded coconut, chocolate chips, crushed graham crackers, or other choices of topping. They range from $1 to $2 depending on, I guess, how fancy the toppings are. Though I suspect a majority of their cost is the additional packaging required to keep the toppings separate from the yogurt rather than the increased quality of the food contained within said packaging.
I saw a recipe for slow cooker homemade yogurt whilst surfing the web and became intrigued. There’s lots of biology in yogurt making, and it’s remarkably similar to things like brewing beer or making sourdough. You need a starter colony of microbes, you need some time and warmth to grow your microbes and let them produce their deliciousness, and then you need to “finish” the food product somehow – straining, baking, or canning.
For yogurt, you only need two ingredients. Yogurt, and milk. You need to buy yogurt to make yogurt, you say? What’s the point of that? Well, unless you have a home kit for how to grow cultures of yogurt-making bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Streptococcus, you need a verified and preferably cheap source of these guys. Keep in mind that if you’d like to brew Streptococcus and Lactobacillus at home that you need specific kinds of these bacteria for yogurt brewing (Streptococcus thermophlius and Lactobacillus bulgaricus specifically) and that other types of these bacteria, Streptococcus specifically, can make you very sick. So while you could swab your always-sick coworker’s desk and get some good Strep cultures off of it, that probably will lead to things other than delicious yogurt in the future. Buying your local mega-mart’s cheapest single serve of plain yogurt for 50 cents or so is worth skipping the trip to your local emergency room.
Why would you even want to make homemade yogurt? Well for one, besides the 50 cents you spend on a yogurt starter culture, a $2 gallon of milk can yield you up to a dozen half-pint containers (twice the size of commercial yogurt containers) of homemade yogurt that you can flavor to your particular tastes. That means that the yogurt you buy at the store for $1 apiece can run you about 21 cents when homemade. And that’s only the first run…once you have your yogurt culture going, you don’t have to re-spend the 50 cents on your starter culture (down to 17 cents apiece now) and use reconsitituted dried milk powder instead of a fresh gallon of milk (11 cents apiece!). So you’ve knocked the price of a cup of yogurt down about 80-90 cents, and the price of toppings and flavorings is minimal to none depending on the contents of your pantry and your taste buds. Multipy that times 5-7 yogurts (or more!) per week…it adds up!
Having said that, this is a weekend-long project. Most of the time involved me sleeping or watching TV, however; there’s very little actual action happening in the making of the yogurt. You pour the milk into the slow cooker on high (or saucepot on low heat) and bring it slowly up to 180 degrees F. Why, you ask? I have no idea. Everything that I’ve researched says that it helps to thicken the eventual product that is your yogurt. It is NOT to kill any bacteria present in the milk, since presumably you’re buying pasteurized milk from the grocery store and it’s already been heated and the bad bacteria killed. One website suggested that the heating of the milk to this temperature helps to denature some enzymes that could potentially slow down the action of the yogurt-making bacteria. I guess that’s possible…or perhaps the evaporation of some of the water in the milk as you’re heating the milk to just under boiling helps to thicken the final product. I used a programmable digital meat thermometer with a temperature alarm similar to this one, though mine is significantly more battered. They’re incredibly handy for much more than just meat and well worth the cost.
Once the milk is up to 180 degrees F, allow it to cool to between 110 and 115 degrees F. If it is warmer than this temperature your lovely Lactobacillus and Streptococcus bacteria will start to die, and you’ll end up with some milk with dead bacteria floating around in it instead of thick delicious yogurt with some ‘active yogurt cultures’ inside (PS: all yogurt has active yogurt cultures in it, so don’t be suckered in by the Activia ads. Any probiotic benefits you get from one yogurt you can get from nearly all the yogurts out there that have active yogurt cultures, including the homemade stuff).
It will take the milk several hours to cool to a bacteria-friendly temperature. Then add some of your commercial yogurt to the slow cooker (now, presumably, turned off). The recipe I was vaguely following only called for about half of the cup of yogurt to be dumped in, but eventually I used the entire cup – explanation to follow.
When everything was combined, it looked like milk, smelled like milk, tasted like vaguely tangy warm milk. I left the crock pot on ‘warm’ overnight and went to bed feeling like I’d wake up to the same thing. But unbelievably…it worked!
Ok, it looks the same as the first photo, but actually it was a solid mass of fermented yogurt curds floating in some whey. It absolutely smelled like yogurt and tasted like watery warm yogurt, strange but with tangy taste that you associate with commercial yogurt. The next step was to dump the entire mass into a cheesecloth-lined colander and letting it sit for another 2-4 hours (walk and a nap with the dog time). The websites I read suggested using the whey for a variety of uses including soups, stocks, and smoothies. This time I didn’t bother to save the stuff, but perhaps in the future I’ll try it.
The next step in the recipe is an optional but useful one, which is to dump the strained yogurt into a mixing bowl and beating it to ensure a smooth consistency all the way through.
Yogurt culture mixed, round two. This was after much straining and squeezing out of whey. Thick and rich!
Here’s where I started running into problems. Once I whipped up my yogurt, it went from a solid quite abruptly back to a liquid. Most likely I hadn’t strained it vigorously enough before whipping, but I was at a loss as to what to do. I had just made the equivalent of Kefir, a delicious yogurt-based drink I’ve had before. I was yearning for some super thick Greek yogurt though, not yogurt soup, and I had to do something.
So I dumped the mass back in the slow cooker, dumped in the rest of my starter culture, and brought the whole shebang back up to 110 degrees and cooked it while I watched football. That’ll teach em!
After a couple hours of football my yogurt soup had thickened even more than it had the first time, and I poured whey off of it every time I checked on it to encourage it to remain thick. Once I got tired of it cooking (and bedtime was approaching yet again), I dumped the contents of the pot into a double-cheesecloth-lined colander and this time squeezed the bejeezus out of it. Unlike last time, a great deal more whey came out of the curd, and the process forceably reminded me of the last time I tried to make my own cheese (a story for another day).
When I reblended my yogurt curds this time, the consistency was much more like ricotta than yogurt, but after a few spins it lightened up and became super thick yogurt instead. Just what I was searching for.
Now came the dangerous part…adding flavorings. Too much would ruin the whole batch. Too little would keep the yogurt at its very tangy flavor, which was not displeasing but did not make you want to eat very much. It needed to be Goldilocks…juuuust right.
I started with a bit of vanilla extract and then added a very small amount of coconut extract. Extract is easy to overdo, so VERY small amounts and lots of tasting is the way to go. I’m really eager to buy and try the solid vanilla bean extract paste rather than the liquid extract you get in stores. I’ve heard over and over again how much better it is than the liquid stuff, and a very little bit goes a long way.
I also added a few drops of Agave nectar (not because I have any aversion to sugar, but because the agave is a more natural source and is already in a liquid form). I kept adding a tiny bit at a time of each flavoring, stirring, and then tasting before I finally got a flavor that is very reminiscent of the store bought brand. It didn’t take very much of anything to adjust it specifically to my liking.
Finally, I plopped the yogurt into half pint jars and topped them with sliced almonds and mini chocolate chips. If I had wanted to be all pretty about it, I suppose I could have piped them in there and not slopped all over the sides of the jars, but at that point it was 10:30 PM and football was over (hooray to the Patriots, AFC Champs!) and I just wanted to head to bed. However the jars did look DELICIOUS! The only thing I’d change next time around is to not be so vigourous in squeezing the whey out of the final product, to make the yogurt slightly more creamy and less the consistency of spackle. Either way it worked though.
Update: took a half pint with me to work the next day, and man it was good. Super thick and rich, half of a half pint jar took me quite a while to get through. It sticks to the ribs! The coconut flavoring was subtle and accented well by the chocolate. The almonds provided a very nice crunch. Next time, I’m doubling the recipe and I’m going to try to buy quarter pint jars to put them in!