How To Make Your Own Yogurt

by Lois Braun

Make your own yogurtAll the decisions involved in ethical eating can boggle the mind. Which is more important, that a food be organic, or that it be local? What about packaging? And we can’t ignore cost, nutrition, flavor, and other aspects of palatability. After all, if you can’t afford a food, or if you can’t get your family to swallow it, there’s no point in buying it, no matter how ethical; and if it doesn’t promote good health, what’s the point?

For me personally, lowering the carbon costs of my diet is a primary goal, so local trumps organic for foods that have a high water content and thus are heavy to ship. Therefore, whereas I couldn’t care less that my cinnamon powder comes from Sri Lanka and am only mildly concerned that my rice comes from California (though I’m trying to eat more wheat and potatoes in place of rice), I do care that it’s hard to find local organic yogurt.

The co-op sells nine brands of yogurt, only one of which comes from Minnesota. That’s Old Home, which is the only non-organic brand (and what I usually buy if I need a new yogurt culture). The next closest is Kalona Supernatural (formerly called Cultural Revolution), which comes from Kalona, Iowa, 288 miles away. The sources of all the other yogurts are listed as Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Washington, Oregon, and California.

It’s not that I have anything against these companies. Several of them use milk from small family-owned dairies or from pasture-raised cows, which is more important to me than whether they are organic. Not only is pasturing a more ecologically logical way to raise cows, but the milk is higher in healthful conjugated linacids and Omega 3 fatty acids than milk from grain-fed cows.

Kalona Supernatural milk comes from pastured cows on Amish and Mennonite farms. On the other hand, Stonyfield, Brown Cow, and Greek Gods appear to have been bought out by food conglomerates. I know that many of these brands have loyal fans amongst Hampden Park’s customers, due to their high quality—may I suggest that you eat them to your heart’s content when you are vacationing in CO, PA, NH, WA, OR or CA?

It’s just that I wonder why, since Minnesota is a state rich in dairies, including organic dairies, we can’t find Minnesota-grown organic yogurt. The co-op sells two brands of local organic milk, both of which come primarily from grass-fed cows.

Cedar Summit comes from New Prague, just 48 miles away, in returnable glass bottles. (That eliminates the other gripe I have with commercial yogurt: those darn plastic tubs are hard to recycle. Yes, you can re-use them, but how many do you need and what chemicals are leaching out of that plastic?)

Organic Valley is a farmer’s cooperative, based in Southwest Wisconsin. Although they’ve grown to be nationwide, we can be pretty sure the milk they send to St. Paul comes from fairly close by. Moreover, I can say that Organic Valley is made up of good, conscientious farmers; because I know some of them personally, as I do the Minar family of Cedar Summit. I should suggest to them that they get into the yogurt business!

But wait! How can they sell organic yogurt without those pernicious hard-to-recycle plastic tubs? My solution? Make your own organic yogurt with either Cedar Summit or Organic Valley milk—or whatever brand of local milk you like! (The co-op sells conventional milk from two other local sources.)

Make your own yogurt

Making your own yogurt is incredibly easy. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother because I’m a lazy cook. You don’t need to buy special cultures or special equipment. All you need is milk, a bit of yogurt for a culture, and a way to keep them consistently warm for four to eight hours.

Instead of an electric yogurt-maker, I use a Dutch-oven concept to incubate my yogurt. I have two containers, both with well-fitting lids, one of which fits inside the other. Put the yogurt-to-be inside the smaller container (or containers, since several mason jars would work), put the lid(s) on, and nest it (them) inside the larger container, in a bath of warm water to keep it warm. Put the lid on the larger container and swaddle it in old quilts or blankets for the duration of the incubation period. In warm weather only one of these two heat-retaining measures is needed.

Step by step:

, Clean all containers and utensils well with soap and hot water. This is to eliminate the possibility of contamination by bacteria other than the Lactobacillus acidophilus that is responsible for converting the lactose in milk into the lactic acid (what gives yogurt its characteristic flavor). Do NOT use Clorox, as I’ve heard it can kill your yogurt culture.

, Scald ½ gallon of fresh milk
on low heat, stirring frequently, since milk burns easily. I can’t overemphasize this, since I have wasted many an hour scraping burned milk off the bottom of a pot. Some recipes say you can skip the scalding if you’re using milk that has been pasteurized, but I think it’s better to be safe than sorry. In any case, you need to warm the milk.

, Optional: add ½ to 1 cup, more or less, of milk powder. This makes for a slightly thicker and creamier yogurt, but is totally unnecessary. The cost-conscious can make good yogurt entirely of powdered milk, made up a little thicker than usual.

, Allow the milk to cool until it is baby-bath-water temperature (100º to 120º F) before adding the yogurt culture. Otherwise you’ll kill the culture. Test it by sticking a clean finger into it. It’s fine if it’s cool enough for a bath for a baby. I usually speed up the process by pouring the hot milk into the internal containers of the hot water bath immediately, and then placing them in a bath of cool water from the tap. The water cools the milk, while the milk warms the water. After they have equilibriated, you may have to adjust the water temperature a bit, either by adding more cold water or heating gently, to get both the milk and the water surrounding it to the desired temperature.

, When the milk is cool enough, add your live yogurt culture. Pretty much any commercial brand of plain yogurt can be used as culture the first time, as long as the package says “live” cultures. After you’ve made yogurt once, you can keep making it from a small amount you save back from each batch. I usually add a cup or two of culture, but you can get by with just a tablespoon. Because Lactobacillus acidophilus is a bacterium, which multiplies exponentially, it will just take longer if you add less.

, Wrap up your “baby” and set it out of the way to incubate for four to eight hours. How long it will take varies depending on the temperature, the vigor and quantity of culture you added, and how tart you want the yogurt to be. Short incubation times result in a sweeter yogurt, longer times in a more sour yogurt. I often forget about it, leaving it for as long as ten or twelve hours, which results in a very sour and separated yogurt. Ah well. I either stir it back together, or drain the liquid and use it in cooking.

Conversely, if you find that the yogurt hasn’t set, simply wait a bit longer. You may need to warm the water a bit if it has cooled. But if it still hasn’t set after eight hours, you probably killed the culture by adding it to milk that was too hot, or had a culture that was dead to start with. Better luck next time. If the milk is not too sour, use it to make pancakes or such.

, The last step, before putting the finished yogurt in the fridge, is to remove a cup or two of the fresh yogurt to set aside, in a clean jar, for your next batch. Tuck this away in the back of the fridge where no one will eat it. This helps ensure that your next culture is as uncontaminated as possible.

Contrary to instructions to use this culture within five days, I’ve let mine sit for a couple of months. When I was in the Peace Corps, living without refrigeration, I could keep it for up to a month as long as I didn’t open the jar. You can keep using a culture for years as long as it doesn’t get contaminated. When your yogurt starts to have off flavors, it’s time to buy a new one.

[Lois Braun is a community gardener and a guerilla gardener and is passionate about walking the talk about sustainable living.]

Cost comparisons, using Hampden Park Co-op prices:

Commercial yogurt

Old Home conventional yogurt: $4.15/quart

Organic yogurt: $4.45 to $5.59/quart

Home-made yogurt made with:

Organic milk: $4.05 to $4.49/half gallon; makes 2 quarts yogurt at $2.03 to $2.25/quart

Conventional milk: $3.99 to $5.09/gallon; makes 4 quarts yogurt, at $1.00 to $1.28/quart

Conventional powdered milk: $13.79, makes up to 20 quarts yogurt (depending on how thick you make it), at down to $0.69/quart.