I often make substitutions and adjustments to make recipes work for ingredients already available in my pantry. I rarely follow recipes even when baking, where precise measurements and specific ingredients matter a bit more as compared to season-to-taste cookery. Some tweaked recipes turn out fine while others get filed in the “meh” or “time to get takeout” cabinet.
One ingredient that I consider irreplaceable is yogurt. Substituting milk, cream, buttermilk, or any other similar product just doesn’t work most of the time.
My favorite yogurt brand is Fage, a tangy Greek-style yogurt strained to a thick consistency. It’s similar to Arabic labneh and is sometimes referred to as, drum roll please, yogurt cheese. As much as I like the taste and texture of Fage yogurt, I’d rather have it as a quick snack than as a cooking ingredient. It’s fairly expensive and plunking down $15 worth of yogurt on a batch of yogurt-braised chicken doesn’t make much sense to me.
ideal temperatures referenced from Harold McGee’s On Food And Cooking
Having a bit of experience with handling wheat and rye starters, I felt confident with the general idea behind making yogurt. You’re basically creating an environment for active cultures to feed on milk sugars (lactose) and create lactic acid as a byproduct. The lactic acid solidifies the milk into a firm gel, creating yogurt. Sounds delicious, I know.
After a few tries, it turns out that it’s fairly easy to get consistent results. There are a few things to consider when making homemade yogurt:
Use a thermometer
Unless you can accurately tell the difference 100ºF and 180ºF by sight or feel, use a thermometer to get consistent results. If the yogurt starter culture is added to milk that is either too hot or too cold, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with spoiled milk after a few hours.
Avoid pectin in the yogurt starter culture
In my first attempt, the milk did not fully solidify and had an odd texture. The sourness was there, but the stringy strands of slime were troubling. I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong, until I noticed that the yogurt starter I used from Stonyfield had pectin in it. Switching to a yogurt starter that contained nothing but milk and active cultures (such as Fage) seemed to eliminate the textural issues.
Scald the milk to 180ºF
Heating the milk only up to the optimal temperature for the yogurt cultures to breed (around 104ºF to 113ºF) resulted in tangy milk that had the occasional cluster of firm yogurt. I actually liked the results, but it was not what I was looking for. The milk needs to be heated to 180ºF to denature the proteins and help the milk solidify. This step is not optional. This temperature also ensures that any unwanted cultures in the milk are eliminated, leading to the next tip:
Use the same container for scalding and fermenting
Heating the milk to 180ºF sterilizes the milk and its container. Pour the scalded milk into a different container to ferment and you run the risk of introducing unwanted bacteria to the mix.
Use the oven to ferment
There’s no need to buy a yogurt maker. I usually make bigger batches in stockpots or dutch ovens so I use a warm oven to ferment the milk. Most ovens, including mine, don’t go low enough to maintain the ideal temperature for creating yogurt. The oven light bulb happens to keep my oven temperature at around 100ºF to 110ºF, the ideal temperature for yogurt cultures. Your results may vary.
makes 1 gallon + 2 cups of yogurt
Can you guess how I figured out the yield?
1 gallon milk
2 cups yogurt with active cultures
- This method works for skim, 1%, 2%, and whole milk.
- Save 2 cups of yogurt for the next batch.
Heat the milk slowly over medium-low heat until it reaches 180ºF. Cool the milk to 110ºF at room temperature.
Turn on the oven until the temperature reaches 100ºF. Turn off the oven then switch the light bulb on.
Add the yogurt to the scalded milk, ensuring that the yogurt is evenly distributed. Place in the oven and ferment for at least 3 hours. It may take anywhere from 2 to 10 hours for the yogurt to fully set.
Place into the refrigerator and let cool completely before serving.