The novice - and we all were novices at some point - only needs to know the basics about yogurt-making just to pump out a few batches on his or her own. And if you really want to get good at it so it will be second nature to make a great batch of yogurt, you really need to find out about the things that do work and those that don't. This section is organized by the ingredients used, the directions involved, the "cooking" times and results which includes information about using part of one batch to seed the next. So lets get right to it and discuss the ingredients.
The very basic ingredients for any yogurt are the milk and the starter or seed culture. We expand on that to show what works and what doesn't in what you do or do not put into what becomes your yogurt.
MILK - What works: While you can use just about any kind of milk from whole to fat-free or skim to even raw milk or even goat's milk, what works here is using pure, fresh milk that has been properly handled from the time it leaves the cow to the time you use it to make yogurt. We have purposesly excluded other types of milk such as soy or almond or rice milk as they are really subjects in their own right.
MILK - What doesn't work Impure, tainted, old or milk having an "off" odor to it can bring disaster to your yogurt-making career. And don't even thing about mixing good with bad milk.
Question: Suppose the culture I used didn't result in a yogurt... can I reuse the milk? Answer: The safest thing, other than throwing out the entire batch, would be to use the milk for other purposes like in scalloped potatoes or a shake. And the reason why is that you have no idea what has happened to that milk and how it reacted to a yogurt culture that didn't work. If there are any peculiar odors or the milk tastes "funny," then chuck it out. Food safety comes first, don't ever forget it.
Question:What about dry milk? Answer: dry milk is frequestly added to liquid milk to make the yogurt. It helps thicken the resulting yogurt without resorting to other additives like gelatine or pectin. Again, make sure the dry milk has not gotten past it's expiration date and is not contaminated with anything. And another thing that doesn't work is adding more than a cup for every quart you make - we use a cup with every 2 quarts and that works out fine.
CULTURES - you either have it or you don't: The ingredient that brings the bacteria needed to the table to turn milk into yogurt is called the culture. You can buy it online or at a health store. You can even get a cup of a commercial yogurt from your local supermarket and use that as the culture as long as it has "active cultures" specified. There are many ingredients available to serve as yogurt cultures and we have listed most of them below.
Cultures - What works and what doesn't: Here we show culture ingredients and what you need to know about them.
- Whatever the source of culture, just place it in a blender jar with some (or all - if you have room) of the 110F milk. Blend for 5 - 10 seconds and pour it back and mix with any remaining milk stirring well with a whisk.
- Don't use water because that will just dilute the yogurt and possibly make it thin.
- Make sure your culture is not stale or old. If you are using some from a previous batch, you might only want to do that once or twice. The bacteria used in yogurt cultures are "balanced" which means the culture has a certain proportion of each bacteria. And each time you us a bit from a previous batch to culture the next, those proporations change based on the relative growth rates of each bacteria. Eventually, you may have all one type of bacteria in you culture and little if any of others with can result in less than satisfactory yogurts in the way of firmness, taste and texture.
- Dried packets of culture: If you keep them in your freezer, it can last up to 2 years.
- Cups of yogurt with "active cultures" specified in writing on the container. The yogurt can be pasturized before it itself was cultured.
- To multiple cultures from this type, merely take a melon ball scoop or a tablespoon and scoop out one portion of the container. Then put each scoop in a sparate plastic sandwich bag, label them and freeze them.
- Whenever you need to culture your yogurt just take out a bag of the culture you like or want to use and empty the contents into your blender as in the description above.
- The cultures stored in this manner will last several years.
- You can also do this after you complete making some yogurt - just scoop some out and save in your freezer for the next time. But remember you can only do this 1 or 2 times or you risk degrading the yogurt and your results.
- You can put some of your product either before you "cook" it or scoop some of it afterwards and put it in a small jar and label it. You can keep these little jars in your refrigerator for several weeks and use them directly. Note that you can only do this 1 or 2 times or you risk degrading the yogurt and your results.
- "Blends" of cultures - you can mix several cultures together and experiment with them to see how they taste, how the texture turns out once they are firm and how firm they become.
- Good record keeping is important and having a spreadsheet on your PC can help you log your results as we do. In this way we record the results of making each batch of yogurt and what we did right and what may have gone wrong, if anything.
- Keep a culture bank. we have a culture bank in a relatively small zip bag in our freezer. This culture bank corresponds to a log we keep on our PC.
ADDITIVES: Other than milk and the culture you use, nothing else is really necessary. However, there are some things you can use which will improve your yogurt even more:
- Salt. 1/4 tsp salt for every quart of milk used will make the yogurt taste better. However, more is not better and too much salt can inhibit some or all of the cultures of bacteria in the culture you use. Too much salt can also make the yogurt taste awful.
- Sweetener: a tablespoon of sweetener like sugar can improve the taste of the yogurt.
- Extracts: these and other flavor additives can make your resulting yogurt even tastier. Try a teaspoon of vanilla per quart to see if you like that. There may be some such flavors which may inhibit one or more stains of bacteria in your culture so go lightly but don't be afraid to experiment.
- Jams and jellies: A teaspoon or more of strawberry jam swirled into a cup of yogurt after it is "cooked" is a welcome addition for many folk. And you can put the jam or jelly in the bottom of a cup before cooking the product - will be like that "fruit on the bottom" yogurt available commercially.
- Nuts, seeds and other solids: Again, by placing things like jam and nuts and seeds in the bottom of the cup before cooking it will prevent any interactions between the bacteria and the additives.
- In general, except of certain extracts which may be added at the beginning, it is generally safer to add such additions before consuming the yogurt rather than before cooking it.
- Thickening agents: Additions like 1/2 cup dry milk and 1 packet of unflavored gelatin per quart can improve the firmness of the yogurt.
By clicking on the Summary tab above, you will find a fast way of making yogurt. This section goes into the details of making yogurt so you have some understanding of the process and why things are the way they are. And these instructions assume you are using a Thermophilic (heat-loving) culture with a yogurt maker.
- Turn on your yogurt maker to start it heating.
- Preapare the culture you will be using in this process. If you are using a dry culture, then add some to a blender jar - you really don't need a lot to culture yogurt. If you have frozen yogurt from prior batches or from containers of commercial yogurts found in your supermarket, put that in your blender jar. If you have a refrigerated container of yogurt, then scoop out about a tablespoon of that and put in your blender jar. You will not need the culture until later on in these instructions.
- Heat enough whole milk to fill the container(s) you have for making yogurt. While you are doing that, carefully stir in 1/2 cup of dry powdered milk for every quart of liquid milk you are using. When it gets near the boiling point - 190F or above - let it sit at that temperature for 10 minutes and cool. Add a teaspoon of salt (or less) and a tablespoon or more of sugar or other sweetener for every 2 quarts of milk.
- If you are using those heavy wide mouth jars as we do, the fill each of them with the hot milk to get them nice and warm.
- Return all the milk to the original pan and put the pan in another container like a dishpan that has cool or cold water in it. Check the temperature and with your thermometer and when it reaches 110 F, continue with the rest of these instructions.
- Pour some or all of the warm milk at 110 F into the blender jar with the culture in it. If the blender jar is too small, don't worry, we will add it back to the rest of the blended milk. Blend the culture with the warm milk for about 10 seconds. This will thoroughly mix the culture with the milk in and start the process of making yogurt. If you have any liquid left in the pan, then pour this blended warm milk with the culture in it back into the pan and stir well with a whisk for 10 seconds or more.
- Now pour the warm milk with the culture in it into the containers you are using to make the yogurt. Be sure to fill them right up to the top.
- Then place the jars in your yogurt maker and start it. If you are using some other method to keep the culture mix warm, then do that now.
- While that old adage "Watched pot never boils," it doesn't hurt to check progress every couple of hours. Check for firmness by jostling one of the filled containers - if it doesn't jiggle then it is firmed. And at this point you have several choices:
- Take one or more of the jar out and refrigerate them. Note that this will be the least tangy time to stop the process. If you want a more tangy yogurt, then..
- Wait several hours and take some more or all of them out. The yogurt should be more tangy at this point. And if you want a really tangy yogurt, wait up to a total of 24 hours and then remove the remaining jars to the refrigerator.
And now is the time for the party - after cooling the yogurt for at least 4 hours - overnight is better - take some of the jars from your refrigerator and line them up on your counter. If you have pulled some of the jars at different times, make sure you get a jar of each to sample. Bring out whatever jams, jellies and chopped fruit you may have and serve each person at your "party" at least one scoop of each yogurt on each plate. Invite your party - goers to taste each sample and then to mix in their favorite fruit and/or jam into each yogurt and taste those. If you need to, keep a written record, as we do, of reactions to the plain yogurt and to the various mixes.
What doesn't work:
Here are some of the pitfalls folks fall into while making yogurt:
- You must start with clean utensils, a clean workspace, clean jars and fresh supplies - remember you will be leaving milk out in a warm condition for up to 12 or more hours... cleanliness is critical here or you can easily end up with a batch of glop rather than yogurt. Also, you certainly don't want to culture some harmful bacteria by mistake... let's not go there as far as consequences of doing that. Yogurt making can only be as safe as the cleanliness associated with it.
- Preparing the culture - you need an active culture whether it is from yorgurt set aside in your freezer or from a powdered culture (keep those in your freezer, also) or from a container of yogurt kept in your refrigerator. Make sure the expiration date on the yogurt is well ahead - the longer the better - of the current date. And if the you take a culture from your freezer, be sure it is not too old. Two years old is much too old but 1 year old cultures will still work well. Again, if you use cultures that are old or inactive, you can let the yogurt sit until the cows come home, as they say, and you won't get yogurt.
- It is important to use dry milk with the liquid milk - especially if it is non-fat liquid milk. The reason is simple, you need the extra lactose to firm up the yogurt which otherwise may never firm up no matter how long you wait.
- Watch the additives. Adding too much salt and/or sugar can make the resulting yogurt ghastly. In the department of additives, less is more. You can, however, add extracts like vanilla to the cold milk at the beginning of the process. Also, many ingrediets like jellies and jams and sweeteners can be added later on and stirred in.
- Heating milk can be tricky. If you use a double boiler, you stand a better chance of not burning the milk. But in any case, you must stir the milk frequently to keep everything that's in the milk from settling out on the bottom of the pan. We actually start the pan on high when the milk is cold, stirring constantly and then drop the setting to medium after the temperature reaches 140F. We turn it to low when it reaches 160F and let it coast up to 190F from there - again, stir frequently to provent burning the milk.
- And it goes without saying that the milk you use needs to be fresh.
- Another pitfall in a lifetime of yogurt making is not getting a yogurt maker capable of making large amounts of yogurt. While once you get the process of making yogurt down pat, having to make yogurt every couple of days can get boring. Our yogurt maker easily makes a half a gallon of yogurt at a time. And if we use quart wide-mouth jars, we can easily make a gallon or more at a time. Yogurt keeps well until it is opened - it's acidity helps preserve it and fights off mold and other bacteria. So making enough for one or two weeks at a time should be your capability and goal.
- Being impatient can lead to jostling and jiggling the containers too often - yogurt needs it's quiet time to grow and form the connections in the liquid that firm it up. So try and refrain from checking on it other than every coupld of hours.
- And just like making too little yogurt at a time - having small containers is also a problem. We have settled on pint containers for the most part while we explore the world of yogurt making. And this is why - culturing 5 pints of yogurt at a time is enough for a "party" to test out the yogurt and some left over for a breakfast or two. Note too much that if the yogurt doesn't pan out you would have to throw it away but enough to satisfy needs for a couple of days. Once we settle on our best yogurts, we will then start making a gallon at a time in quart wide-mouth jars. And oh yes, we have to wrap a towel around the open space between the cover and the base in order to culture a gallon at a time.
- Remember, the longer you keep the yogurt in the yogert maker, the sharper it will taste. Basically, the earliest you want to take the yogurt out of the yogurt maker is when it first sets or firms up. After that, it will just keep getting more and more tangy.