Thursday, September 6, 2007

Adventures in Yogurt making (with Detours)

Yogurt in the USA

(Warning: If you are not particularly interested in a monotonous harangue about yogurt, its origins, its current popularity and why everyone should make it at home, please skip to the bottom of this post, where you will find the actual recipe, buried alive and gasping for breath.)
Yogurt or yoghurt is one of those quintessential items that everyone seems to eat these days. Bottled yogurt smoothies, sugary fruit yogurt 6 packs and gelatinized flavoured yogurts have proliferated alongside dozens of varieties of plain yogurt, Greek yogurt and organic yogurts of any fat content (0, 1, and 2% or more) that you would care to name. You can get yogurt mixed with strawberry jam, with dulce de leche, with chocolate chips. You can buy yogurt with fake sugar, with real sugar or with no sugar. You can buy full fat yogurt with the cream on top or skim yogurt with no cream at all. You can buy liquid yogurt and yogurt smoothies in a veritable rainbow of colors and flavours. And lets not even mention the yogurt covered raisins, yogurt energy bars and frozen yogurt treats tempting innocent customers from the aisle of every supermarket. Its time we faced it-yogurt is America's newest staple. Breakfast, lunch, snack time, even dinner just wouldn't be the same without it.

But it wasn't always like this. Your average American grandmother did not shop for kefir at her local corner store. Most baby boomers didn't go to school everyday with a strawberry fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt in their lunch bag. In fact, until 1947, Americans had never heard of the yogurt mixed with fruit jam that is so beloved today. It was introduced that year by Dannon, a little company originally founded in Barcelona by a Sephardic Jewish entrepreneur named Isaac Carrosa. During World War II Mr. Carrosa moved to New York City and transplanted his fledgling business with great success. He is credited with being the first to industrialize yogurt, which had until then been a home-made food most popular in Asia and Eastern and Central Europe.

His business was successful beyond his wildest dreams. In the 1970s, thanks to an upsurge of interest in "healthy" eating, yogurt sales shot skyward. According to Natren, a probiotics company: "In the 1970s, yogurt consumption rose in the United States by 500 percent. By the mid-1980s, Americans were spending close to $1 billion on yogurt every year. And for the fiscal year ending November 1995, the National Yogurt Association estimated yogurt sales in this country alone at around $1.38 billion."

Thanks to Mr. Carrosa and others, we now have literally hundreds of types of yogurt to choose from, and food mega-corporations control most of the global market. Despite yogurt's origins in the Old World, since its introduction to the Americas it has not only become popular in the USA, but can also be found everywhere from Canada to Argentina, where plain yogurt is almost impossible to find and dulce de leche is the most popular flavour.

Yogurt in Belize

I love yogurt. When I was a small child growing up in Belize, the dairy industry was practically non-existent and available products were pretty much limited to imported powdered milk, tinned butter and Carnation sweetened condensed milk. Since then an influx of Mennonite farmers from Mexico has changed that situation for the better, and fresh milk and yogurt can be found in most towns, but that certainly wasn't the case when I was 5. Back in the "bad old days" of dairy in Belize, the only times I got to eat yogurt was when we travelled to the USA or when my mother made some from KLIM powdered milk, imported in big metal tins from New Zealand. I don't recall how many times my mother made yogurt-I know it was not a weekly event. Perhaps she only made it once or twice. But I do vividly remember sitting at the table with my brother and father and appreciatively slurping away on a bowlful of home-made yogurt mixed with cashew fruit preserves. It was heaven!

My Yogurt (R)evolution in the USA

When I first came to "the states", and once I left the confines of college dormitory life and actually had a kitchen of my own, I was very appreciative of the wide array of yogurt available. At first I would often buy 6 packs of yogurt mixed with fruit jam-easy to carry to work and class. I did, however, find them a bit sweet and one day looking at the label I realized that each yogurt had at least 27 grams of sugar! I wasn't about to start eating aspartame, so goodbye 6-packs! From then on I bought plain low fat yogurt in a big container at the local Safeway and mixed the fruit in myself if I wanted it. After a couple years of that I discovered that yogurt was being sold at my much loved Dupont Farmers' Market. Blue Ridge Dairy was my farm of choice-almost every week I would pick up two pints of their low-fat yogurt. It was delicious, smooth and creamy with none of the quivering gelatinous texture of my supermarket brands. I was hooked. Unfortunately I was also on a budget, and after a while I realized that if my mom used to make yogurt, I probably could too, and it would be cheaper AND homemade. Plus then I would have the cash to buy the delicious Blue Ridge Dairy mozzarella and mascarpone cheeses that I had been coveting.

Home-made Yogurt: Easier than you think!

So I began. I looked up how to make yogurt online and found out that it was the most basic of recipes: Heat milk to kill competing bacteria, inoculate with desired bacteria, leave in a warm place. Voila! Yogurt. No fancy yogurt machine necessary, no industrial processing, gelatin, fake sugars or coloring needed. If the public knew how easy it was to make this stuff a yogurt revolution would be in the making! Or at least in my kitchen. And now, in yours. Without further preamble, here is the recipe you have been waiting for:

The Recipe Itself

To make 2 quarts of yogurt you will need:
  • A gallon of milk* (either full fat, low fat or skim-the result will be either full fat, low fat or non-fat yogurt, and textures will differ accordingly.)
  • 8 oz of plain yogurt with live active cultures (look at the label to ensure that the product contains live and active Lactobacilli and Streptococcus thermophilus bacteria, which are necessary for yogurt production.)

  • 4 pint glass jars with lids (or 8 one cup jars, or 2 quart jars). Plastic won't work here, as the jars will need to be heated during the sterilization process. I use old salsa and peanut butter jars-this is a great opportunity to reuse them instead of tossing them out.

  • A candy thermometer that will measure to at least 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Two large pots, one big enough to hold the milk, the other to sterilize the glass jars.
  • A small ice chest, big enough to fit your jars into but not so huge and drafty that they get lost.

*both the milk and starter yogurt should be organic and from free-range animals, but if that isn't an option you can use the hormone treated stuff and it will still turn out.

The procedure:

  1. Thoroughly wash glass jars. Place the lids and jars (mouth down) into one of the pots, pour in several inches of water and bring to a boil. Put the lid on and boil for at least 10 minutes to thoroughly sterilize the jars, then turn off the heat and let the pot sit as is.
  2. While the jars are heating, pour the gallon of milk into the other pot and put on medium-high heat. Hang your candy thermometer on the side of the pot, stir occasionally, and keep a close eye on the temperature. When it hits 180 degrees Fahrenheit turn off the heat and if you are working with an electric stove, take it off the burner.
  3. Allow the milk to cool to anywhere between 112 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit. I put the whole pot in a sink of cold water to speed up this process.

  4. When the milk has cooled, mix the 8 ounces of starter yogurt with about a cup of the warm milk, then pour back into the pot and stir until thoroughly mixed. I recommend a whisk for this task.

  5. Using tongs to grasp the sterilized jars (which may still be hot), fill them with the milk mixture and close tightly with the lids.

  6. Pour water heated to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (55 Celsius) into your ice chest. Place the jars in the chest with the water and shut the lid. Leave there for at least 4 hours. If you like, you can check the water temperature about half way through and add some more hot water if necessary, but either way the milk should begin to congeal and by the end of the 4 hours you should have fresh home-made yogurt in your jars.
A very handy illustrated guide to making yogurt can be found here. Note that the temperature is a bit higher than what I use-either should work, just don't go too high or you will kill your friendly bacteria and the yogurt wont gel.

Other fun Yogurt Products

Greek Yogurt, a thicker version of what you will find in your glass jars, is easily made by pouring your yogurt into a double thickness of fine cheesecloth or a handkerchief and straining it for 5-8 hours. The watery whey will drip out and a thicker yogurt will be left behind in the cloth, ready to be eaten like sour cream or mixed with honey and walnuts for a delicious dessert. Just make sure to put a bowl under the cloth or the whey will drip everywhere. I usually tie the handkerchief to one of my refrigerator shelves and place the bowl underneath, then forget about it for a while. This stuff is delicious, and if you used low fat milk, pretty healthy. Its texture is like that of a thick sour cream and it is a good low fat substitute for that item. Fage is probably one of the most popular new Greek yogurt brands to be found on the market if you want to try it without making it yourself.

Aside from Paneer, Labneh has got to be one of the easiest cheeses you can make. A basic yogurt cheese, it is made by pouring a couple pints of regular yogurt mixed with salt (about 1 tsp) into a cheesecloth or handkerchief and straining it for 24 hours. The longer you strain it, the thicker the cheese will be. About 4 cups of regular yogurt will yield approximately 1 cup of labneh. You can mix this with different herbs and spices, top it with olive oil or just eat it as is.

I hope some of you will try this recipe-it really is MUCH easier than it looks and the results are delicious and cheap and give you serious bragging rights when your friends eat the yogurt you made from scratch.


Anonymous said...

that yogurt recipe was pretty simple i didnt know that it was that easy to make yogurt. I use yogurt almost daily in a nutritious shake that i make for me and my wife, so maybe i could save a few bucks by making it myself. It is done in four hours which is alsom a good thing, once again thank for the info.

Lyra said...

No problem- it really isn't hard to do at all. If you have any problems let me know. Homemade yogurt is not usually as thick as the yogurt you buy at the supermarket because it doesn't have gelatin and gum added to it to thicken it. You can also stir in 1/2 cup of non-fat powdered milk when you add the yogurt starter to help get a thicker yogurt product.

Dana said...

I love making my own yogurt!! I have one of those "EuroCuisine" yogurt makers, but either way, it's easy and fun. (I love Blue Ridge Dairy yogurt too, btw.._