We eat a LOT of yogurt.
So much so that I can’t count the number of times that grocery store cashiers and other shoppers have stopped to comment on all the plastic yogurt tubs in my shopping cart.
The baby and I both eat plain, Greek-style yogurt and fresh fruit for breakfast almost every morning. At dinner, we dollop yogurt on top of soups and alongside spicy Indian-inspired entrees. Last night, we spooned some onto our tacos in lieu of sour cream and sometimes I mix it into baked goods instead of buttermilk.
So when I decided earlier this year to start reining in our grocery spending, yogurt was a natural place to look for savings.
We were going through at least three gallons of Greek yogurt each month (plus another gallon or so of the coconut milk yogurt that Paul prefers) and we were spending a lot of money on it.
We try hard to buy dairy dairy from producers that take good care of their cows, which means we inevitably end up paying premium prices. My back of the envelope math shows that we were spending upwards of $100 a month on yogurt, for both the cow milk and coconut milk versions.
I couldn’t find a way to spend less without reducing our consumption or compromising our ethics, neither of which we wanted to do.
Years earlier, I’d made yogurt a few times with lackluster results. I used an electric yogurt maker I’d received as a gift and powdered yogurt starter cultures, but my homemade yogurt was runny and too tart. I quickly went back to the store-bought kind.
But monthly yogurt expenditures in the triple digits compelled me to take another stab at homemade yogurt.
This time, I ditched the specialized equipment. I prepared and fermented the yogurt in a Dutch oven instead of in the electric yogurt machine and I used a little plain, store-bought yogurt as my starter.
The result was amazing: thick, mild and creamy. I’ve been making our yogurt ever since.
Making yogurt is incredibly easy. If you can pour milk into a pot and heat it up, you can make yogurt. That really is all there is to it.
The hardest part is being patient while the milk ferments.
You will need a warm place for the yogurt to incubate. I preheat my oven to the lowest possible temperature, then turn it off and allow it to cool down a little before stashing my pot of milk inside. Other people use coolers filled with warm water, crockpots, electric blankets and the like, but the oven method is simple and has worked just fine for me.
Although the yogurt is fairly thick after the fermentation process, I strain it to get an even thicker, Greek-style yogurt. This is an entirely optional step, but I think it improves the flavor too — draining off the excess whey makes for yogurt with a milder tang.
I save the whey and use it instead of water when I make bread.
I make whole milk yogurt for baby E (who is, incidentally, not much of a baby anymore) and it’s so good that I sometimes eat it myself, as dessert.
A lot of other websites caution against using skim milk to make yogurt, but I tried it anyway because that’s what I like for my own breakfast. I found that it works just fine.
As you might expect, yogurt made with skim milk isn’t quite as creamy tasting as yogurt made with whole milk, but it’s absolutely possible to make a thick, Greek-style yogurt from skim milk. In fact, I think this yogurt is just as thick and actually better tasting than the kind I used to buy.
I also kept reading about how milk pasteurized at ultra-high temperatures (often labeled UHT or simply ultra-pasturized) doesn’t work well for yogurt making. Apparently the high temperatures used in the UHT process can break down proteins that are necessary to the yogurt-making process.
I didn’t really give that last bit of advice much thought, because I just assumed that our milk wasn’t ultra-high temperature pasteurized. I tend to associate the UHT designation with shelf-stable boxed milk, not with the refrigerated cartons we normally buy.
But it turns out that a lot of organic milk is also ultra pasteurized, because organic milk often travels longer distances to reach consumers and UHT milk will stay fresh longer than milk that is pasteurized at lower temperatures.
I made several batches of yogurt before I realized that I was using UHT milk. If you’re wondering whether your own milk is ultra pasteurized, it should be clearly labeled on your carton. I just never bothered to check.
In any event, I don’t think my yogurt has suffered for using ultra-pasturized milk. However if you try your hand at yogurt making with less than stellar results, that might be one thing to consider when troubleshooting.
In short, I’ve found that yogurt making isn’t nearly as fussy as some people make it out to be. It’s actually a very simple process and one of those times when homemade really is better.
Not to mention way cheaper.
I’ve been spending about half as much to make yogurt as I did to buy it — and I’m using pricey organic milk.
Need some ideas for using your homemade yogurt?
Use a spoonful to garnish hearty carrot and red lentil soup.
For your first batch, you'll need to buy a carton of plain yogurt to use as your starter. Check to see that the yogurt you buy has live, active cultures and, if you have a choice, go for a brand that lists several different types of cultures.
For subsequent batches it's fine to use a little of your homemade yogurt as the starter. No need for a trip to the store.
Make sure the yogurt you use as a starter is fresh. Apparently the live cultures in yogurt begin to die off after about a week.
- 1/2 gallon milk (skim, 2% or whole)
- scant 1/2 cup plain yogurt
- Special equipment: thermometer, an old towel or blanket, large pot with a lid
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, warm the milk until it is between 185 and 200 degrees. Stir frequently to prevent scorching.
While your milk is warming, turn on the oven to preheat at the lowest-possible temperature. (For me this is 175 degrees). Turn off the oven once it has preheated.*
Once the milk has reached 185 degrees (but no more than 200 degrees), hold it in this temperature range for about 20-30 minutes, continuing to stir frequently.**
Remove the pot from the heat and allow the milk to cool to 115 degrees. Stir occasionally to prevent the milk from forming a skin.
When the milk has cooled, scoop out a ladleful and add it to your yogurt starter, stirring to combine. Pour the yogurt-milk mixture into the pot of milk and stir gently.
Cover the pot with a lid, wrap in an old blanket or towel and place into the barely warm oven to ferment for several hours, until thickened.***
You should now have yogurt that is about as thick as the regular, commercially-made stuff.
For thicker, Greek-style yogurt, strain your freshly made yogurt in a very fine mesh sieve or in a colander lined with paper towels, cheese cloth or paper coffee filters and set over a bowl. Place this whole set up in the refrigerator and let the yogurt strain until your desired thickness is reached, anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours.
*You want your oven to be just barely warm, around 115 degrees, when the milk goes in to incubate. You can open the oven door for a minute to let heat escape if you need to.
**I do this because I read that it helps to make thicker yogurt. I don't actually know whether this makes a difference and you can certainly try skipping this step if you want.
***Yogurt becomes thicker and more tart as it ferments. You can begin checking your yogurt after about six hours, but it may take longer to properly set up. I usually start making yogurt in the evening and then leave it in the oven overnight, about 10 or 11 hours, which I've found results in thick yogurt with a pleasantly mild tang. Yogurt should not be disturbed while it ferments. To check whether your yogurt has set, remove the lid from the pot and tilt or jiggle it slightly. Resist the urge to stir.