Simply the Best Yogurt, Ever…

Years ago, I dabbled in yogurt making but was never happy with the results. Fast forward as the student teaches the teacher – not only was our family blessed with twins late last year, I was lucky enough to spend some extended time at my daughter’s. My grand children eat home-made yogurt nearly everyday and it is AMAZING.

The Best Yogurt, Ever - 4 quarts of Greek Style Yogurt

The Best Yogurt, Ever – 4 quarts of Greek Style Yogurt

Why on earth would you want to make your own yogurt? It’s so much better tasting than commercial yogurt, but if you need more reasons:

  • It’s a better quality than ANY commercial yogurt
  • It’s all natural with no additives or preservatives
  • Although total time is long, hands-on time is short
  • It’s easy, requires no special skill and common equipment
  • It costs much less than commercial yogurt

My smart, capable girl (That snuck up when I wasn’t looking – do all parents find themselves astounded by their children?) has mastered the art of making yogurt. J is always looking for the best results, but isn’t afraid, either, to say, “I don’t have time for that…”

Her method changes what has become “standard” in the world of yogurt making and takes about 30 minutes of actual “hands on” time with an overnight ferment. A happy accident increased her yield: When the milk was heated to a slightly higher temperature than most yogurt makers recommend, the milk made slightly more yogurt. This “innovation” is included in the recipe.

J. works with two gallons of milk at a time, in two pans, partly because:

  • She doesn’t have one huge pan and huge pans are difficult to deal with and take a long time to heat and cool.
  • Although there is not a lot of hands-on time, she doesn’t think it worthwhile to make just a “small amount” (two quarts) from only one gallon.
Yogurt, after straining but before refrigeration. It will stiffen up more.

Yogurt, after straining but before refrigeration. It will stiffen up more.

Home-made Yogurt

  • Servings: makes 4 quarts
  • Difficulty: medium
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Yield 4 quarts of Greek-style yogurt, about 11 cups of whey, cost about $5.00 or about $1.25 a quart (varies by the cost of the milk.) Flavorings are an additional cost.

Time involved: About 30 minutes hands on, and a total of around 12 to 15 hours depending on your preference for the thickness of the yogurt.

  • 2 gallons of milk (J. uses 2%)
  • 12 tablespoons of plain yogurt with active cultures, room temperature, may be yogurt saved from a previous batch – this yogurt acts as a “starter.” This is 6 tablespoons per gallon.

Preheat oven to 170 degrees and turn the oven light on. The light will stay on during the whole process until the yogurt is removed in the a.m. As soon as the oven beeps, turn oven off but keep door closed. At the same time, remove the 12 tablespoons of yogurt (starter) from the fridge to come to room temperature, six tablespoons for each gallon.

In each of two pans, pour a gallon of milk and heat over medium-low. Bring to just below boiling, about 200 degrees, but don’t let the milk boil. Hold at this temperature for anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. (J. holds hers for about 20 minutes.)

Be careful – milk can boil over and/or scorch in a heartbeat. As you make more yogurt, you’ll find your “sweet spot” for the heat with your stove and your pots, and get a good idea of the settings and timing. On my gas stove, I set the burners so the flame is a bit below the pans. Heavy bottomed pans help, and if your stove runs very hot you might consider a flame tamer.

After the milk has held at temperature, remove from heat, skim off and discard the foam. A slotted spoon works great for this. Carefully pour into a clean pan without disturbing any build up on the bottom of the original pan, and place in an ice water bath. (A clean kitchen sink with cold water and ice works well.)

Leave in the ice water bath until the temperature lowers to 110 degrees. The starter needs to be added as close to 110 degrees as possible, but not below. A few degrees will make a difference in total time of the ferment and the health of the culture, so if the milk has milk has cooled too much, gently heat it back up. Do not add starter culture if it is over 115 degrees. Gently stir to distribute the milk before taking the temperature.

To mix the starter culture, remove a portion of the milk, about a cup to a cup and a half and gently mix 1/2 of the “starter” yogurt (six tablespoons per pot) into the removed milk. Add back to the pan and very gently stir (don’t beat or whisk) the mixture into the milk. Working the yogurt too vigorously will retard the process and may leave you with thin yogurt.

Place lid on the pan, wrap the pan in the thickest bath towel you have and place in oven. Repeat with other pan. Remember to make sure your oven light is ON.

Leave in the oven, door closed, light on, for 12 to 15 hours. Overnight is perfect. Do not open the oven door, unwrap and lift the lid and “peek.” If you don’t touch it, when the time is up, you’ll find the oven still toasty warm. The yogurt should be considerably thicker and very white but may have a bit of whey separating out already, which can have just a hint of a yellowish color.

Be alarmed if your yogurt shows any signs of weirdness, growths or strange colors – yogurt cultures will generally crowd out any other bacteria and the acidity will make it unlikely any other cultures will grow, but if you see signs of contamination, discard!

Give each pot a good, gentle stir. While the yogurt may appear a bit thin, it will thicken as it cools and be about the same consistency of the quart cartons of Dannon one buys from the store. If you prefer a thicker, Greek-style yogurt, you’ll want to strain it. Just as a fyi, the thinner, regular yogurt has a greater volume than strained yogurt.

Once the yogurt is cold, the culture will cease to multiply. At this point, remove some for your next batch! Do this before you strain and before you flavor. Set aside six tablespoons per future gallon. Label and hide it in your fridge somewhere if you think someone will eat it, maybe under the vegetables.

J. likes to strain her yogurt. Place a very clean, porous cloth into a colander and the colander over a large bowl, leaving enough room for the whey to accumulate in the bottom bowl. Place in the fridge, loosely covered, and leave to drain until the yogurt reaches desired consistency, two to three hours. To speed up the process, gently scrape up the thickened yogurt from the cloth at the bottom of the colander from time to time.

Pack into very clean containers. Previously used yogurt containers work well; quart mason jars work well, too, and look wonderful in blog postings – but don’t use if your small children will be getting the yogurt out of the fridge!

Yogurt may be sweetened or flavored. J. likes to flavor some with a little honey and fruit for her little ones. Whether she uses fresh or frozen fruit, she cooks the fruit down a bit to a thick, concentrated consistency so the yogurt won’t be watered down. This will, of course, add a bit to the cost. The small amount of concentrated fruit and honey shown in the photo tastes more intense and flavorful than any commercial yogurt I’ve tried.

Yogurt may also be flavored with jams, jellies, preserves or fresh fruit. If using fresh fruit, don’t mix it up in batches, just use with each individual serving.

Homemade yogurt, according to the National Center for Home Preservation, will keep in a refrigerator (40 degrees or less) for 10 to 21 days. 

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Additional Notes:

Milk: The type of milk will determine, in part, the outcome of the yogurt:

  • Whole milk will make the thickest yogurt, and doesn’t need to be held for any time after reaching temperature.
  • 2% will make a nice, thick yogurt if held for 15 to 20 minutes.
  • 1% will yield a thinner yogurt, and should be held at the maximum time. J. says, “I really wouldn’t recommend 1%.”
  • Skim: Good luck…let me know how it turns out.
  • I’ve heard that “ultra-pasteurized” milk does not work as well as pasteurized milk; sometimes milk will be labeled as ultra-pasteurized and often this type of product is in a container with a round, plastic spout that you “pull open.”

Starter: Yogurt used for the starter MUST contain active yogurt cultures. J. likes to use a carton of natural, plain Dannon.

  • The yogurt used for sthe tarter may be saved from a previous batch; J. saves hers in a small container, enough to start the next batch. Generally ,she’ll do this two to three times, then start over with a store-bought yogurt. Starters can weaken over time, and J. feels, also, that the risk of contamination can increase with continued reuse. Many, it seems, use the same yogurt six or seven times.
  • Commercial starter may be used, but as J. says, “I can pick up the Dannon at any store, and I don’t have time to be shopping around.”
  • The taste of your yogurt will be influenced, in part, by the starter you use and the type of cultures included in that starter – use one that you like the taste of.

Equipment: For two gallons, at a minimum, at least two pots for heating and a third pot or bowl for cooling, at least one strainer, a bowl or pot to catch the whey, one thermometer, a straining cloth and something to store four quarts of yogurt. A smaller container, like a Pyrex measuring cup to mix starter and milk together, measuring spoons, a spatula, and a small container with a lid to store your own starter. If you try this and plan to keep making yogurt, it would probably be worthwhile to have two colanders and two straining bowls so the process could be done together instead of one after the other.

How long does it take to make yogurt? Although I broke down the steps, I also wanted to break down the time it took to do each. Yogurt is a process, and takes 12 to 15 hours with this method – but very little is hands on time. I figured about 30 minutes of actual hands on time, and broke it down for you here.

Factors affecting taste: If your yogurt does not completely meet your expectations, try again, and try varying the below. These things can all affect the taste of the product. A bit of experimenting and you’ll find yourself making yogurt you love so much, it will be hard to ever eat store-bought again!

  • The type of starter and the cultures included in that starter. This is explained very well in this post by the Center for Home Preservation.
  • The type of milk used.
  • How long the product is cultured for.
  • Straining (or not) of the yogurt.

Heating the Milk: A whirl around the web will show different answers as to why milk is heated prior to cooling to 110 degrees – some sites disregarded it as a necessary step while others implied it was a safety precaution. Curious, I did a bit more research and found, according to the National Center for Home Preservation, “Heating the milk is a necessary step to change the milk proteins so that they set together rather than form curds and whey.”

Stirring: J. doesn’t stir her milk as it heats – she says inevitably, even with stirring, she’ll get a bit of scorching on the bottom of the pan – she finds it easier to just let the milk “go” over a gentle heat than to sit in her kitchen and babysit it. She notes: “I don’t have time for that!” She then skims the top and transfers to a clean pan for the cooling. Do not disturb any build up on the bottom of the pan as you transfer the milk to the clean pot.

Temperature: Many recommend bringing the yogurt to only 185 degrees or so – a happy accident proved to J. that her yield increased when the temperature was brought up to 200 degrees and held.

Cleanliness: Yogurt can be contaminated – I noticed my daughter started with washing her pans before using and was careful to keep the spoons, spatulas, etc. off the counter and on a clean plate as she worked with each batch.

Timing: This is an overnight method – there are faster ways to ferment yogurt, but this method has a long ferment. Here’s what I like about it: Much of the work is done the night before, then it sits until morning. A faster ferment means that it would need to be done the same day…say made in the morning and then it is done in the afternoon/evening. That’s great if you’re home to babysit it, but a working person would need to devote a precious weekend day, and whether one works or not, they’d need to be around to babysit it.

With this method, a person could get the yogurt in the oven right after work, then in the am, take it out, stir, and put it in the fridge before leaving in the morning. Then when they got home, the yogurt could be strained. This very slow ferment also means that timing isn’t as critical…if you “miss” by an hour or so in one of the speedier ferments, it could be a huge deal. When the ferment is 12 to 15 hours, it’s just not that critical. A few more notes about timing are on my “How much time does it take to make yogurt” page.

Cleaning Pans: Before adding water, take a flat-edged spatula and scrape off any accumulation on the bottom of the pan. J. claims it’s much easier to just scrape off the build up before adding water and rinsing off, which surprised me, but seemed to work. If your pan does go a bit too far and actually scorches, scrape, rinse, add a couple inches of fresh water and put back on the stove, stirring and scraping the bottom as it comes to a boil. The boiling will help lift off the residue.

As a last resort, for a heavily scorched pan, consider adding a couple tablespoons of baking soda to the water. Watch carefully and stir as it comes to a boil. This can boil over at the drop of a hat and make a HUGE mess. The baking soda helps softened the scorched residue and the boiling helps to lift it off. (If you do boil a baking soda mixture over, clean it up before it actually cools and hardens.)

Straining: The yogurt can be strained as much or as little as you’d like. There will almost always be some separation of the finished product as it sits in the fridge. Without all the additives and stabilizers of commercial yogurt, this is natural. Just stir it back together and it returns to its beautiful, creamy self. The straining does not have to be done right after the yogurt is done, but can be done at any time.

Straining Cloth: Cheesecloth is expensive, hard to reuse and requires multiple layers – J. uses an old T-shirt of her husband’s which she has reserved for this process and thoroughly washes with just a touch of bleach, just to be on the safe side. A large, very clean towel, or a bit of sheet or other fabric would work just as well. A tighter weave is not a plus here, so don’t go and use your 600 thread imported Egyptian cotton sheets.

Flavoring: Do not add any flavor to your yogurt until the process is complete, and if you wish to make a batch later, measure and remove some yogurt to a separate container as flavored yogurt does not make a good starter!

To flavor her yogurt, my daughter likes to cook down about a pound of fruit, fresh or frozen to a nice, thick consistency. (If you’re using fresh, that would be an actual pound of prepared fruit, not including seeds, skins, peels, pits, etc.) Place fruit in a heavy bottomed saucepan and slowly simmer until most of the juice has concentrated and it has a jam like consistency. Be careful, it will need to be watched carefully at the end so it doesn’t scorch.

This concentrated fruit will flavor four batches, so put it in a small container and keep in the fridge or freezer. Use about a quarter of it for each batch and you’ll have yogurt more flavorful that tastes more like the actual fruit than any commercial variety out there.

A little honey or sugar can sweeten the yogurt, if you wish, and I’m not opposed to adding a bit of jam to my plain yogurt, although I do need to be mindful of sugar. Flavoring yogurt is going to add a bit to the cost, but if you’re a careful shopper, buy fresh or frozen fruit on sale and/or in season. The cost is still well below commercial yogurts and tastes so much better!

Consistency/thickening: While some people like to add things to their yogurt such as powdered milk or gelatin to make a thicker yogurt, thereby increasing the yield, straining, I think gives the best flavored, sweet/tangy yogurt with the best consistency. The whey that is strained out is acidic, so the yogurt left is a bit sweeter than a yogurt that’s not strained.

Additives used to thicken or for other reasons, in Commercial Yogurt: As mentioned above, some add powdered milk, or even gelatin, and commercial yogurt makers use cornstarch, as well. I’ve never liked these type of yogurt, probably because I started eating yogurt long before the commercial yogurt came out. I think they all affect the taste and texture of the yogurt: those with powdered milk seem grainy, cornstarch seems chalky, and those with jello seem slimy.

The amount and kinds of additives in many commercial yogurts are mind-boggling. See my post on School Breakfast where I break down a Trix Yogurt. What a brew of additives it is. Parents, please don’t give this stuff to your kids! I was very excited about Dannon’s Oikos Yogurt when it came out…but when I tried it, I wasn’t impressed with the chalky flavor. It contains non fat milk, sugar, fructose, cornstarch, “natural flavor,” carrageenan, carmine and black carrot juice (for color,) sodium citrate, potassium sorbate and malic acid.

Other methods of culturing yogurt: There are a myriad of ways to make yogurt – some are even quicker than an overnight in the oven. Containers of yogurt can be placed in a pan of hot water (110 degrees) in your oven. If your oven has a very low temperature setting, it can be used for a more consistent temperature and speed the process up.

Yogurt makers can be used. The yogurt can be cultured in jars or containers in a cooler full of warm (110 degrees) water. Containers can be placed, wrapped in towels, in a box with a light bulb, a heating pad can be used, and so on. I think J.’s oven method works great, but don’t be discouraged if this method doesn’t work for you for some reason…delicious homemade yogurt is amazing, and is well worth a bit of experimenting!

Yogurt Cheese: Several dishes can be made from straining yogurt to a cheese like consistency (think of the consistency of goat cheese) and Dannon has a fact sheet to inspire us!

Recipes using yogurt: Be sure to use my search function to search “yogurt” for some of my favorite recipes that include yogurt. It’s wonderful as an addition to many soups instead of sour cream, and I simply love Cacik or Tziki sauce – the wonderful cucumber yogurt sauce used in Gyros. I often substitute yogurt for all or part of the sour cream in dishes, especially in dips and creamy type salad dressings.

Cost Comparison: Although time (really pretty minimal) is used to make the yogurt, and there is some gas/electricity involved, the bulk of the cost is the milk and “starter.” I figure a quart of good quality home-made yogurt is about $1.25. Today a quick search showed pricing on a Dannon quart at about $2.39, almost twice as much as homemade. A more accurate comparison, though would be a Greek yogurt, which is even more expensive.

If you buy your yogurt in little cups on a regular basis, not only are you paying a premium price, (and I hope you’re buying on sale using coupons) but you’re producing a mountain of trash every year! A 5.3 ounce cup of Oikos at Target this week is $1.00…the equivalent of a quart’s worth is around six bucks. Oy. If you ate six cups of Oikos a week for a year, you’d be paying $312.00. If you ate the equivalent of home-made, about a quart a week, the cost would be about $65.00. If you’re a family of four, you could be expecting to pay $1,248 instead of $260. Just sayin’

Keep in mind, the type and amounts of flavoring you use will effect the pricing a bit – be sure to read my notes on flavoring and remember, you can use less to keep to a tight budget or more for the “best ever” flavor and shop for your ingredients in season or on sale…that’s what’s so great about making your own “products,” you can make things just how you like them!

Quality: I mentioned the price and did a couple of comparisons above, but I want to, again, stress quality. This yogurt really is excellent! This yogurt is also wholesome, and is well worth the time investment. It would be a bargain at 4 times the cost!

Thoughts/Comments: I’d love to hear any thoughts or comments! What’s your favorite way to make yogurt and why? What are your best tips? Anything I haven’t covered you’d like to add? I’m very curious if anyone has cultured Soy or Almond milk and how that’s worked out, as well as how they might compare the pricing of home-made organic yogurt to store-bought, and if they’ve noticed much of a difference in how it cultures. Any comments for improving or time-saving?

Have I become “trendy?” I might have to watch myself…Bon Appetit has published 21 Yogurt recipes for Sweet and Savory Fans!  

A little additional information on yogurt (and other) cultures on this website.

7 thoughts on “Simply the Best Yogurt, Ever…

  1. richard

    I use crockpot
    fill removable crockpot insert with whole milk, microwave for 13 or 14 minutes, or until milk is around 115 deg.
    mix a couple of tablespoons of plain yogurt in with the heated milk,
    cover with plastic wrap and cover, put back in crockpot shell and cover wtih blanket, let stand overnight. use as is or strain for greek

    • I used to make the raw milk yogurt (as they call it when the milk isn’t heated to a higher temp first way back in teh 70’s when recipes were passed word of mouth. Very easy and good, and a time honored method – and the microwave is a great shortcut and I can see how the crockpot would hold all that heat. I made mine (fermented) in a cardboard box with heating pad!

      Heating the milk to a higher level of temperature supposedly alters the casien which is supposed to give a thicker yogurt, and I think that’s true. It might not matter how thick it is if you’re straining it anyway. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing the easy way – frankly sometimes I don’t make yogurt because the whole process can be a bit much!!

    • My daughter said when she first started making yogurt, she had to search and search and search to find all the info she really needed – and she was half afraid to try it because she wasn’t sure she had reliable info.

      I just figured I’d try to cover everything I could think of in ONE single blog post.:)

      Given the fact that I’ve heard yogurt was “invented” by nomads carrying around milk in the stomach lining of camels, perhaps I didn’t need to be so thorough…now, what drawer did I put that stomach lining in…

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