Yogurt is so pervasive and commonplace, you may not realize that Dannon first started marketing it aggressively in the United States only in the mid-seventies! The first commercials suggested that yogurt was the secret to longevity among Soviet centenarians. Since then, yogurt has exploded in America as a “health food” with specialty brands targeting children and babies and of course, “functional food” brands sold with claims that they help to regulate your digestive system when eaten three times a day. Not surprisingly, those specialty brands also carry a premium price but you should know there’s actually nothing special about the strain of live cultures they contain. In 2010, Dannon was forced to pay out $21MM to the Federal Trade Commission for false advertising that touted the medicinal-style claims for its Activia brand.
If you’ve read my book, you know my only “diet plan” is eating whole, natural, and simple and avoiding processed food as much as possible. I love plain, natural yogurt but as Greek style, kid food, “digestive” brands, and dessert flavors have taken over the yogurt section of the dairy aisle, it’s been more difficult to get the plain yogurt that contains the beneficial live cultures without lots of junk thrown in. With a bit of research, I found out it’s easier than you might think to make your own yogurt at home! You know exactly what’s in it, you can adjust it to your own tastes, you get active, live cultures, and it costs a LOT less especially now that yogurt has become so trendy.
So many premium-priced yogurts are on the market now that we’ve lost sight of what makes it such an excellent, health-supporting food. You can capture the real benefits by making your own yogurt with heirloom reusable cultures. These are cultures of good bacteria that remain alive and continue to grow as a colony indefinitely. Make a batch of yogurt at least once a week and these cultures can last for years, actually getting stronger! They keep your digestive tract clean and facilitate the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. These heirloom cultures are NOT what’s in commercial yogurt! Remember when you see Activia commercials making claims that it “regulates your digestive system” that it’s live cultures and NOT anything special or unique to Activia. The commercials can make certain statements because they apply to ALL yogurts with active cultures.
I got started with a traditional heirloom Bulgarian yogurt starter from Culturesforhealth.com.
Step by step, here’s how to do it—
You’ll need a small crockpot/slow cooker, a thermometer you can use with liquid, and a measuring cup. To give it a try with a practice batch, you’ll need to pick up some PLAIN yogurt that contains live cultures. It’s so hard to find anymore, you may need to go to a Whole Foods or your local natural foods store. “Mountain High” brand can sometimes be found in mass market grocery chains. Look around, one of the few “real deal” yogurts is now exiled to the far corners of the dairy case as a low-end brand! It only comes in bulk tubs but it’s the last time you might have to buy yogurt!
To make a quart of yogurt, I start with skim milk and a small crockpot. You can find this model on Amazon for just $11.99. I’ve also seen it at the Target in my area. Pour four cups of milk into the crock.
First thing to do, turn on the light in your oven. Just do it, we’ll come back to this.
Put a thermometer in the milk and set the slow cooker to LOW. I don’t use a fancy thermometer but it is the right kind for liquid; it’s not a meat thermometer. I use some rolled up plastic wrap to seal up the open space under the lid. It works fine! Let the milk warm up to 160° to 180°. Some starters require 180° but the one I’m using works at 160°.
Don’t go any higher than 180°. It will take a few hours to reach the right temperature. When it’s heated up, turn off the heat, remove the crock from the heating unit and remove the cover. Leave the thermometer in and let the milk cool to 110°. It will get there pretty quickly, so keep an eye on it!
After cooling, it’s time to add the live cultures. If you’re using a starter, you add it now. If you’re using plain yogurt, you add a tablespoon for each cup of milk. Dip some warm milk out of the crock and mix it well with the starter or yogurt. Pour the cultured milk back in the crock and stir it well.
Remember when you put on the oven light? It’s going to be nice and toasty in there by now. Put the thermometer back into the milk, cover the crock, and put it in the back corner of your oven, under the light. The milk needs to “incubate” for about six to seven hours. If you’re using a starter, the instructions may recommend as much as 12 hours. The light in your oven should keep the milk warm at about 100° to 115°. Keep an eye on the temperature; it can’t go any higher than 115° or it will kill the live cultures. Some ovens can be pretty warm inside with just the light so you might want to check the temperature first. I tried the heating procedure with water and found that my oven maintains a steady 110° under the light. Perfect!
After the yogurt has set, remove it from the oven and let it cool at room temperature for about 90 minutes to two hours. This brings the culturing to a stop. Then put it in the fridge and let it chill! Mine comes out with actual curds and whey on the top, separated from the yogurt. You know that watery stuff that separates out of yogurt after you’ve opened the container? That’s whey. It’s pure protein and yes it’s the whey that protein powders and drinks are made of. The curds are easily skimmed off; the stuff has a light cottage cheese-y taste. I pour off the whey as I prefer less liquid in yogurt. Sometimes I keep some of it to drink; it has the sour tangy taste you associate with yogurt.
First thing to do! If you used an heirloom culture, spoon out a portion to set aside in the fridge to use as the culturing agent for the next batch! Use it within no more than a week and your cultures should remain live! Once you activate your own cultures, you never have to buy yogurt again and milk is certainly cheaper!
If you’re interested in trying home yogurt making, visit Cultures For Health online. You’ll find the heirloom, reusable yogurt cultures as well as cultures that work at room temperature and with non-dairy milks!
With a little cheesecloth straining, the Bulgarian culture makes a well-bodied yogurt with a taste between regular plain and a slight tang like Greek.
I’m also making the yogurt that cultures at room temperature. Here’s some “Villi” yogurt culturing.
It comes out with a nicely delicate taste and it’s super easy to make. Just leave it on the counter for 24 to 48 hours then chill.
I really enjoy making my own yogurt. I know exactly what’s in it, it’s much cheaper, and I know I’m getting the best quality active cultures. I hope I can keep mine alive for years to come!