Monday, February 1, 2010

Week one: yogurt

A while back, on my old blog, I wrote a rhapsodical post on my discovery of Greek yogurt. When I was discussing the post with a friend who was born and raised in Iran, she told me that she routinely makes her own yogurt, and swore that it was really easy. Ever since then, I’ve been itching to give it a try.

I began by perusing recipes online – my standard approach – and printed two that made sense. I can no longer find the one I mostly followed, but here’s the ingredient list:

4 cups of fresh, organic 2% milk
1/3 cup powdered milk
½ cup organic yogurt

When I went to the store, the only dry milk they had was the cereal-box-size, and it was $6, which, go ahead and call me cheap, I didn’t want to spend for a couple of reasons. 1. It’s optional (the recipe explains that dry milk makes the yogurt thicker, quicker). 2. If this experiment goes awry and I don’t start making yogurt on a regular basis, that box of milk will be in my pantry until the end of time. So I picked up regular, liquid milk and a small tub of Fage, which is ridiculously expensive, but has the best flavor of all the yogurts I’ve tried.

A note on the milk: I used skim, because I am trying to be healthier, and I used Oberweis, because it is the best milk in the known universe as well as basically organic without the certification.

The basic idea behind making yogurt is this: Heat the milk, cool it a bit, add the starter yogurt, keep it warm for a while, put it into containers, refrigerate it, strain it if you want Greek-style yogurt. That’s it.

The reality is that you need a thermometer, because you need the milk to reach 170 degrees without boiling. Then, you might want an ice bath, because the milk needs to cool to 110° before you add the yogurt, and that takes a long time if you just wait for it to happen. And if your oven doesn’t have a “warm” setting, you need an incubator or some sort of heating contraption. (One recipe I read suggested placing a heating pad at the bottom of a towel-lined box.)

I had no trouble getting the milk to 170°, as I have an instant-read thermometer and the ability to stand watchfully for ten minutes at a time. The ice bath could easily be rigged by a three-year-old. Adding the starter yogurt was likewise far from difficult (though I recommend using a whisk to break the clumps up). The real problem was keeping the stuff warm.

Ideally, you want your milk-plus-yogurt mixture to stay at 110°. For anywhere from 4 to 12 hours. If your oven goes that low, it’s not a problem. Two days ago, I discovered that my oven does not go that low, but because I’d remembered my Persian friend saying something about towels, I wrapped the pot in several old towels, heated the oven to 170, stuck the bundle in and turned the oven off, but left the light on for warmth.
At this point I was so seized with anxiety that my yogurt would not yogurtify that I immediately started a no-fail dish for which I no longer use a recipe: dal. (Here’s how I make it if you’re interested.)

The yogurt baby, as I came to think of the swaddled pot, went in the oven at 7:50 a.m.; most recipes say it needs to incubate for 4-6 hours. When I unwrapped it at 1:30 p.m. it was slightly thickened, but kind of in weird globs, and so loose as to make me think it needed more time. I put it back in, sans towels this time, goosed the oven to 150 and then turned it off. My logic was this: I’d intentionally used a cast-iron, enameled pot for its superior heat retention. Infusing it with some heat from the outside should give it the additional incubation boost it needed to firm up.

At 3 p.m., unable to sit on my hands any longer, I checked it and found it much firmer, with a bunch of yellowish liquid floating on top. I took this as a good sign because it was exactly like the liquid you get on top of plain or vanilla yogurt when it’s been sitting in the fridge for a while.

Because my goal is Greek-style yogurt, I dumped the whole thing into a strainer lined with paper towels, set into a big pot. At this point I feel obliged to say that yogurt is so disgusting at this stage that I don't even want to describe it, because I like my readers and want them to be happy.

The recipes I read all said that you must refrigerate your yogurt, preferably overnight, before you can consider it fit for consumption, so I made room in the fridge and snuck a taste from a bit left in the pot. The texture was a weird dry-gritty-squishy amalgam, but it tasted like yogurt – another good sign.

About four hours later, I turned the stuff out of the strainer and into an old yogurt tub. It’s very thick and chalky, but the flavor is great (the hubs agrees – I had him taste it). I’ll be giving it another shot, probably with 2% milk and possibly with dry milk – if I can find a non-family-size box. Whatever happens, I’ll write about it here.


justine said...

cool! my mom does this, and I seem to recall she just heats the milk to a simmer, lets it go down, and then does it again maybe? you probably read about this online, but I always wondered why more than once...
she'd leave it in our gas oven off, just pilot light on, for ages and that seemed to do the trick...
sounds like you might want some cheese cloth next time!
also, I think one of those drip cone coffee filters work well, just holes at bottom thingy that sits on a cup?

HMDean said...

It's good to know that letting the milk simmer isn't the kiss of death -- most of what I've read online has said whatever you do, don't let it get anywhere near a boil.

I do have some cheesecloth, somewhere... and I know I have tons of coffee filters.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for the tips!

hippiecoolchick said...

As for keeping it warm -- might the crock pot be of use? As you know I'm a crock pot newbie, but it seems like a good candidate for an experiment!

HMDean said...

I may explore the crock-pot possibilities if the rice cooker method I tried last night doesn't produce the desired result. The key will be the temp -- I have a feeling "low" is hotter than 110. But maybe setting a light timer on it to go on and off a few times would work. Hm...

Brandi said...

I found the same problem when needing dry milk for a recipe that called for 2 Tbsp of the stuff. Here's what you do: find one other cooking enthusiast who needs dry milk, split the enormous box into thirds, and we'll all pay $2 a piece for it.

HMDean said...

Brilliant! Love it! If I can't get the recipe to work without it, I'll commence recruitment efforts.