Homemade Greek Yogurt

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When made at home, yogurt is an incredible food. Not only is it full of outstanding nutrition, but it is teeming with beneficial bacteria, or probiotics. In our culture today, we assail our intestinal fauna will so many harmful substances, many of us are suffering from ailments related to microbial imbalances – most without even realizing that’s the case!

Yogurt, with its plentiful probiotics, is an excellent way to heal a damaged gut, or to keep a healthy one in good balance.

While organic yogurts purchased at the store are still rather healthful, it’s so easy to make our own, why not? In addition to the method outlined here, you can learn So Much More at GNOWFGLINS’ dairy ecourse.

Why should we make yogurt at home? Because we’ll know exactly what went into it – you know I’m all about that. No preservatives, no antibiotics, no gelatin, no synthetic flavoring agents, no artificial flavors or colors – just milk, and beneficial bacteria.

How long does making yogurt at home take?

I’m not going to lie to you – it takes the better part of a day to make (and then optionally drain) your own yogurt. Fortunately, most of that time is completely passive – you don’t even have to be present.

For my method (outlined below,) you only need to be standing in the kitchen during the heating and inoculation stages. Then, 12 or so hours later, if you’re draining the yogurt to make a Greek-style finished product, you’ll need to pour the yogurt into a cheese bag and hang it up to drain.

The rest of the time, you can be happily doing other stuff – unless watching invisible microbes metabolize your milk and reproduce is your thing, of course.

What kind of yogurt culture should I use?

There are a variety of ways to obtain the starter culture for your homemade yogurt.  The easiest, and perhaps least expensive, is to simply use a bit of previously-made yogurt. This yogurt needs to be plain, without additives, and must be labeled as having live cultures. You can purchase a container of plain, organic yogurt and freeze it into large cubes for future use by using a silicone ice cube tray like this one:

[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”B00395FHRO” locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/31i%2BioqBDxL._SL160_.jpg” width=”160″]

Incidentally, that tray is also awesome for making broth cubes; I use it every time I make broth I won’t be canning. My favorite brands of yogurt used to be Brown Cow, Nancy’s, and Stonyfield. These are gelatin-free (important for vegetarians,) organic, and darned tasty.

However, instead of using pre-made yogurt, my preference is to use a powdered starter – I simply like the taste, consistency, and texture better. Usually, I use those offered by Cultures for Health:

Click her to Make Yogurt at Home

Cultures for Health offers nine different types of yogurt starter, including traditional, mild-flavored, Greek, and various Scandinavian varieties, each with its own charms and traits.

For today’s batch, however, I used Natren’s Yogurt Starter. This is another quality culture, but I’ve come to appreciate Cultures for Health more over time. Cultures for Health offers many varieties of starter cultures, from yogurt, to kombucha, to sourdough.

In the past, I also tried Yogourmet’s Freeze Dried Yogurt Starter, but I didn’t like its flavor or consistency.

What is a powdered yogurt culture? How does it work?

A powdered yogurt starter (or culture) is simply living microorganisms freeze-dried into a state of “hibernation” within a food medium (often dried milk.) When rehydrated, the bacteria immediately resume their usual activities of life, digesting the dairy product and creating delicious yogurt for us, reproducing their little hearts out, and getting ready to populate our gastrointestinal tracts!

What kind of milk works to make homemade yogurt?

Generally, any kind of milk will work, from store-bought skim milk that’s been ultra-pasteurized, to grass-fed, raw, organic, whole milk obtained from a local farm. Cow’s milk works best; however, goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, and other milks will also work. Goat’s milk tends to produce a thinner end product, a drinkable yogurt, unless thickeners such as gelatin are added.

It’s also possible to use full cream to make yogurt, which makes an unbelievably thick, rich, and creamy end product.

Awesome – how do I make my own homemade yogurt?

There are so many ways to make your own yogurt, from commercial yogurt makers to letting it sit in a wrapped-up crock pot or a pre-heated picnic cooler. One of the wonderful things about the process is this: As long as the conditions are right for the bacteria to grow and reproduce, yogurt is going to happen.

There are two chief concerns with making your yogurt – maintaining a clean environment, and maintaining the optimal temperature for the bacteria.

It’s important to keep contamination to a minimum; use clean pots, pans, utensils, holding vessels, bags, thermometers, hands – everything should be clean. If using raw milk, there is less concern about being a perfectionist, as naturally-occurring bacteria in the milk will help protect it from pathogens.

Store-bought milk, however, has been stripped of its healthful bacteria and enzymes, and thus has no natural defense; it must be kept clean to be safe. The yogurt starter will protect the milk once established, but we have to make sure the good guys get a strong foothold before the bad guys do.

I’m going to tell you about my method here, but there are so many others you can research on your own.

I usually start out with either a half-gallon or a whole gallon of raw milk. I pour the fresh, cold milk into a large pot on the stove and heat over medium heat until the milk reaches about 180 degrees Fahrenheit. It needs to stay at that temperature for at least five minutes – not because we’re trying to kill off bacteria, but because we need to denature some of the proteins and enzymes in the milk to make proper yogurt. Most recipes will have a similar method, perhaps varying by a few degrees, or keeping at heat for a longer period of time.

Here’s a dirty little secret, though; sometimes, I don’t heat it much beyond the 115 degrees F needed for inoculation – and it always turns out just fine.  It takes a long time to heat that volume of milk, and then, confoundingly, it takes even longer for it to cool down to a temperature at which it’s safe to add the starter culture.

This time, I was hurrying, and I heated the milk to 117F and called it good.

If you’re following the rules, which may yield a thicker yogurt, keep your pot at medium temperature, stirring occasionally to ensure it’s not scalding on the bottom. Once the milk hits the 180F mark, turn the heat to low, and keep monitoring with a dairy thermometer to keep it within a few degrees of this temperature. It’s very important not to let the milk boil – just keep it right around this mark, adjusting your heat as necessary.

Having an easy-to-read, clip-on-able thermometer with the appropriate temperature range makes things ever so much easier. This one’s pretty good:

[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”B000A3L614″ locale=”us” height=”160″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51YPJZYXEDL._SL160_.jpg” width=”160″]

It’s very important to cool the milk to about 112F before adding the culture – temperatures much higher than that will kill some of our tiny friends, and we don’t want that. We want a nice, cozy temperature to induce happy, romantic little dudes, not enough heat to make them wither and die.

When the milk is approaching your target temperature, take a cup or so and pour it into a medium-sized bowl. The cold cup and bowl should cool it the final few degrees necessary. Take whatever amount of starter is specified by the label (although I like a tangier yogurt, so I generally add at least an additional teaspoon,) and stir it into the milk until there are no clumps – a Flat Whisk works great for this. Take another cup of milk and stir it into the mixture, ensuring there really are no clumps.

You may add some pure flavor extracts at this point, or you may add them after the yogurt is done; vanilla, coffee, hazelnut, almond, and lemon are all fantastic. If you’re going to have additional mix-ins, they should be left until the all other steps have been completed, and the yogurt is ready to be stored. Also, I don’t recommend adding honey until it’s ready to be consumed, as honey has antibiotic properties.

pure flavor extracts

When the bulk of the milk is at about 112F, pour the inoculated milk back into the pot and stir well.

Here, your path can take different turns. You can pour the milk into a commercial yogurt maker, or into a container which will fit into an insulated cooler (which has been preheated by warm water, and which has another jar of warm water inside to help keep things warm,) you can place a crock pot into a gas oven near the pilot light, or on top of a heating vent in your house with blankets piled on top, or any other thing you can think of to keep the milk warm, but not hot. We don’t want it any warmer than 115 degrees F.

If you have a crock pot which has a “warm” setting that you know for certain will stay at or below that temperature, you are in a total winning situation – just pour the milk into the crock pot, set it to “warm,” and walk away for 8 hours. This one looks really promising:

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Since I don’t have a crock pot with a warmer, though, I have typically filled up my large, stoneware crock pot liner with warm water left on the low setting to preheat it. I use a crock pot because it is thicker, and has more insulation than a standard pot, which means it will hold in the heat better. As I’m getting ready to transfer the milk into the crock pot, I turn on the oven to its very lowest setting to preheat for a few minutes.

I pour the hot water out of the crock pot, pour in the inoculated milk, and put the cover on. Then, I wrap it up in either a large, thick bath towel, or a small cotton or wool blanket (any fabric which won’t melt is good, just in case it comes into contact with the hot oven elements.)

Turning off the oven, I place the wrapped-up crock pot on a shelf, trying to make sure the blanket isn’t touching anything scorchingly hot. Then, I close up the door and walk away for anywhere from 8 to 16 hours.  If I think of it, I might turn on the oven for a minute some hours later, to help keep the optimal temperature (but I usually forget, or am sleeping.)

When I come back, the bacteria have done their job – it’s yogurt!

However, I usually perform another step, which leads us to…

My yogurt is too thin – is there a way to make it thicker?

Absolutely. While some of the yogurt’s consistency is dictated by the type of milk used and how much starter culture was introduced, there are two ways to make it thicker:

  1. Let the yogurt culture for a longer period of time. The longer the culture sits, the thicker the yogurt will become. There’s no need to worry about the yogurt “going bad;” you can safely leave the culture at room temperature for several days. This is due to the healthy, thriving bacteria being able to easily overpower any stray bacteria with nefarious intentions who may show up on the scene due to environmental contamination.
  2. Drain the yogurt through fabric. Since I’m using raw, whole milk, my yogurt is usually a bit thinner than I want it to be. The solution is easy – hang it in a cheese bag! I use this one, because it’s a good quality, is large enough to hold a gallon of yogurt, and the fabric is the perfect density to keep the yogurt inside, while still allowing the whey to pass through.

[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”B001D1SD3G” locale=”us” height=”158″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41aenROmZvL._SL160_.jpg” width=”160″]

If you’re at all crafty, you can make your own cheese bag, and you probably don’t need me to tell you how – in a nutshell, select a fabric with a fine weave, and make a drawstring bag of the size you want.

To strain the thin yogurt and make it into a more Greek-like yogurt product, simply place the open cheese bag into a bowl large enough to a.) catch all the whey drippings, and b.) prevent the dripping whey from splashing all over your kitchen counter.

Pour the yogurt into the bag, pull the drawstrings, and hang over the bowl. The longer the yogurt hangs, the thicker it will get – eventually, it will turn into yogurt cheese! I usually hang mine for about two hours, and end up with a fantastic, creamy, thick finished product. You’ll want to hang the bag high enough over the bowl to ensure the bottom won’t be immersed in the whey; I usually hang mine from an overhead cupboard handle.

You can also use a double-thickness of cheesecloth lining a sieve and placed over a bowl, like the video here demonstrates:

Draining yogurt from Ricardo on Vimeo.

As with most homemade products, there’s no One Right Way to do things, and a heck of a lot of wiggle room.

Whenever I make cheese or yogurt, I’m always a bit disappointed by the desired-product-to-leftover-whey ratio; this is especially true of soft cheeses, but drained yogurt also leaves a metric honkload of whey. From a half gallon of our milk, I got the following amounts of whey and yogurt (quart jars shown:)

a jar of whey and a jar of homemade greek yogurt

So, one pint of yogurt, one quart of whey, and a pint “gone” into the ether during the process.

What am I going to do with all that stupid whey?!

Oh, mercy – whey is a wonderful thing! You can use it to get lacto-fermented vegetables going, add it to soups, breads, or sauces, drink it straight or flavored, add it to smoothies, feed it to livestock, or throw it onto the compost pile. It can be frozen in jars or into cubes for easy, long-term storage. The heat of cooking will destroy the living portion of whey, but it still imparts healthful components, and a very nice flavor to any recipe.

Here are 18 ways to use whey.

What else can I do with yogurt except put it into a bowl?

If you’ve drained your yogurt, you can use it as a really awesome sour cream substitute. With all types, you can make it into tzatziki, put it on top of hot breakfast cereals, or put it into smoothies.  You can use it as a meat and vegetable marinade, make it into salad dressing, or turn it into a dip.

You can use it for potato salad, egg salad, and cheesecake.

And, of course, you can turn it into frozen yogurt using an ice cream maker like ours!

This yogurt should keep for at least two weeks in the fridge.

So, what have we learned today? Why, we learned how to make homemade yogurt from start to finish, including selecting the base components.

If you’ve thought about making yogurt at home, but haven’t taken the plunge yet, consider this your formal, engraved, written invitation! I’m really not kidding when I say it’s easy. Let me know how it goes, or if you’re a yogurt-making expert, what your favorite method, culture, and additions are.

AND, tune in next time for “Yogurt: A Cautionary Tale,” wherein a am a total flipping idiot.


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2 responses to Homemade Greek Yogurt

  1. This is a fantastic write-up, Erin. Our new crock pot does have a warm function, but I’ve never tested the temperature. I’ll have to test it.

    It took a few tries, but I think I’ve finally got a fairly consistent recipe. Each week I start with about 3 quarts of low-fat milk. I follow basically the same approach as you, letting it sit for about 14 hours. At least with the culture/quantities I’m using, this seems to produce about the right consistency/flavor. I strain out about 1 quart of whey, and the remaining half gallon is a mild greek yogurt, just a touch on the thin side.

    Your site (and your clients’ sites) have been a real inspiration. My weekend routine now includes making dough/bread for the week, yogurt, and often a jar of lacto-fermented veggies. It only takes an hour or two of active work, and I feel much better eating more real food. It’s also saving us a lot of money. So thanks!

    • Erin D.

      Aw shucks… you just made my day! Like, really really made it. 🙂 I’m glad you’re finding this site and my customers’ helpful – that’s the whole reason we’re doing it.

      Which cultures are you using for your yogurt? I’m always looking for new stuff to try.

      It’s great you’ve gotten into your weekend routines – I know Millie (Real Food for Less Money) would be proud!

      Thanks for letting us know we’re helping. 🙂

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