The Staggering Greatness of Homemade Yogurt

I don’t like that title but it’s true. As I will explain in a later post you can’t trust commercial yogurt makers to provide much bacteria in their yogurt — they actually seem scared of the stuff. So I made yogurt myself. It turned out a lot better than I expected.

I had made yogurt dozens of times. This time, however, I wanted to get as much bacteria as possible so I incubated it about 24 hours instead of about 6 hours. It came out far more sour (due to lactic acid) than ever before. But it wasn’t just really sour (like vinegar); it also had complexity of flavor, creaminess, and a pleasant consistency. It was more sour (tart and tangy are the conventional terms) than any yogurt I’ve ever had. I couldn’t eat a bowl of it; I had to eat it with other food. This may be why commercial yogurt is mild: So you will/can eat more of it at one time.

The yogurt I made is essentially a condiment, although it can be mixed with fruit. It improves almost anything: soup, meat, fish, fruit, string beans, scrambled eggs. (Because almost nothing we eat is sour and almost nothing we eat is creamy.) It is better than other common condiments, such as mustard and chutney, because of its creaminess. It is also far cheaper than other condiments. A small bottle of mustard might cost $3. The same volume of homemade yogurt would cost about 10 cents. (You might need twice or three times as much yogurt to get the same effect.) It is far easier to make than other condiments. And, above all, I suspect it is infinitely better for your health. Mustard has few bacteria. If you complexify and sour your food with mustard, you are essentially chewing ice.

Because of subsidies, milk in California is extremely cheap. Ordinary milk, to me, is nearly worthless; I never buy it. Now, with little effort, this very cheap product that I have completely ignored is the source of something like liquid gold — at least, if you like good-tasting food and health.

Recipe. I took a gallon of whole milk, mixed it with 2 cups of powdered milk, heated it at about 200 degrees F. for 10-20 minutes (I’m unsure if this step is necessary), cooled it down to 130 degrees F., added 1/2 cup of starter (from other yogurt), and then incubated it in my oven at about 110 degrees F. for about a day. I divided the mixture into four glass containers. Although the lowest possible setting on the oven is “WARM”, which was too hot, the thermostat actually works at lower temperatures. I set it below WARM and used a room thermometer to adjust the setting so that the temperature was about 110 degrees. (The photo above is not mine, incidentally. My yogurt is no longer photogenic.)

Thanks to Saul Sternberg for help with the recipe.

30 Replies to “The Staggering Greatness of Homemade Yogurt”

  1. Given your interest in fermented foods, have you ever read or looked at Bill Mollison’s “The Permaculture Book of Ferment and Human Nutrition”? It’s pretty expensive (and hard to find), but given your interests, I imagine it’d be worthwhile.

  2. I started making yogurt two weeks ago, motivated by wanting to avoid intestinal problems due to eating lactose. An internet-source says that store-purchased yogurt typically contains lactose because it is cultured 4-6 hours, while a 24-hour period will cause the lactose to be eaten by the good bacteria.

    The recipes that I read say to heat to 180 degrees, then cool to 108-112. I tried using the oven but I must not have been adjusting the heat appropriately. Other yogurt makers recommend using a picnic cooler, which is what I use now: put the jar(s) to incubate in the picnic cooler and add a few containers of hot tap water, close the lid, and go find something else to do for 12 to 24 hours.

  3. I tried using the store bought yogurt as starters and was disappointed with the results. Finally, through some friends I got some starter from an Indian family. They have been making yogurt using a starter brought from India over 25 years ago!!

  4. Mustard probably isn’t the best condiment to bag on. IIRC, it’s a strong anti-inflammatory, one of the other pillars of good health. Barbecue sauce would be much worthy of your scorn. Good post though, I’ll have to try this.

    Does fermenting the yogurt longer reduce the overall sugar count as the bacteria eat the lactose, or is converted into some other type of sugar? I’ve noticed store bought yogurt doesn’t seem to have any less carbs than you’d expect from concentrated milk.

    Here’s my favorite way to use yogurt: top some pumpkin with it. Mix vanilla (no sugar added) into the yogurt, then mix the yogurt into the pumpkin. Add one of those pumpkin pie spice blends. Finally mix in and top with shaved coconut. It’s absolutely heavenly.

  5. Heating the milk beforehand kills off any “bad” bacteria that will turn it into spoiled milk after sitting out overnight. So I’ve read. I don’t think it’s necessary to heat it quite that long, though. I’ve made yogurt at home many times, and I just heat up the milk on the stove to the point where little plumes of steam start to rise from the milk, and then immediately remove from the heat and let it cool. That works for me. In addition, I’ve read that it’s good to let the milk cool to 110 or 115 to prevent it from killing any of the good yogurt bacteria from the heat.

  6. Caleb, yes, the bacteria eat the lactose and produce lactic acid. Stuart, another supposed reason to heat the yogurt is to denature the proteins. What happens when I don’t heat it I would like to find out.

  7. My wife made yogurt using an electric heat pad as the heat source. I think she may have heated it on the stove first, but I am not sure. She said she got the recipe from one of the Tightwad Gazette books. Or you could probably google for it.

  8. Seth,
    I’ve made homemade yogurt too, but I couldn’t get it to work in the oven. I tried replacing my oven light with a 100 watt bulb, but that did not keep it warm enough. The next time, I tried setting my oven on it’s lowest temp with the door propped open, but it got too hot, and I ended up with a big pot of custard.

    Enter my Costco HeatDish:

    Too bad I almost burnt the house down. 🙂

  9. I love (soy) yogurt, but what’s with the mustard-hatred? Mustard is made from Brassica seeds and often colored with turmeric. Like many seeds (flax et all), it’s a great tasting source of Omega fats. It probably aids digestion and is thought to increase metabolism. The seeds have been used medicinally since Hippocrates, and are mentioned in the New Testament. How is good yogurt a substitute for mustard? I could see it as a substitute for mayonnaise – (all right-thinking people agree mayonnaise is gross). But no-one is going to put yogurt on their tofu-dog.

  10. The yogurt I made is strong enough to substitute for mustard on a hot dog, I think. It did a great job improving some Mexican blood sausage. From this

    you can see that mustard has too much omega-6 to be a good source of omega-3. Anyway, I don’t think mustard is a significant source of omega-3 in anyone’s diet; we eat it in tiny amounts. I’m not saying mustard is bad; I’m saying strong yogurt is much better.

  11. Bacteria IS good for you. It’s just a few select nasties and human/animal borne germs that are bad for you.

    I’d also like to suggest that environment can also turn friendly bacteria into a killer. E-Coli is a great example. It naturally exists in your colon and serves a very important purpose there, but can kill you if it gets in the wrong location. One of the primary reasons (if not THE primary reason) why coat hanger abortions are so dangerous is because a woman’s uterine wall is extremely close to the large intestine. A coat hanger is usually straight, while the uterus is not. If you puncture that wall, you expose your reproductive system to normally harmless bacteria that will set up shop in a place they shouldn’t and kill you. Similarly, your E-Coli may be your best friend, but your best friend’s E-Coli could be your worst enemy and kill you.

    In college (UC Davis), I remember taking a class called the History of Infectious Diseases where the benefits of bacteria, but also the detriments of living in an environment absent of bacteria, were discussed. A lot of the problems we have with diseases could be avoided by changing our attitude toward bacteria. Although it is probably a necessary evil, antibiotic-resistant, flesh eating Staph infections (a normally harmless bacteria) thrive in hospitals because they are often overly-sterile environments.

    Most interestingly, however, a constant, low-level exposure to bacteria can be a tremendous benefit to your immune system. That yogurt you’re eating doesn’t just contain bacteria, but is a microscopic ecosystem in-and-of-itself. It also often contains harmless (to us) viruses that live off of that bacteria, called bacteriophages. By eating yogurt, you not only strengthen your immune system, you provide your gut and oral cavity with a nice supply of bacteria predators that, unlike antibiotics, will adapt to the bacteria as it changes genetically.

    I can’t help but think that we evolved to take advantage of this. My theory is that this is what the bitter palate is for. It’s essentially our “bacteria detector/regulator.” Fermented foods are often bitter. We naturally like bitter foods. They’re a unique taste and, I think, fascinate our palate. We find them interesting and fun. But our palate can only take so much, so we must enjoy bitterness in moderation. This encourages us to ingest bacteria without having too much.

    Of course, I’m not encouraging us all to eat filthy food, but amusingly, at the end of our last lecture, our professor said “OK guys, now what’s the moral of the story? The next time you drop your sandwich on the floor, wait a few minutes before picking it up.”

  12. Tom, thanks, that’s a very interesting post.

    Benetta, I’m not so sure we usually like bitter tastes (except in alcoholic drinks). What are some examples of fermented foods that are bitter?

  13. “Benetta, I’m not so sure we usually like bitter tastes (except in alcoholic drinks). What are some examples of fermented foods that are bitter? ”

    Yeast extract (marmite/vegemite, for example), miso, and vegetable krauts are all fermented foods with bitter undertones, while kombucha and rejuvelac (raw, fermented, sprouted grain drinks) are two fermented, nonalcoholic drinks that come to mind. Most acidophilus cultures also tend to be bitter.

  14. One thing that worries me, for your sake, is your inclusion of powdered milk. That potentially offsets the benefits of the great bacteria in your homemade yogurt with the hazards of oxidized cholesterol I suggest a search for “damaged cholesterol powdered milk” to look into what has been said about this.

    Most commercial yogurts (also nonfat and low-fat dairy products) contain powdered milk (it is not required to be listed separately from the fluid milk on the label) for added body. It is one way commercial yogurt makers get the stiff body that Americans are used to in yogurt. This consistency is not typical of European yogurt, which is more of a thick drink rather than a spoonable custard. The natural, “Greek-style” yogurt I’ve seen gets its thickness by being strained of some of its whey. (Tasty, but on the other hand, the whey is also good for you.

    Have you considered using a dry starter culture rather than starting with commercial, prepared yogurt? These are available at some natural food stores and online through places like New England Cheesemaking. I haven’t used it, but supposedly it makes homemade yogurt with a lot more body and general oomph than using prepared yogurt does.

    I’m curious as to your thoughts on this.

  15. Thanks for the warning about damaged cholesterol. Left out of your calculations is this: The powdered milk contains lactose. The bacteria need lactose. More lactose, more bacteria. Which is the whole point — getting a lot of bacteria.

    I get my starter from my previous batches of yogurt. How much body and oomph my yogurt has depends heavily on how long I preheat it and how long I let it incubate. I can get plenty of both if I preheat it long enough and let it incubate long enough.

  16. Thanks for your response and for your additional info about your method. I understand you to be saying that the powdered milk is to boost the bacteria, not to add body.

    But now the question is: Is it a good tradeoff to add an ingredient that can potentially hurt you, in order to increase the amount of a beneficial ingredient? I am eager to learn your thoughts.

  17. I’ve been playing around with yogurt making recently, using a few diffrent high end plain yogurts as a starter. They don”t have any problem getting thick enough without any added powdered milk, but they are milder in flavor than what I started with. Cook times have been 8 hours & 12 hrs. I boiled the milk first, thinking it was a sterility issue. The batch I’m working on now I just got hot, so will see. Sure is fun, though.

  18. Hi Seth,

    Recently began making my own home made yogurt and tried your suggestion putting it in soup – excellent!

    One question – my dad told me that doing this means I”m killing off all that bacteria I have carefully grown and kept alive in my yogurt. To test this, I used a meat thermometer to check my soup temp and it’s about 140 degrees when I eat it. I assume this means I am killing off all my probiotics. Is that a concern of yours at all, whether putting it in the soup is killing off the bacteria and nullifying some (if not all) of the effects ? =)

    I am a beginner to this, still learning, so I’m not looking to criticize – I’m looking to learn more information, and that’s why I’m asking.

  19. No, I’m not worried about killing the yogurt bacteria. First, because I doubt that 140 degrees kills them, second, because I believe dead bacteria are also useful, and third, because I eat yogurt by itself.

  20. Help,
    I made whey and curds for the first time. I used organic milk from an aseptic carton and it would not separate in the home, which was very cool. I placed it in my car in a chest on a few warm days and it separated. I placed the separated mixture in the refrigerator without draining. The mixture had no odor, but both the curds and whey taste bitter. I don’t know what either should taste like. Should I toss and start over? Is is useful for purposes other than consumption.


  21. Try adding 2 T. of honey and 2 T. of vanilla to a quart of milk before bringing it to a boil, it makes the best yogurt. I taught at Head Start and every 6 weeks got strep throat. After eating 2 cups of yogurt a day, I no longer got strep throat, even though I was exposed to it constantly.
    The older Salton makers with the 5 cups servings are great, you can find them at thrift stores and yard sales for about $2, so keep looking.

  22. I make my own yogurt using the yogourmet yogurt maker and starter. I normally ferment mine for 24 hours but last time I forgot about it and it fermented for 32 hours. The consistency and taste is great but I’m worried that I may have killed the probiotics in the yogurt and it won’t “work” anymore. Do you have any info on this?

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