Back in the olden days, also known as the 80s, my mom and fellow pioneer homeschoolers in our little Louisiana town discovered homemade yogurt. My mom was part of a health food co-op and made us kids eat things like whole-wheat spaghetti and unsalted peanut butter. They were interesting times. Homemade yogurt was the exception because it was delicious. We loved it when she made a big batch.
There were a few brands of flavored yogurt available at the grocery store then but it was expensive and mom was making her grocery money stretch to feed all of us. I make quite a few of her recipes we grew up on because they help me stretch my own grocery money. Cornbread Pie is one of those recipes. Homemade yogurt is another.
Demystifying Homemade Yogurt
Yogurt is made of milk and a starter culture. The simplest starter culture is a small container of plain yogurt with live active cultures. I’ve yet to find a plain yogurt that didn’t have live active cultures on the label so it’s pretty easy to acquire. You can also buy dried yogurt starters at health food stores or reuse part of your previous batch. We go through ours pretty quickly so I just buy a fresh starter each time.
You can use any milk you prefer. I’ve only made yogurt with cow’s milk so that’s what I’ll be referring to in my recipe. Method is actually a better word than recipe. All you need is to follow the simple steps in this method and you’ll be making your own fabulous yogurt.
I do use pasturized milk instead of raw milk. Raw milk has enzymes in it that can make it difficult to get consistent results. You will be heating the milk anyway so you wouldn’t be getting of the benefits of the raw milk. Below you can see the brand of milk I like to use and the yogurt starter package. The jars of yogurt are behind the milk bottles. This brand consistently produces thick mild yogurt so I’m sticking with it.
A Flexible Process
Over the years I’ve had phases of making yogurt and then for a while I would buy it. It depends on how much time and energy you have for extra cooking and homemaking tasks. I’ve found that, like baking bread, once you get the method down it’s not much effort and you can easily fit it into your day. It is something that requires being home for a few hours but it’s very flexible process.
Low-Waste and Low-Cost
Since I’m feeding so many people and they all enjoy yogurt with my Maple Granola or in a smoothie, we were going through a lot of yogurt and throwing out a lot of plastic containers. The brands available to me are sold in containers that can’t be recycled and we have been trying to reduce our waste. Because of that and cost I added yogurt back into my monthly routine. There are the milk and yogurt containers to recycle but it’s far less waste than before.
I prefer whole milk yogurt and the cost of that in the quantity I need was really adding up. With the brand of milk I buy, the cost of 4 quarts of yogurt is $9. The cheapest source of whole-milk plain yogurt in my area would be over $12 for the same quantity. If I used the lowest cost milk the cost would be under $5 for 4 quarts.
Common Yogurt Methods
If you look into making yogurt you will find a lot of confusing instructions and unnecessary equipment is recommended. There are thermometers, special incubators, insulators, and so on. The milk and starter has to stay at a warm temperature for several hours and I’ve seen people recommend lots of creative things. Heating pads, ice chests, thick towels, blankets, big pots of hot water, and Instant Pots are all common methods of keeping the cultured milk warm. I’ve tried most of these and found them to be a hassle and not very effective. Over the years I’ve landed on my current method and it works great.
Simple Method Homemade Yogurt
Your first step is to heat the milk slowly in a pot over low heat. You can use any quantity of milk you want. I make a gallon at a time but you may only need a quart. Use the quantity of milk you need and know it will be just a bit more in volume because of the yogurt culture.
I set the milk over low heat in a heavy pot with the lid on and heat it over the span of a few hours. Occasionally when I’m in the kitchen I feel the outside of the pot and see if it’s hot yet. When it’s too hot to keep your hand on the pot for more than 5 seconds you have the correct temperature. Lift the lid and check for tiny bubbles around the edge of the pot. You don’t want the milk to scald or boil. What you’re looking for if the milk to be hot and have some tiny bubbles around the edge.
Cooling the Milk
Now it’s time to cool the milk. I switch the heat off and leave the pot right there with the lid on. It takes several hours to cool enough to put the yogurt culture in so it can sit there without any attention from you for a while. I set my yogurt starter culture out on the counter to come to room temperature at this point. This is also when I round up my jars and lids so everything is ready.
Periodically I check the temperature on the outside of the pot when I’m in the kitchen. You are needing it to be warm enough to keep your hand on the pot comfortably for at least 20 seconds. I’ve had success with my yogurt even when it’s cooled close to room temperature. Remember it’s a method not an exact science.
You can stir the milk to cool it faster but I generally just forget it for a few hours. I feel like it’s best to keep the lid on and not risk getting anything in the milk.
Adding the Culture
Your yogurt starter culture should be room temperature by now. When the milk is cooled, whisk in the culture. I add in the yogurt I’m using for my culture and stir slowly with a whisk. You could ladle some warm milk into a liquid measuring cup and whisk the culture into that before adding it to the pot of milk to make sure it’s mixed well. I’m going for simple so I just scoop all the culture into the warm milk and whisk slowly. You don’t want to whisk in a lot of bubbles or make foam. It wouldn’t hurt anything but it makes it messier to pour.
For my 4 quarts of yogurt I use a 5.3 ounce container. There are lots of recommended amounts of culture to add and warnings about adding too little or too much. I’ve not found it to make that much difference. There are a little under 10 tablespoons of yogurt in the 5.3 ounce container so if you were making one quart of yogurt you could add 2 and 1/2 tablespoons to your milk.
The live yogurt cultures are mainly lactobacillus bulgaricus and the warm milk gives it the perfect environment to grow and culture the whole containter of milk. If you have a bit more culture it’s going to culture, or “yog” as I call it, faster. If you had less than 2 and 1/2 tablespoons per quart it may take longer to set. Again, it’s flexible and not an exact science.
Pouring up the Milk
I make my yogurt in wide mouth canning jars because I have a ton of them and it’s perfect for storing the finished yogurt. You can use any container you prefer but I would recommend using something you can store the yogurt in. Again, simple!
Carefully pour the milk and culture into your jars or containers. I always spill it hence the glass measuring cup in the photo below. Usually I spill it anyway so just do the best you can. Each jar gets a lid and after cleaning up the spilled milk I set it on a towel lined tray ready to incubate. The towel is mostly for looks but it makes me feel homey so I use it.
Time to Incubate!
As I mentioned above, there are many ideas on how to provide a consistently warm environment for your yogurt to incubate or culture. I’ve tried many of them and now I just set the jars of milk on a towel lined tray in my oven with the oven light on. We have an electric oven so there’s no pilot light. If you have a gas oven with a pilot light that would work well too. The light provides the perfect amount of heat to incubate the culture in 6 to 8 hours.
Typically I aim to get the yogurt in the oven before bed and it’s finished when I get up in the morning. Anywhere from 6 to 12 hours should do it for your yogurt. Typically the longer the yogurt incubates the tarter the finished yogurt will be. When it’s finished just set it on the countertop to cool then store in the fridge.
One word of caution on using the oven. I have a note that says “Yogurt in Oven!” that I put over the oven control panel while it’s incubating. There’s nothing fun about having someone preheat your oven and ruin a whole gallon of yogurt!
If by chance your yogurt turns out runny, grainy, or has an odd texture it’s still fine to eat. That’s the perfect time for smoothies or a cake using yogurt. You can also strain it through paper towels or a coffee filter in a sieve to make it thicker. When my yogurt doesn’t turn out perfect, I use up that batch and make a new one. You will find the best way to make it your own and the brand of milk and culture you prefer with time.
There’s so much you can do with your fresh delicious yogurt! As I mentioned we mainly eat it for breakfast or a snack with Maple Granola, fruit as you see below, or in a smoothie. It makes great tzatziki sauce to go with Greek food or to serve with Indian dishes. I have a lemon yogurt cake recipe that’s divine. Be creative and see all the ways you can use homemade yogurt!