I love yogurt. Adore it. I am a bit of a yogurt snob, through years of eating it all. Cheap yogurt from the store is usually exactly what you picked, cheap. There is such a taste difference between yogurts that are made with a thickener and those that are naturally thick because of the quality ingredients.
This may be a complete shocker, but not all yogurt you purchase in the grocery store actually have the great probiotics that are a reward for eating yogurt in the first place. Read your labels carefully. A yogurt made with cultures will clearly name those cultures on the label.
I have had a love/hate relationship with making my own yogurt, which has spread across almost a decade. That decade ago I was a very very frugal stay at home mom. (The frugality at that point was due to necessity, not a life choice) I made as much of our own food as possible, including weekly bread batches, a life of little to no packaged foods or those yummy MSG filled convenience meals such as Hamburger Helper. (I still love that stuff!)
So we faithfully found a yogurt maker on freecycle, and I was ready to go! But it was so gross. I always ended up with grainy runny yogurt. Much too much whey (the clear stuff that will separate out from the yogurt) and just something so wrong with the process. I read webpages about how easy it is to make, heard from my mother in law how easy it is to make, and quickly felt like I was a failure.
Now, a decade later, I make yogurt weekly. Thick, luscious, delicious plain old yogurt. I don't use a yogurt maker. In fact I think that the maker was part of the failure for me.
Here is my recipe, and step by step directions:
1 gallon whole milk(organic if possible). (the whole is important for thickness)
1 cup plain yogurt, (organic) made with real cultures. (I usually buy a large container of Mountain High Plain yogurt when I am starting yogurt again)
1/2 cup powdered milk
tools: a large pot to comfortably heat the gallon of milk, and if possible a second even larger pot to form a double boiler, which will almost eliminate scorching the milk.
Large mason jars with lids, clean (some people sterilize, I have not had a problem not sterilizing them)
a cooler with enough room to easily hold all of your jars.
Step 1: Fill your largest stock pot part way with water, and then set the smaller stock pot, full of your milk, inside of it. Place on stove on high heat for now.
Step 2: From the sink fill up your cooler with about 4 inches of hot water. You are creating a safe place to incubate the yogurt cultures. Put the lid on and just let it get warm and toasty.
Step 3: Stir your milk occasionally. If you do not have the double boiler set up your pan of milk will be directly on the burner, which means you will want to stir often (almost continuously) to prevent too much of your milk from scorching to the bottom of the pan. I would refrain from scraping that funk off the bottom of the pan unless you want those chunks in your yogurt.
Step 4: Set up your clean jars and lids, along with a funnel or any other tools you have to use to get your milk into the jars neatly.
Step 5: Bring your yogurt ( the plain yogurt) out and let it come to room temperature. You are counting on the cultures in this yogurt to spread in your yogurt mixture, and perform the magic of changing your milk into yogurt. Say nice and thankful things to these cultures.
Step 6: You will want to start checking the temperature of your milk about the time some foam starts to form on the top of it. This means it is getting nice and hot. You want to heat the milk in order to alter the protein in the milk, as well as to reduce the separation of the whey from the yogurt. Also, if you are lucky enough to be using raw milk, this process will also kill any bacteria that would compete with the good bacteria cultures. The goal is to heat the milk to 180 degrees.
Step 7: Once the milk reaches 180 degrees, you will want to pull it off of the stove (out of the larger pan if using the double boiler system) and put it in a sink of cold water. (you can skip this and let it cool at room temperature, but I want to finish up at this point so hence the cold water) You will want the milk to cool to the point of 110-120 degrees. I typically get started with the last step at about 125 degrees.
Step 8: Use a cup or so of the milk mixture to completely dissolve the powdered milk. (I read somewhere that this helps make the yogurt thicker. All I know is that once I added the powdered milk my end product was perfect) Once that is completely mixed I then add about 1 cup of the original yogurt to that container of powdered milk and milk,and I whisk completely.
Step 9: When the pot of milk has reached about 115-120 degrees, I quickly mix in my milk/powdered milk/yogurt mixture and whisk thoroughly. I then quickly (so as to not loose heat) pour the final mixture into my jars, seal their lid tightly, and then set them into the cooler with the warm water.
As a last step I check the temp of the water in the cooler. It should be about 110-120 degrees. Too hot and it will not make yummy creamy yogurt. (I find if I leave it too hot then I get more separation from the whey and the yogurt) too cool and it will not be a good environment to culture the yogurt thoroughly. I will sometimes add a bit of the hot water from the larger pan to increase the temp enough. You need enough water to reach the right temp for incubating, but it is ok for the jars to stand or lay in the water.
Now leave it alone! In about 3-4 hours you can just slip a hand in to make sure that it is still warm in the cooler, but the magic has to happen without you.
The trick is the learn how long you want to culture your yogurt. A shorter culture time results in a sweeter taste, but it will get tangier if you culture it longer. I love about 5-6 hours.
Just place the jars in the fridge, and the next day you will have the most lovely, thick, inexpensive and amazing yogurt ever! No matter how wonderful my batch is, there is a normal amount of the clear whey that separates from the yogurt in the jar. I typically pour it off into into the sink from the whole jar, as I really like my yogurt thick. It is ok to just mix it back in to the yogurt if you like a thinner version. (Or save it in a separate jar, and use it to help ferment other veggies and help make yourself wonderful digestive aids/delicious fermented treats like pickles or sauerkraut, etc)
From this point on, you will not have to purchase any more yogurt. The trick is to use restraint and save the last cups worth of yogurt for your next batch. I find that really difficult, because I love eating yogurt and going without makes me sad!
Please, give me feedback if any parts of this is not entirely clear. I tried so very many methods of yogurt making, and this is fail-safe, in my hands anyway. (I ruined many other "fail-safe" methods lol!) I have in the past done this same method without the water in the cooler. I would pack the jars in with towels freshly pulled from the dryer, and put an electric hot pad on top, but honestly the water is much easier to work with,and it seems to hold its temp very well.
OK, go forth, make yogurt,and let me know how you do!
My next How-to will be how to make Kombucha. yuuuuuuuuum! can you say SCOBY?