My mother made yogurt for us when I was growing up and I remember having that as an option for school lunches. Back then I hated being the only one with home-made yogurt in a plastic thermos from home, instead of the regulation peanut butter and jelly on squishy bread. Now I’m having a great time forcing my children into that same role, although these days they’re not the only ones with lunches free of corporate foods.
I stopped buying yogurt in plastic tubs during our first Month Less Plastic last summer, thinking I’d find a yogurt maker with glass containers so we could make our own. Then Liesl of Pioneering the Simple Life brought some of her cultured-in-the-jar yogurt to our first Bainbridge Barter Potluck in the Park. Miss M, my yogurt lover, pronounced it “so much better than the store yogurt!” and I knew I needed to figure out how to make my own, Liesl-style. She has a gas range and uses the heat from the pilot light, cooled down through a pot of water, to provide the heat needed for hers. Since we have an electric range, I don’t have a pilot light handy. I needed a way to heat things up without an official yogurt maker.
As my friend Christine puts it, you need a place as warm as an armpit for the cultures to turn your milk to yogurt. I tried my slow cooker as a water bath for my jars of yogurt, but it was too hot and killed my starter culture off. I tried that a second time, turning the slow cooker on for a few minutes every couple of hours, and that worked. It worked, but it was too fussy. So I used my mother’s method, heating my oven to about 100 degrees F then setting my jars inside on a tray, wrapped with clean cloth diapers to insulate them. I put my batch of would-be yogurt in the oven when I went to bed at 12:30 am, and we had fresh yogurt for breakfast at 8:30 that morning.
These days, I use my friend Holly’s method, stacking my filled jars in my largest cooler next to two half-gallon Mason jars filled with very hot tap water. I fill all the empty space around the jars with cloth diapers and towels then close the lid, putting some heavy items on top to keep it from popping up. Within 6-8 hours, I have fresh yogurt.
Here’s how to make your own yogurt. You’ll need these things:
High-quality fresh milk. Cow’s milk and goat’s milk work perfectly. I’ve heard that coconut, soy, almond, hemp, and other non-mammalian milks can work, too. You may need a bit of thickener for those, something like coconut flour, to make them as thick as dairy yogurt. I’ve been using non-homogenized whole milk to get the cream layer on the top that Miss M loves.
Some yogurt to provide your starter culture. You’ll need a few tablespoons per 1/2 gallon of milk. Your favorite store-bought yogurt with live cultures will work – Read the label to make sure that’s what you’ve got. Then you’ll want to save some of your first batch of home-made yogurt to start your second, and so on.
Clean wide-mouth glass jars with matching lids, any size. I love 4 oz jelly jars for kid-sized and sturdy yogurt to go; larger Mason jars are great to scoop adult servings from.
A spot as warm as an armpit.
Possibly, some clean towels or other thick fabric to insulate your jars.
Here’s what to do:
Heat some milk to scalding. I turn my uncovered pan of milk to 8 out of 10 on my stove’s dial, then hang about watching for that moment when a skin just starts to form on the surface and tiny bubbles gather around the edges. The second that happens, I turn the heat off, move the pan off the burner and leave it to cool to body temperature.
Wait, how much milk should you use? However much you’d like. You can measure the volume of the jars you’d like to fill and heat that quantity of milk, or you can just wing it and find jars to match.
Stir a few tablespoons of your starter yogurt into the cooled milk. Stir very well, so all those active cultures from the yogurt are evenly distributed in the milk. I use a generous 1/4 cup of yogurt for 1/2 gallon of milk.
Pour the milk & starter culture into your clean jars. Leave a bit of room at the top of your jar, so there’s no contact between the yogurt and the lid.
Put the lids on your jars.
Insulate your jars as necessary. Cloth diapers and towels work well for dry locations; a water bath works. too.
Place your filled jars in the warm spot and let them sit for 6 – 12 hours, or until the runny milk has turned into lovely, thick yogurt. You want a spot that’s between 80 – 100 degrees F.
Here are some possible warm places:
- Set your filled jars on a rack in a pot filled to below jar level with warm water. Place this water bath next to the pilot light of your gas range. You may need to set a kettle next to the pilot light, then set your water bath pot so it’s touching the kettle, to keep the pilot light from overheating the water bath.
- Heat your oven to 100 F, then turn the oven off and turn your oven light on. Set your jars on a tray, cover them with a thick layer of cloth, and set the whole thing into the warm oven. Leave the oven light on the whole time, and don’t forget to turn the oven’s heat off!
- Wrap your jars in an electric blanket or heating pad set on low.
- The top of your fridge, the top of your stove with the stove top light on, or next to your computer might be just the right temperature to culture yogurt if you keep the jars insulated.
- Thanks to Holly for this low energy suggestion: Stack your filled jars in a cooler next to one or two jugs filled with hot tap water. Close the cooler’s lid tightly and let your yogurt incubate in peace.
That’s it. No thermometers needed, no measuring required. People have been making yogurt since at least 2000 BCE. Get in touch with your Neolithic ancestors and do it their way, no fancy equipment required (although I admit electricity does make this a bit more predictable).
We like ours with a drizzle of real maple syrup on top. Add whatever you like to yours.
Here’s to yogurt in glass jars! No more yogurt in plastic containers!