“I’ve been making or helping to make yogurt since I was about ten years old,” are the first words in “Homemade Yogurt & Kefir: 71 Recipes for Making & Using Probiotic-Rich Ferments” (Storey, $19.95). From there, author Gianaclis Caldwell uses that lifelong expertise to take readers on an illuminating journey through the ins and outs of transforming ordinary milk into velvety, tangy yogurt, minus any help from the folks at Yoplait, Chobani or Dannon.
At a time when sourdough bread starters are all the rage, why not use this shelter-in-place era to master another make-at-home fermented staple?
In a recent phone conversation from her Oregon farm, Caldwell — the author of five other dairy-related titles — discussed the simplicity of the process, the importance of whole milk and common first-time yogurt-making pitfalls.
Q: Why should we be making our own yogurt?
A: There are several reasons. First is the quality, because there’s so much more subtlety and nuance in homemade yogurt. There’s the economics of it, too. And making yogurt gives you an understanding and an appreciation of the effort that goes into artisan, small-batch food production.
Q: Homemade yogurt has been part of your diet for forever, right?
A: My parents were by no means hippies, but they grew their own food. That was important to them. Once we had a cow, we had milk, and then yogurt became a staple. My mom said that I would gorge myself on it. My dad was half-Greek, and the only way that he made it was by draining it, although back then that wasn’t called “Greek” yogurt. When the cartons started coming out in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that yogurt didn’t taste like yogurt to me — it still tasted good, because it had so much sugar in it — but I was definitely spoiled. Then again, all fermenters are spoiled. That’s a little fermentation joke.
Q: The process doesn’t seem terribly complicated. Is it?
A: I grew up making yogurt, and it didn’t seem difficult. To break through, you need to do it successfully once, and that’s when you realize that some of these things just aren’t that difficult. I wasn’t raised to believe that everything came out of a factory. In our history, factories came into the equation only fairly recently. And there are always compromises in factory-made products. Tasting what yogurt should taste like, it’s a revelation.
Q: Is it really just a matter of mixing warmed milk with plain yogurt? No messing with powdered cultures?
A: Yes. Get a carton of a good locally produced yogurt, and use that as a starter. There aren’t that many manufacturers of powdered cultures. Just remember that not all yogurt cultures are probiotic, so if you’re making yogurt for the probiotics, you want to be sure that the carton of yogurt contains probiotics bacteria.
Q: What are the ins and outs of choosing the right milk?
A: I prefer using whole milk, because the fats are important. You get the vitamins to help process the minerals in the milk, and you’ll get a nicer texture for the yogurt. Choose the freshest milk you can buy. If you have the choice, buy non-homogenized. A smaller bottler that sells cream-top milk, that’s nice. Definitely go for organic, for the health of the animal and the quality of the milk. If there’s a small producer following humane practices, that’s even better than going with organic, because organic certification isn’t necessarily geared to small farmers, it’s easier to do on a larger scale.
Q: You raise goats. We’re fortunate to have a goat dairy — Poplar Hill Dairy Goat Farm in Scandia, Minnesota — that distributes milk to many local supermarkets. Do you recommend using goat milk for yogurt?
A: If you like fluid goat milk, then you’ll like goat’s milk yogurt. Commercial goat’s milk yogurts often have thickeners added, and that’s quite acceptable. If it turns out too thin, I’d encourage draining it, because you’ll get a good, thick yogurt, and you’ll also reduce the lactose level, which can make it easier for some people to eat.
Q: Are there any plant-based milks that you recommend?
A: I like using coconut milk the best, but I love coconut. I don’t make it regularly, because there are so many steps in the production (following Caldwell’s “Classic Yogurt” recipe with plant-based milks requires additional steps). Plant milks don’t have lactose, so another sugar is added, and they can’t curdle on their own, so you need to add a thickener. They all turn out, but none of them taste like dairy yogurt; they lack that tang. But, so what? I would do it if I couldn’t eat dairy. I look at plant milk ferments as a whole other food, and not as a substitute. If you keep that in mind, you won’t be disappointed.
Q: You mention thickeners. Do you have one that you prefer?
A: I like tapioca starch the best. It has the least flavor, and creates the nicest results in terms of texture.
Q: Is there a common error made by novice yogurt-makers?
A: It’s probably lack of coagulation after the correct amount of time. The most likely problem is that there wasn’t enough strength in the culture that was being used. Cultures don’t last forever. If you’re using a powdered culture — and some store chains do sell it — it’s often not stored properly. If it’s not stored in the freezer, it will lose its strength much more rapidly.
Q: What about cleaning with sanitizers?
A: You can go overboard with sanitizers, and you’ll end up with residues that negatively affect the ferment, where the cleaner kills the bacteria that you need. When I was a commercial cheesemaker, I was sanitizing all day long. At home, I’m a little more casual. I shoot for “clean.” I use boiling water.
Q: One of your cookbook titles is “Mastering Basic Cheesemaking,” based on your years of commercial cheesemaking. For the uninitiated, is yogurt or cheese your recommended introduction into home-kitchen dairy production?
A: I’d start with whatever product you like to eat the most, because they overlap. If yogurt is drained, it’s virtually the same as chèvre, which is also fermented and drained. You also have to remember that some cheeses — ricotta, paneer — aren’t fermented. If people have made fermented things like wine, or beer, or charcuterie, then they could dive into aged hard cheeses. But remember, there’s a reason that they’re called hard cheeses, and it’s because they’re hard to make.
Q: I’ve seen electric yogurt makers in the $50 range. Does the yogurt-making process require any fancy or expensive equipment?
A: No. It really comes down to using the right milk, introducing the bacteria, and keeping it warm, and that can be accomplished in so many ways. My favorite is using an ice chest with a hot water bottle, that combination will maintain the warmth long enough for fermentation to occur. Folks need to be reminded that these foods are ancient because they happened naturally, and easily. You can turn to that for comfort. Fermented foods are the oldest foods, because they want to happen, naturally.
TIPS FOR MAKING YOGURT
This yogurt recipe contains two ingredients, so consider buying the best locally produced products that your budget allows.
Flavor it up
It’s easy to boost the flavor of plain yogurt. Caldwell suggests adding natural liquid extracts — vanilla, almond, lemon, coconut — to the milk just before you add the culture and incubate, using 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of extract per quart (4 cups) of milk.
Make it a sundae
“Chunks of fresh fruit, jam or marmalade can be stirred into any dairy ferment before or after incubation,” writes Caldwell. “When added earlier in the process, the fruit chunks tend to settle to the bottom, but this can be a beautiful fruit-at-the-bottom or sundae-style presentation in a glass and fun to eat as well. Use 1/2 to 1 cup unsweetened fruit or about 1/4 cup of sweet preserves per quart of milk, or to taste.” Or make a purée: combine 1/2 cup fresh or frozen berries, 1 tablespoon freshly grated orange zest and 2 teaspoons honey in a food processor and pulse until smooth.
Makes 1/2 gallon.
Note: “The simplest incubation chamber, and my go-to, is a small, well-insulated ice chest,” writes Gianaclis Caldwell in “Homemade Yogurt & Kefir.” “Choose one that easily holds your incubation vessel with a little extra room to tuck jugs of warm water and/or towels around the vessel. I place a towel in the bottom of the ice chest, set the vessel in the middle of the towel, and tuck another towel on top and around the vessel. If the room is cool, I fill one or two jars with warm water (one or two degrees above 110 degrees) and add them to the chest. When tucked in like this, yogurt will ferment quite evenly.” Powdered yogurt culture is available online at sources that include culturesforhealth.com and getculture.com.
1/2 gallon dairy milk
1/8 cup fresh plain yogurt with active cultures or 1/8 tsp. powdered yogurt culture (see Note)
In a large stainless steel saucepan over medium heat (or in a large stainless steel double boiler set over gently boiling water), heat the milk to 180 degrees and hold it there for 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let milk cool to 115 degrees.
Add the culture. If using fresh yogurt, combine the yogurt and 1/4 cup of the warm milk in a small bowl and whisk until smooth, then whisk the mixture into the rest of the milk. (If using powdered culture, sprinkle it on top of the milk and let it sit for 1 minute, then whisk it in).
Pour the ferment into a tempered glass jar with a lid. Cover and incubate at 110 degrees for 8 to 12 hours (see Note). Do not stir. Stop the fermentation process by chilling. Place the incubation vessel in cold water (fill the sink with cold tap water, or fill a bowl with ice water) until the yogurt is cool. Move the yogurt to the freezer for 1 to 2 hours, then store in the refrigerator.
Makes 5 to 7 cups.
Note: “Bread is a main ingredient in most traditional gazpachos, but I find that yogurt easily adds a similar body and mouthfeel,” writes Gianaclis Caldwell in “Homemade Yogurt & Kefir.” She based this recipe on one she encountered at Jaleo, a restaurant of José Andres, in Washington, D.C. “It’s hearty enough to be a main course for a dinner party and refreshing and enticing enough to serve in a tiny cup as an amuse-bouche before almost any meal.”
2/3 cup slivered almonds
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 green melon, such as honeydew, diced
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 cups plain yogurt
Green seedless grapes or melon balls, for garnish
In a food processor or blender, combine the almonds, garlic and salt, and process until fine.
Add the melon, olive oil, sherry vinegar, apple cider vinegar and yogurt, and process until smooth and creamy.
Fill a 1-cup measuring cup with ice cubes. Add water to fill the cup. Add ice and water to gazpacho and purée until the ice is dissolved or crushed fine. Divide gazpacho into bowls and garnish with 6 to 8 grapes (cut in half if grapes are large) or melon balls per serving. Gazpacho will keep for about 1 week in the refrigerator.
CLASSIC INDIAN CUCUMBER RAITA
Makes 4 cups.
Note: From “Homemade Yogurt & Kefir.”
4 medium cucumbers, diced
2 green chiles, seeded and finely diced
1 to 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
Handful of mint leaves, finely chopped
2 cups plain yogurt
4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
2-4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a large bowl, combine the cucumbers, chiles, garlic and mint. Stir in the yogurt, olive oil and lemon juice, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours to improve the flavor. Before serving, stir and season as needed. Raita will keep for about 1 week in the refrigerator.
BERRY GOOD SMOOTHIE
Makes about 3 to 4 cups.
Note: From “Homemade Yogurt & Kefir.”
1 cup fresh or frozen berries (any kind)
1 cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon honey, maple syrup, agave nectar or other sweetener
1 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 to 5 dates, optional
1 banana, optional
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon or nutmeg, optional
In a food processor or blender, combine the berries, yogurt, honey (or other sweetener), orange zest, vanilla extract, dates (if using), banana (if using) and cinnamon (or nutmeg, if using), and purée until smooth. To chill, add ice cubes and pulse.