Friday, October 1, 2010

Yogurt, Homemade a la Me!

When we decode a cookbook, every one of us is a practicing chemist. Cooking is really the oldest, most basic application of physical and chemical forces to natural materials. ~Arthur E. Grosser

Everyone who knows me, even just a little, knows I dislike to cook in general. I am the type of person who would rather chop it up to juice, blend into a smoothie, or toss it in a salad. I do like to bake and I particularly like the challenge of baking with sourdough, as it is really an art. Perhaps I like preparing food only if resembles a chemistry experiment in my kitchen, because I have this growing enjoyment for the challenge of making dairy products from milk. I would like to have some Nubian milk goats for milk, but being in a subdivision, that is just not possible, so I buy raw cow milk from a farm about 25 minutes away, usually getting eight gallons at a time and freezing them to thaw each as needed.

My latest experiments have been with making homemade yogurt in a slow cooker. You see, we really like our yogurt, the Princess and I and, yes, even my husband. The Princess has eaten it since she was a baby; even now she and I both have it most mornings with granola and sometimes fruit. My husband and I use it in cooking and baking as a substitute for butter, sour cream, or buttermilk. We use it on Belgium waffles and pancakes. I add it to the dry cheese mix for mac and cheese from the box! (Yeah, we do have some of those processed, boxed, convenience foods, but they are organic too at least.)

Yogurt never goes to waste here and we go through quite a bit of it, in fact we practically consume some yogurt every day. The volume of yogurt we use is why it is one of the items I thought I might be able to save some money making it myself. Stonyfield Organic Cream Top (Whole Milk) Yogurt in a 32 ounce container at my favorite health food store retails for $4.09. I get a discount being a member of the co-op and a writer for their newspaper that brings the cost down to $3.28 without any sales or coupons, which is close to the price I would get it at a discount super store like Target or Walmart. On the Stonyfield website, I can usually get a coupon for 50¢ off, but my co-op store does not accept printed coupons; while the other stores do, unfortunately that is also just one more stop and those discount stores closest to where we live usually only have the lowfat, while I prefer whole milk yogurt. For some reason, lowfat just does not have the "body" that whole milk yogurt does—actually, it has the look and feel of white gelatin to me—which is probably why people prefer fruit or other flavors as added sweeteners. Good whole milk yogurt is a pleasure to eat all by itself.

I researched the many suggestions of making homemade yogurt in a slow cooker on the Internet. I have read that if I wanted it nice and thick, as is the favorite consistency in my part of the world, that I would need to either add powered milk or strain it some, so I chose the powdered milk, but that is a rather costly item in organic form actually. To date, I have made four attempts to turn raw milk into yogurt.

I tested my small slow cooker to see what temperatures it would maintain water at the lowest setting and I thought I could use it. It is not a "crock pot" in the traditional sense, but rather a more like a rectangular metal pot on top of a griddle and I would have more control with the temperature settings than a regular crockpot. Three mason jars fit inside so I decided to do a water bath kind of thing with the yogurt in each jar. I placed the probe of a digital temperature gauge in one of the jars.

Now there are two main schools of thought about making yogurt from raw milk. One is to heat it to 180°F to purposely kill off all the natural, favorable cultures so that the cultures added from a yogurt are not in competition; all the cultures in the milk have the same goal, to digest the milk. (Yeah, basically what makes yogurt and raw milk so healthy is that you are eating microscopic creatures that are eating the milk or predigesting it to a better form for you to digest. Weird, I know, but that is one of the wonders of God's creation.) Then the milk is allowed to cool to just under 120°F before adding the active yogurt cultures.

The other method, which is less common, has the milk just heated to 110°-120°F which encourages the yogurt culture to grow. Reportedly, this makes for a thinner consistency because the other cultures are also still active and working to break down the milk so the yogurt culture does not get a good running start on the food source.

Regardless of which method used, afterward it is a matter of maintaining the temperature of the milk at about 110°F for several hours and that is tricky part since I do not have a yogurt maker: they do this automatically. People have made this stuff for centuries without all the fancy equipment so I should be able to do this, right? Plus, I wanted to make it in large batches or else I would be making yogurt every other day and one of the advantages of yogurt is that it lasts a long time.

Being a raw milk advocate, I decided on the less common method and added a bit of powdered milk to thicken it. I checked the temperature often during the day and found that I had to move the jars around as one area tended to get hotter than another. The first batch seem thin but I thought it might thicken when refrigerated. It did but it was about the consistency of a smoothie, not as thick as I like. The taste was nice, mild and buttery, and it was great with granola.

The second time, I added a bit more powdered milk as most suggested. The temperature at one point was a bit too high and what I ended up with was edible but separated into a soft feta-type cheese and whey.

The biggest problem with the water bath in a crock pot method was keeping the temperature consistent without getting it too hot, which meant I had to check it nearly every thirty minutes or be close to hear the warning from the digital temperature gauge, which does not work well when we are working on lessons in another part of the house.

I decided to try the all out crockpot method. Into a large crockpot we had just brought at a great deal, I poured in an entire gallon of milk adding some powdered milk, this time heating it to 180°F and then letting it cool before adding some yogurt with active cultures. It took nearly three hours to cool to 120°F. I ladled some of the milk out and mixed in the yogurt culture in it before mixing it with the remaining the milk in the crockpot. This lowered the temperature to just above 110°F. At that point, I wrapped the crockpot with large thick bath towels to keep it warm overnight. In the morning I had a thin yogurt, perhaps a bit thicker than my very first batch, but still not scoopable. In the refrigerater, it thicken a bit but it was still not the consistency I wanted.

This week I tried it again starting out as I did the last time, adding even less powdered milk and less yogurt as I was thinking this is like feeding my sourdough starter, so I planned to have more patience and give the yogurt cultures more time to multiply themselves. In the morning I checked the temperature and it was 93°F. I stirred it and found it was the same consistency I had previously and noticing it was thicker around bottom and sides of the crockpot. I then again wrapped the towels around the crockpot and set it to "warm" for just a few minutes, basically just until the outside was warm, and then I turned it off. Several minutes later the temperature of the yogurt had risen to just under 110°F. The towels really kept the temperature well as I checked it a few times during the day and turned it on warm for a few minutes just twice. Nearly 24 hours after I began, I decided that it looked about the consistency of the previous batch after it had been refrigerated so maybe...?

Yes, this batch was perfect!

Thankfully, it took far less fussing on my part too. I think I am going to try it without any powdered milk next time, because I added so little that I really do not think it helped much at all. I may even try the "keeping it raw" method using this crockpot-towel wrap method and just give it more time to see how that works in a smaller batch.

I began this venture thinking I might save about half of my costs and that probably would be close if I did not get my writer's discount. We buy raw milk at the farm for $6 a gallon; it is not certified organic, but I know the farm and they could probably pass the certification if they wanted to spend the money to get it. So, if the powdered milk is unnecessary, I can make a gallon of yogurt for $6 plus the cost of a bit of electricity to warm, hot water to wash, gasoline cost and car cost split on eight gallons of milk per trip to the farm, and other regular household stuff, which would be difficult to break down and figure, so an estimate will have to do. A gallon of homemade would be maybe $8.00 to $8.50 compared to Stonyfield for $13.12. A gallon of yogurt in my home gets used up in two to four weeks, so on average we are saving about $5 every three weeks or about $85 a year (although I suppose if I can make room in my freezer that I could get two to four more gallons at time to cut the travel costs) and we save about that much with making my own sourdough breads too.

I guess that is not much, but it is just enough to make it worthwhile it to me.

~ My Lord, such wondrous things You have made. The tiniest of creatures do amazing things, some so beneficial to us! I thank you that I am able to purchase raw milk, learn about its amazing qualities, and experiment with it. ~


  1. Ok, you get the gold star for determination on this one! Honestly I'd have given up after the first two batches didn't come out the way I wanted them. I love to cook and bake, but I have no patience for long cooking things short of throwing it in the crock pot and turning it on till supper. Though homemade yogurt does sound yummy and probably cheaper than my yoplait thick and creamy at .50 per 6 oz container. I don't know if it could be made with pasturized milk though...

  2. Actually, Birbitt, pasteurized milk can be used, even powdered milk, so I read! I think it is recommended to use the heat method with both. Now as to what is cheapest organically, that is a toss up but I usually do not buy pasteurized organic milk because we do not drink it and it spoils, unlike raw milk that simply sours or clabbers, which is still an edible state.

    The crockpot method I use now is pretty hands off because you let it alone as you sleep and heat it up a bit in the morning and then maybe in the afternoon if necessary--just a couple of checks during the day really. You also can pick any yogurt of your choosing to get it started. I just have been buying Stonyfield for years and I like that it has six different cultures.


Thank you fellow travelers for walking and talking with me along this journey.