Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Living the Cultured Life (or how to make yogurt)

Today we are going to talk about yogurt, what it is, a little bit about its history, and finishing with how to make it in your home.

Basically yogurt is milk that has been cultured with one or more strains of bacteria. While this thickens the milk it also changes it into an even more healthful food, even when using milk that has been pasteurized and homogenized. While I don’t condone them, even the big corporate owned, name brand yogurts are relatively good for you. For while they are using inferior based products (i.e. non-organic or natural) these bacteria still do their job and make something beneficial for you. Of course, since a quick perusal of the ingredient list shows that most of them contain nuero-toxins and/or other chemicals, I would still advise avoidance.

The word yogurt is Turkish in origin, yoğurt, coming from their word yoğun, meaning thick or dense. There are also several variations of the word in the English speaking world. Yogurt, yoghurt, and yogourt, with yoghourt being a little used alternative, are all accepted forms. (Although my WORD program disagrees).

Cultured milk products have been in use for at least 4,500 years. The first yogurts would have been fermented with wild bacteria, with the oldest mention being attributed to that rascally first-century writer, Pliny the Elder, who wrote that certain nomadic tribes knew how “to thicken milk into a substance with an agreeable acidity”. Throughout the next nineteen centuries there are numerous writings describing yogurt and its “miraculous” abilities. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that it became less and less of a cultural heritage and more of a corporate possession.

Now making yogurt is pretty easy after figuring things out with a little trial and error. First you need a recipe or method. I will explain how we do it here in the Coatney household, but first we will discuss other methods. I have recently done a google search and all the sites that came up seemed to be quite difficult ways of doing it, some using quite a bit of equipment in rooms that looked like they had a very large research grant. Others used yogurt makers, machines that took care of the incubation stage, but why use electricity when it is the same principle and just as easy without it? And sure, you make it at home, but I think it adds a barrier between you and your product while losing a bit of the “homemade” satisfaction.

My first real inklings of making yogurt at home was years ago when my wife mentioned it while reading the book Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, which will one day be a blog on here. Suffice it to say, it is a book about going back to heirloom-type recipes and methods along with the research to support the benefits. We soon picked up a book called Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz —which could almost be called a follow up to the previous, as the author used many of the recipes and ideas as his starting point. Taking Sandor’s yogurt recipe we slowly evolved our own style which will be described below.

The first thing needed to do is talk about what equipment is needed. Most households will have these as they are very basic and if yours doesn’t then investing in them would be worthwhile for more than making yogurt. I use two wide mouth quart jars per batch, but you will want more than this as you will be making a new batch before the last is gone. Sometimes you can find these at thrift stores but the best bet is to buy a case of twelve at your local supermarket, hardware store, or if you must, Wal-Mart. These usually go for eight to twelve dollars a case. Also make sure they have the seal tops and rings, if not they should sell them there separately. Next you need a good two to four quart pot with a lid. We use a Pyrex two quart. The advantage of this is two-fold. It is heavy bottomed so it does not scorch easily, and it is glass, meaning it is see through, giving you a visual element. I can tell when it is ready just by how it looks, without even taking the lid off. You will also want a good ladle with a pour spout. Trust me, the pour spout makes a huge difference, all the milk goes into the jar as opposed to all over the workspace. And remember, a larger ladle means fewer dips, although too large and you will be making more mess. A 4oz would be ideal. Now, no good kitchen should be without a probe, or candy thermometer. This will be used to tell all the various stages of heat until you are able to tell yourself by sight and touch. Last of all is needed a small cooler. Just make sure it will easily hold your two jars without a lot of extra room. (More on why later).

The ingredients are fairly commonplace and should be easy to get. And if you want superior yogurt you must start with superior products. First, whole milk, of the organic variety. If you can get raw then so much the better, but I have yet to try it for yogurt, and the process is slightly different, so I would suggest more research before using it with this recipe. Next is your starter yogurt. Again buy organic. You want plain and one that says “cream on top” or “whole milk”, and also make sure it says “live and active cultures”. This last is very important for without it you would have nothing to work with. A good brand to use that can be found nationally is Brown Cow. Any other ingredients are optional to mix in after the yogurt is finished making such as maple syrup, fruits, or jellies.

The process begins by measuring your milk. I like to do this by filling your quart jar up twice, keeping it about a half inch from the top, and after each pouring in into the pot. Next the milk must be heated. I do mine on a warm spot on the wood stove, but a gas or electric range will work as long as it is on low heat. The milk needs to be brought up to 180˚F very slowly. A good idea is to put a lid on it as the surface will heat quicker and gently stir every so often. Doing this on my woodstove the heat is so even that I don’t need to stir. Another way to tell when it reaches temp is when it just begins to form bubbles, although this is harder to tell if you are stirring. Now it is time to cool the milk. Remove from the heat, setting it in a cool part of your kitchen. Leave the lid on or else a skin will form. I usually check it after an hour and then fifteen minute intervals until it drops to 110˚F. Some recipes call for setting it in an ice bath or cool water, but for me this involves more babysitting as the temp changes quickly. I recommend using the thermometer the first few times and getting a feel for what it feels like by placing your (clean) finger in the milk. It should feel just slightly warmer than water that is being used with yeast for bread making.

When it is getting close you should get everything else together. Bring some water to boil and use it to sterilize the jars, lids, and ladle. Put about a tablespoon of your starter yogurt into each jar. When the milk is at temp ladle it into the jars. Once they are full, put on the lids and rings tightly and shake enough to mix the yogurt in well. Put the jars in the cooler and fill the cooler with very hot water from the tap to just below the rings on the jars. Shut the cooler up and put it somewhere it will not be disturbed for at least twelve hours. I go about twenty-four myself. The bacteria don’t like being moved about during the incubation stage so be careful. Now when the time is up check them and see if they set up. It might not be as thick as you are expecting, but it should be much thicker than milk. All that is left is to enjoy it. And also remember to never use up all you have, save enough for a starter on your next batch and if made often enough so that it doesn’t go bad, then you should be able to keep this strain going indefinitely.

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