We go through a lot of yogurt in our house. I mean a lot. The one who goes through the most is, suprisingly, the person who otherwise eats almost nothing: little Charlotte, my skinny, food-rejecting toddler. Let me repeat: the kid eats almost nothing.
But yogurt? Yes. She will eat as much yogurt as we give her. If there is yogurt in front of her, Charlotte transforms into a curiously bottomless pit.
We go back and forth on how comfortable we are with this. In general, we believe in eating what the rest of the family eats. But we also believe in eating, something that has never come naturally to Charlotte. This is child that after two days of illness looks like knobby-jointed waif, her knees thicker than her thighs. This is a child that can’t wear most elastic-waisted pants in her age, because they simply fall off of her nonexisitent butt. We worry about her, worry about the effect that, say, a particularly virulent stomach bug could have on her nutrition stores and overall well-being. So, yeah. We generally let her eat yogurt in abundance, especially if it is a non-M&M-enhanced brand like Stonyfield Farm or Brown Cow.
Yogurt is simply fermented milk; healthy bacteria (probiotics) are introduced, which curdles the milk and releases lactic acid. From what I understand, this makes yogurt easier for many people to digest than milk, and the increased acid helps fend off pathogens that would spoil milk quickly. All commercially available yogurts include, by definition, the probiotics Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. Other brands add extra cultures. Brown Cow adds L. acidophilus and Bifidus. Stonyfield Farm adds those, plus also L. casei, and L. rhamnosus.
Those healthy bacteria make yogurt wildly healthful. More healthful than I ever realized. I mean, I knew about yogurt’s potential benefits to bone health, its calcium and protein and B-vitamins. But friends, did you know about yogurt’s immune-boosting properties? This shiz is amazing. In one study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Nutrition, lab animals fed a conventional diet with or without lactobacillus casei, one of the “friendly bacteria,” were introduced to S. pneumoniae, a not-so-friendly bacteria (responsible for pneumonia and bacterial meningitis). All groups of animals given lactobacillus casei recovered much more quickly, with significantly less damage, than the control group. Another study, on healthy women in their twenties, showed that these friendly bacteria significantly boosted their T lymphocytes, enhancing their immune response (this was published in the peer-reviewed Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism).
Yogurt is great for other reasons, too. It appears to lower your LDL (think “lousy”) cholesterol and raises your HDL (think “healthy”) cholesterol. It appears to lower one’s risk of colorectal cancer, assist with arthritis healing, protect against ulcers, lower blood pressure, and even freshen your breath. All of that, save for the fresh breath thing, comes from studies published in peer-reviewed journals. So, you know. You don’t have to take my word for it. You have the word of people far, far more credible than I.
But here’s the thing: for all its benefits, I’ve been feeling less and less comfortable every time I buy cartons of this stuff. Yogurt containers have always been hard to recycle (they’re made from #5 plastic). Now that the bottom has dropped out of plastic recycling altogether, I feel like a big ol’ jerk buying so many containers that I know are bound for the landfill. That, combined with my newfound Greatest Depression frugality and my desire to learn some new skills, has got me making yogurt from scratch.
Crazy? Nah. It’s easy. Crazy easy.
Electric yogurt makers allow you to make yogurt without much thought. These aren’t expensive, and it’s possible that I’ll get one in the future. I don’t have one yet, though, and have been able to make yogurt without much problem. Here are the basic steps I use:
1. Heat four cups milk until it froths (185 degrees F).
Real cooks recommend a double-boiler, so your milk doesn’t burn. I don’t have one, so I just stand there and stir. It’s about 5 minutes, no biggie. Most dietitians recommend using low-fat milk; personally, I use whole milk. I find that the whole milk yogurt fills me up much, much more, and for a longer period of time, than low-fat products. (and besides, I’ve become close enough to commenter Anna that I know she’d have strong opinions were I to do it any other way).
2. Cool milk to around 110-degrees F (lukewarm, slightly warmer than body temp).
This takes about an hour or so, with occasional stirring.
3. Take some yogurt “starter,” place into a sterilized bowl, and add your warm milk.
I used Yogourmet starter for my first batch, which I purchased at my local food co-op for $5.69 (that amount contained six envelopes of starter, enough to make six batches from scratch). Just mixed it with a touch of the warm milk until it dissolved before adding the rest of the milk. Since that first time, I learned that I don’t need the fancy freeze-dried starter; I simply need a large dollop of plain yogurt with active cultures. The trick here is that you simply need something with enough live cultures to get the whole process gets moving. If you use yogurt, use plain yogurt that is as fresh as you can find, so you’ve got a good quantity of active live cultures.
Note: it’s very, very important that you don’t add milk that is too hot, or too cold. Too-hot milk will kill the cultures; too-cold milk won’t get anything moving.
4. Keep warm, let sit, let it happen.
If you don’t have a yogurt maker, maintaining the correct level of warmth is the only challenging part. The process works best if the bowl of milk and starter sits at a temperature of about 110-degrees for many hours. An electric yogurt maker guarantees that temperature. Other methods that I’ve heard recommended include:
- let the bowl sit on an electric heating pad
- let it sit overnight in the oven with the light on
- place the bowl in an icebox filled with jars of hot water
Me? I went for a half-assed way, because that, friends, is how I roll. But lo and behold, the half-assed method worked for me, as it so often does. I filled a big pot with warm water, placed the bowl inside the pot (it had a slight rim, so sat beautifully, almost like a double-boiler), and periodically replaced the water in the pot. Here is Merrie talking on the phone to her grandmother, with yogurt fermenting in the foreground:
A couple of notes:
1. I do not recommend letting the bowl sit atop of your woodburning stove, uncovered. When it comes time to blow some air on the waning fire, you will scatter ashes everywhere, making your yogurt taste disturbingly like charred wood.
2. Using the official Half-Assed Method, it took about eight hours for the milk to become fully solid; during the first six hours, the milk stayed very liquidy. “Not working,” I muttered each time I checked it. “Damn, still not working.” And then suddenly, miraculously, “Hey! It’s working! Holy cow, it’s really working!”
3. I’m told you shouldn’t use ultra-pasteurized milk, as that won’t taste as good. I use a local brand of milk.
4. Don’t plan on eating your yogurt right away. Once it becomes yogurt, stick it in the fridge and cool it off. Warm yogurt = not-so-appetizing. Yuck.
5. If you should double the amount of milk, remember to double your yogurt starter. This is common sense; unfortunately, lots of us some of us a couple of us I don’t always have it.
6. Homemade yogurt is thinner than most commercial brands (most commercial brands use pectin or gelatin as thickening agents). It doesn’t bother me, but if it bothers you, you can add some powdered milk to thicken it up.
7. And how does it taste? Terrific, if I do say so myself. Creamy, rich, insanely yummy when mixed with some local honey or maple syrup So good that at my first taste, I was like, “mmm. This is freakin’ dessert!” So good that Charlotte now asks specifically for “Mommy’s yogurt.” So good that I made it again the next day, and then again the next. So good that I might just buy a yogurt maker and make this a part of my daily routine, same as making a pot o’ coffee or putting Merrie’s lunchbox together. Got recommendations as to the perfect yogurt maker? I’m all ears.
Yogurt! So easy! And so good for you! Who knew?
(lots of you did. I didn’t. Now I do. And I’m thrilled).