Lactobacillus love: Is it wrong?

I never cared much for yogurt. It generally seemed too sour to me, unless it was turned into tzatziki sauce on a gyro sandwich.

Apparently I just never had the right kind of yogurt.

I’d heard that the homemade version was better than the commercial kind. I’d also read about people making yogurt in a slow cooker. After looking online for instructions I settled on a slight variation of the process described at A Year of Slow Cooking.

And then I improved on it.

It’s time-consuming but very simple:

  • Heat two quarts of milk to 185 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Cool to between 105 and 110 degrees
  • Pour 2 cups of the milk into a bowl and whisk in ½ cup of an active-culture yogurt; put that mixture and the rest of the milk into a slow cooker and stir to combine
  • Put the lid on and wrap the entire slow cooker in a heavy bath towel to insulate
  • Place it atop a heating pad set on “low” and let it stand for six hours or so

I start it first thing in the morning and by mid- to late-afternoon I’ve got two quarts of yogurt.

In theory.

No whey!

Most commercial yogurts use some sort of thickening agent, such as pectin. Homemade yogurt is somewhat thinner, and a little tangier than I’d like. It would be great for smoothies, but I wanted to eat the stuff from a dish. Without wincing.

The author, Stephanie O’Dea, suggests creating “a Greek-style yogurt” by straining the product through a coffee-filter-lined colander. I use a flour-sack towel from the dollar store instead, since it’s washable vs. disposable. (It’s the same towel I used to strain the grapes that I gleaned from a neighboring fence.)

I stretch the towel across a spatter screen (the kind you put over a skillet when frying bacon or burgers) and secure it with clips, then set the screen over a 13-by-9-inch pan. After 20 or 25 minutes in the fridge much of the whey has dripped into the pan, leaving a thick, creamy and milder-tasting yogurt. Ultimately I end up with a little over one and one-half quarts of finished product.

It’s delicious: rich, smooth and not at all sour, although a subtle tang remains. It’s wonderful with fruit – as good as ice cream, but healthier. I’ve had it with sliced bananas, applesauce (made from a 99-cent bag of “manager’s special” fruit), homemade jams, and gleaned, stewed rhubarb. This summer I’m looking forward to eating it with free blackberries.

A dollop makes baked potatoes quite tasty. Mixed with salsa, it made a nice sauce for a side dish of pinto beans.

Yes, whey

Throwing out the separated liquid seemed like a bad idea. Why waste all that whey protein?

Thus far I’ve poured it into soup stock, chili and spaghetti sauce. Each morning I fix my super-easy, super-cheap oatmeal with half water and half whey. The flavor is yogurty, but not at all sour.

I’m hoping to make yogurt while in Anchorage, using a slow cooker borrowed from my niece. Milk here is more expensive thanks to the Alaska gouge, so I’ll watch for sales and/or close-dated moo juice. In Seattle, I’ve paid as little as $1.25 per half-gallon. Initially I had to buy a container of yogurt for starter; after that, I just saved half a cup from each batch. (Note: The starter doesn’t have to be strained.)

I’m delighted to have found a palatable way to get more calcium in my diet. I don’t like to drink milk, and I don’t often eat spinach, mustard greens, tofu, canned salmon or other high-calcium foods. Despite a daily supplement, I’m concerned about my teeth and bones. The probiotic benefits of yogurt are a plus, too.

If you’ve got the time, I’d strongly suggest firing up your own slow cooker. You can paint this as an eco-friendly move: How many little plastic containers are you throwing away each month?

Or you can look at it as a frugal hack. I got a quart of high-quality product for $1.25 or so. How much are you paying per cup or carton?

I haven’t tried making my own tzatziki yet. But give me time and a few cucumbers and I probably will.


21 Comments

  1. DH enjoys making yogurt and cheeses. I enjoy eating them. It works out!

  2. Thanks for “test driving” the instructions and adding new tips. I think one thing needs to explicitly stated, though: the milk used for making yogurt *must not* be the ultra-pasteurized variety.

    With the exception of specialty types of milk (such as lactose-reduced products or non-cow sourced) most milk available at the store is OK to use for making yogurt. Those of us who can’t or shouldn’t consume cow’s milk products, though, may have a few problems with making our own yogurt. I’ve only seen goat’s milk that’s been ultra-pasteurized at my local stores, so I’m stuck buying the expensive, pre-made goat’s milk yogurt. :-(

    (NB: To those that are lactose-intolerant, you should be able to eat yogurt since the lactose has already been digested by those helpful little bacteria that magically transform the milk into yogurt; if you’re still having issues stomaching cow’s milk yogurt, your problem is likely not lactose intolerance, it’s an intolerance to the protein profile of cow’s milk. You may still be able to consume dairy products from other animals like goats and sheep, though, so check with your doctor. The good news is that you can even buy goat milk ice cream these days. Yum! The bad news is your dairy fix will cost much more, though, since non-cow dairy isn’t as widely produced.)

  3. My little slow cooker/crockpot boils on low. I asked on freecycle for a yogurt maker and got one that I have never tried. I like yogurt in smoothies and with fruit for an ice cream effect.

    I have read many articles on making yogurt that always have an admonition not to allow the milk to fall below a certain temp or rise above another temp. Those recipes scare me. And, you don’t mention temperature at all….hmmm. Why? Is an uncertain slow cooker temperature and a towel all there is to it? (rhetorical question that you still may answer…lol)

    • Donna Freedman

      @Practical Parsimony: I didn’t mention temperature because A Year of Slow Cooking didn’t. I expect that two quarts of cold milk won’t boil in two and one-half hours. If it did, I guess your slow cooker wouldn’t work for yogurt-making.
      If it does, your chickens would probably enjoy the whey.

  4. magatha

    I tried different methods of making yogurt, although I didn’t think of the slow cooker. I had varying results; a couple I could have bounced off the wall, so I bought a yogurt maker from King Arthur Flour for $50 a few years ago. Not cheap, but the consistency is always the same. You do have to watch the temperature of the milk because you can kill the yogurt starter. Probably if you go on line you can find general directions for yogurt, and then just adapt them for the slow cooker. I love yogurt with fruit or in a smoothie.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Magatha: This process has been adapted for the slow cooker. It worked for me, for O’Dea and for a lot of her readers. I think the success lies in the fact that the slow cooker is plugged in only for two and one-half hours. The rest of the time it’s just sitting on the counter. The starter gets added several hours later, when the milk is no longer hot.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  5. Karthi Chintala

    Donna,
    I’ve been reading your blog for so many days. Thanks for great posts. I had to dive in now with my 2 cents – to make yogurt, a slow cooker is not a necessary tool. I’ve been making it without the slow cooker for 8 years now (my mom for around 30 years without a microwave) and we go through a lot of yogurt every week. I warm the store-brought milk in microwave for about 10-12 minutes depending on the quantity and let it cool down a bit. Normally, it takes around 20-30 minutes to get it to slightly higher than the room temperature and this is when I will add live culture. After that, I close the lid tightly and leave it on the countertop. After, 6-8 hours (on an average) it becomes yogurt. In summer, this time reduces and in winter a little bit longer. If you leave it like that for too long, it turns sour. I’m originally from India, and this is how everyone makes yogurt. My mom used to collect the layer of cream on top of the yogurt in a container for a week and she whips it to make butter and then makes ghee (clarified butter) from it. She used ghee in a lot of Indian sweets. It cannot get more frugal than that I guess.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Karthi: Interesting technique! Obviously people have been making yogurt without technology for ages. But I’ll probably stick with the slow cooker because it saves me from having to figure out how hot the milk should be and when it’s done vs. almost done. In other words, it’s foolproof and, well, I’m on the foolish end of the personality spectrum.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  6. Karla

    I made my own yogurt for about a year (though admittedly, not using a slow-cooker) and it was delicious. However, I found that I often had trouble working it into my schedule (because of all of the specific timing) so now I compromise by buying the large tubs of plain yogurt and portioning it out into smaller containers. The bonus is that those large tubs are awesome for freezing soup or sending leftovers home with friends.

  7. zzzzzz

    When I was a poor college student, I made my own yogurt using powdered milk, which really helped keep the cost down.

    I had a less labor-intensive process than yours: I’d fill an old spaghetti sauce jar halfway with powdered milk, add some hot water and mix, then add a scoop from my last batch. Then I’d put some warm/hot water in a cooler, put the spaghetti jar in, closer the cooler, and the next day it’d be ready to eat.

    • Donna Freedman

      @zzzzz: A woman I know told me she used hot water and a cooler, too. The slow cooker just feels simpler to me.

  8. SHARONA

    I have been using this same recipe from her website for over a year, and it works great! I also use the whey in other recipes, mostly in my breads, biscuits, pancakes and waffles, and smoothies, and also our gluten free oatmeal. We love to drain the yogurt enough to use as a sub for cream cheese smothered in pepper jelly, or tabasco chipolte sauce, or pickapepper sauce, on crackers! to die for!!@!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Sharona: Mixed with the salsa it was really tasty — and it also made a nice dip for the taquitos I bought for 75 cents a box (clearance at Walgreens). I expect it would be nice on crackers or tortilla chips, too.
      My favorite thus far is the rhubarb, though. I’ve got to make sure I score some this year. Freecycle, here I come….

  9. I suppose my baby crockpot won’t work because it must not have more than a quart of anything put in it. But, one day, I will make yogurt, as goddess is my witness. I won’t be yogurtless again or grocery-store dependent.

  10. Hey there,
    I, and some of my friends, have been making yogurt for a while – all using slightly different methods, and getting slightly different – but always yummy – results. I use minimally pasteurized 2% milk from a local dairy – it’s delicious to drink and makes great yogurt. One other use for whey that you might try is using it to make rice. Gives it an interesting flavor. Also, if you drain the yogurt until it’s really, really thick – almost like cream cheese – it’s great with a few chopped herbs as a spread on crackers. I like chives, parsley and fresh thyme in mine.

  11. Like the others said, the brand of milk matters, so I would experiment and buy as local a variety as possible to minimize the proteins from being beaten up through transport.

    You can also try mixing in a packet of powdered milk. It doesn’t adversely affect the flavor, but does thicken it a bit. I usually added powdered milk to my yogurt because I like mine on the thicker side and I’m too lazy to strain.

  12. zzzzzz

    If you use powdered milk, one lever you can pull to adjust the thickness of your final product is the ratio of powdered milk to water.

  13. Just to clarify, I add powdered milk to milk to thicken. I don’t ever just use the powder and water.

  14. Jenny

    I’m about tto try to the cooler method as posted on the The Frugal Girl’s blog –looking forward to cheaper yogurt and less plastic waste!

  15. Valarie

    I have used the crock-pot method outlined here for nearly a year, following the directions exactly. I have never had a failed batch, but I do whisk in some dry milk powder into the yogurt “starter” before adding it to the warm milk. This mixture (starter and dry milk) I let sit on the counter for about 30 minutes before adding, just to try to prevent adding something too cool to the warmed milk. I often save the whey and add to smoothies – never have that powdery grit to my drinks.

  16. How fun!

    In my hippy-dippy days, I learned to make yoghurt by putting the makings in a heavy pottery bowl that had first been heated in hot, hot water, then covered tightly with tinfoil or Saran Wrap plus several layers of terrycloth towels and left to stand on the floor in the exhaust of the refrigerator. Or in the oven with the oven light left on.

    These days, I favor Greek yoghurt from Trader Joe’s.

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