The hottest news in yogurt-making.

I’ve been meaning to write an update to “Lactobacillus love: Is it wrong?” Making yogurt in the slow cooker was pretty easy in the summer, but autumn brought several fails in a row – and I never could get the process right while up in Alaska last summer. So I went online to research what I might be doing wrong.

Turns out I should have been making sure the milk was heated to 180 degrees and then cooled to between 105 and 110 degrees, and also making sure of a guaranteed, long-lasting source of warmth. The latter isn’t easy in a cooler or downright cold season.

One writer suggested heating the oven to 100 degrees, then shutting it off (but leaving the oven light on), then putting the covered bowl of milk and starter in to “cook.” Despite the current cold snap in Anchorage, this worked great.

That is, until I set my friend’s oven on fire.

While making the first couple of batches I checked on them about five hours into the process. The oven felt cool-ish to me, even with the light bulb burning, so I turned it to “warm” for about two minutes. The result was a pretty much perfect batch of yogurt.

Yesterday, though, I learned that I should never multi-task while operating a major appliance.

A hot time in the cold town

After five hours I’d removed the towel and plate from the bowl to check the product. Since it still seemed a bit soupy, I covered the bowl back up and turned the oven to “warm” briefly. To make sure I wouldn’t forget to turn it back off, I set the timer for two minutes.

But I’d been talking to my friend while checking the yogurt, and didn’t replace the towel over the bowl properly. About 30 seconds later I noticed smoke wafting out of the stove’s rear vents. Jerking open the oven door, I saw flames licking along a part of the towel that dangled over the heating element.

“Linda, I seem to have started a fire,” I said. “Water?”

My friend is the calmest person in the world. She pulled a pitcher out from under the sink, filled it halfway and dashed it on the flames. While she did that, I filled a second container. The smoke alarm began shrieking. We threw more water. The timer started beeping contrapuntally.

Finally the fire was doused. I shut off the timer and Linda opened the back door wide, letting in subzero night air that was infinitely preferable to the acrid smell of burning terrycloth.

The stove dripped black water into the drawer underneath and also onto the floor. I tore off a piece of unburnt towel to sop up the mess from the oven floor. Linda remarked that it had needed cleaning anyway. (It did look pretty good when I finished.)

After half an hour or so she shut the back door. The stench remained, so she lit a scented candle – fighting fire with fire, so to speak.

Fortunately, the yogurt was just fine.

Conflagrations we have known

I felt like a real horse’s patoot. But bless her heart, she never said a word of reproach as I mopped and apologized, emptied and rinsed the container and apologized, wrung out what was left of the towel and apologized.

This was only her second oven fire, she told me. The first was set by a former boyfriend who was cooking dinner for her. Fortunately he was a part-time firefighter. True story.

We recalled a few other conflagrations. One was at a potluck at my former home, when a guest set a waxed-paper-covered dish too close to a votive candle. Linda was the hero that time, too, putting out the flames while the rest of us were mulling over potential solutions.

Then there was the annual holiday party of the Alaska chapter of Sisters in Crime, which set the host’s living room table on fire two years in a row. After that, we stopped putting candles on the gift table.

(Fun fact: The motto of the local chapter was, “Sisters in Crime Alaska: Where the trail is always cold.” I’m rather proud to say that I was the one who thought it up.)

Lactobacillus love: Worth the risk

As I said, the yogurt turned out great. Not even a whiff of the Cajun about it: it’s creamy and mild-tasting, and a terrific boost to the bones and the gut flora.

I never cared much for yogurt until I started making my own, but this stuff is so good I can’t stop eating it. A little homemade jam, applesauce or frozen Seattle blackberries and you’ve got a dish that’s as tasty as ice cream but much healthier.

In the future I think I’ll skip the toweling and rely on the warmth plus the pottery bowl to keep the lacto cooking. I’ll also remove the bowl before reheating the oven.

If you don’t have a slow cooker and your house is too drafty to keep lactobacillus cozy in the winter, even with a heating pad underneath, consider the oven method. You might want to skip the towels, too.

And if you don’t? At least you’ll have something to eat while you watch the fire trucks.


21 Comments

  1. First of all, I cannot believe you left a towel in an oven that was heating for even two minutes! Okay, you can start a fire in my oven if you clean it all…stove top, too. For me that would have spelled disaster. It makes me even more sure that my Freecycle yogurt maker was worth the cost…lol.

    My oven light gets the temp up to 87 degrees in the summer. I am not sure what temp I can have in winter. I burned up, melted, my thermometer last year…in the oven. I guess it was the room thermometer that I burned since I cannot find it. Obviously, now, I remember that the oven thermometer was crushed when I put a cast iron skillet full of food in the oven on top of it. Thermometers have a short life with me!

    I almost burned my house down with a grease fire when I went out to make sure the firemen did not let the house on fire next door reach my wooden home. I watched my home burn when I was four, so fire turns me to whining jelly.

    That’s a catchy motto, worthy of your talent…lol.

    About yogurt–It is thrilling to find one more thing and say, “I did it myself.” Or, “I made it myself.”

    My weight loss contest with a friend starts Monday, so I will just eat yogurt instead of the ice cream I love! Thanks for that idea.

  2. Thriving on yogurt-making if takes fire and water i pass.

  3. You have great friends Donna! She exhibited sensibility, patience & grace in dealing with a guest’s snafu!!

    One question though – shouldn’t you normally use flour for kitchen fires? Or does that just apply when its an oil fire in the frying pan?

    It is probably time to update my kitchen fire extinguishers since I don’t know the rules for what puts what kind of fire out!!

  4. I had to pitch in with a fire story. I was having a potluck and I was grilling the juicy luc’s brought by a guest. For the non-minnasotan, a juicy lucy is two hamburger patties around a center of cheese. Anyway, we looked out the window and saw thick black smoke floating past the window. My friend and I went out to check and when we opened the grill cover (big mistake) we had flames that were 3 feet high! The cheese had dripped onto the gas grill burners and was surprisingly flammable. We shut off the gas, but that didn’t help. It was a grease fire, so water was a bad idea, plus we really hoped to save the burgers! Finally I grabbed my 5 pound bag of baking soda (I shop at Costco) and we threw baking soda on the fire to put it out. We salvaged the burgers, but they were a little Cajun style ;) . I did get quite a few comments on my large bag of baking soda, but I have to say, baking soda is quite helpful in a frugal household. Plus, I didn’t have to use my fire extinguisher!

  5. “Sisters in Crime Alaska: Where the trail is always cold.” – very smart! This summer, during the girl’s weekend, the BBQ caught on fire (well..the lower parts of it anyways). It does make things memorable!

  6. Glad to see that dousing the oven didn’t dampen your wit — lost count of the puns!

  7. LOL! Donna, I think I’ll continue getting my yogurt at the grocery store.
    I’m also puzzled as to why your friend put the fire out with water. The one time I had a kitchen fire, I used baking soda and it worked perfectly.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Catseye: If it had been a grease fire we might have used baking soda. But this was a towel, so we threw water at it.
      I think that in the future I will take the bowl out, rewarm the oven and put the bowl back in, sans towel.

  8. I set a potholder on fire once. It somehow came in contact with a burner, and when I looked down, there were flames licking up one side of it. Couldn’t think what else to do, so I dropped it on the stovetop and clapped the lid of the pot I’d been using over the top of it. When I lifted the lid a few minutes later, it was out.

    I’m not sure now why I didn’t toss it in the sink and pour water on it. Too far across the room? It was not my kitchen and it’s been far too many years to recall the exact layout. I doubt there was baking soda handy, as it was a communal kitchen and everyone brought their own food in to cook. There probably was a fire extinguisher, but either that didn’t cross my mind or it seemed like overkill for the situation at hand…

    In the end, the fire was out. And dinner was just fine.

  9. Put the heating pad in the oven. :)

    If you keep the oven turned off, and the heating pad on medium/low in the oven (the cord will do just fine with the oven door closed), you’ll get almost the perfect temperature for fermenting yogurt. I’ve done it in my oven for nearly 4 years now and I get perfect yogurt every time.

  10. Oh, or if you have a large cooler, you can put the heating pad in the cooler and put the yogurt in there. :)

    • Donna Freedman

      @Kara: Don’t have a cooler, but I’ve heard it’s quite successful with yogurt.
      I’ll probably stick with the oven method, just more carefully next time.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  11. I have to share my oven fire story. In our last house, the self-clean setting for the oven was faulty, and I am green enough to be uncomfortable with the harsh oven cleaners. But since I am The World’s Messiest Cook (a title I have proudly held for nearly 12 years), things would tend to drip onto the bottom of the oven. I just came to expect a little smoke with each oven use and learned that the smoke alarm has the equivalent of a snooze button.

    Of course, there was one day when the layer of schmutz on the bottom of the oven became too much, even for an electric appliance, and I was greeted with flames when I took our pie out of the oven. It was very easily subdued, but to this day, my husband claims that I know my baked goods are done when the oven bursts into flames.

    I had to look up the word contrapuntally, by the way, and I am oh-so-glad I did. What a great $0.75 word.

  12. We just make our yogurt in the crockpot in the evening, and after adding the culture and vanilla and a little sugar, we wrap the whole crockpot in a giant beach towel overnight. It’s worked fine every time…and no messing with the oven. We’re in Alaska and do not keep our home particularly warm.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Jenny: Linda B’s house is really drafty. I might try it again with a crockpot; perhaps it will work if I make sure the milk is hot enough the first time and put a heating pad under the crock pot. What’s more likely is that I’ll stick with this method and be a lot more careful.

  13. Donna, you’re a riot. I always say, if it doesn’t work out, you’ve got a funny story to tell, and you’ve got a doozy!

  14. Have been making yogurt each week for several years. I make a large pot at a time. Once cooled to 110 I put the pot with lid into a large cooler that has been preheated with a heating pad on medium. I set the heating pad on top of the pot, close the lid and come back to a perfectly set yogurt 12 hours later. I like greek style so I pour it into a colander and strain off the whey ( which is used in smoothies and oatmeal) and then blend the yogurt until absolutley silky. Yummo!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Janet: I don’t have a large cooler so am planning to keep using the oven. I made a batch yesterday in about six hours and didn’t set a single linen on fire. Woo hoo!
      Haven’t tried blending the yogurt, although one recipe I read said to use a mixer on it. I just stir in whatever fruit I’m using and practically lick the bowl when I’m done. Dang, that stuff is tasty.

  15. All right – a couple things. I am from India and we eat a lot of yogurt (I mean I eat more yogurt than milk) – I make 2 gallons a week just for hubby and me – I make it overnight 2-4 times in a week. I suggest you boil the milk in the microwave (I boil it for 10-15 minutes in a new 1100 W oven – you may have to tweak for your oven the first time – temperature to shoot for is 200 degrees but don’t let it boil over) . I use a large glass pyrex beaker or on the stove (I don’t like to as it’s messy and I can’t multi-task). I actually don’t let it cool to 11o – I do use a candy thermometer. I shoot for 112-117 after 1 hour counter side cooling in Alaska maybe less time. 120 is too hot though for setting. Then I pour the beaker into a insulated container and place overnight in the microwave – and combine with tablespoon of old yogurt to set it and forget it. No fire hazard. If I do it before I leave for work – I put it in the fridge as soon as I come home. After 6 hours it’s ready but I let it go till 8 – no sourness and still mild/creamy. I also mix 1/2 cup per pint of skim milk sugar free fat free powdered milk to thicken prior to boiling in microwave. Up to you if you prefer skim creamy yogurt or 2% works.

    • Donna Freedman

      @ER: No longer using the towel. I made a nice batch the other day keeping it in the oven with the light on and reheating only twice (and only for about 2 minutes, while I stood there watching) in the five hours it took to set up.
      I heat to 180 and cool to between 105 and 110, to be on the safe side. Currently enjoying the result with homemade applesauce or with peach jelly that was part of a gift basket from the silent auction in Talkeetna.
      http://www.donnafreedman.com/2011/12/07/tweets-from-talkeetna/
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  16. I started making yogurt using The Frugal Girl’s cooler method. Then I got a Crock-Pot, and switched to that method. I use a beach towel, just as Jenny described, and strain it per Janet’s comment. I didn’t know that it would stand up to blending after straining. I’ll try that with my next batch. One detail that I found extremely significant is that TIME is not what’s important, it’s TEMPERATURE! Invest in a decent thermometer for perfect yogurt every time.

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