It was four, maybe five years ago when my friend Eric and I had our first and last discussion about yogurt. His parents were born and raised in Macedonia, and his mom had been making plain, sour yogurt forever, he told me. Her parents had made it before then, and so on. The process was much simpler than I’d thought, and made so much sense – it all blew my mind. I made his mom’s version once while living in Hoboken, and if I’m right, it turned out fine, though strangely there was no follow-up attempt. I’m certain I called Eric to report (maybe we talked about yogurt twice?), and I’m also certain I felt both proud and small. I can’t explain it, but you know the moment you learn you can make something yourself that tastes better than what you’ve been used to your whole life, and then when you also realize people have been doing exactly that for ages and ages without a second thought? That, there, is humbling.
The best commercial yogurt I ever ate was in Buenos Aires. Not the meat, not the wine. The yogurt is what I remember. Sometimes I’d make a trip to the nearest market just for one miniature glass jar of it. Probably, it was heat treated after it was cultured, a process that destroys the healthful probiotics, prolongs its shelf-life, and gives it the texture of pudding – uniform, smooth and without a trace of whey. When I want yogurt, which is often, I always think of that kind, or Eric’s mom’s recipe, but I think I’m about to start a ritual of my own.
The Internet is loaded with advice on yogurt-making endeavors. If you’ve ever searched online, you know what I mean. People swear by instant dry milk, full fat milk, fat free milk, Greek yogurt starters, homemade yogurt starters and special yogurt making equipment. Really, all you need is a quart of milk, a tablespoon of yogurt with live cultures, a saucepan and a towel.
Over the weekend I made yogurt twice using the same kind of low-fat milk and Greek yogurt starter. The first batch incubated for six hours before it was whipped and chilled. The end product was thin and sour, perfect for making dips or cold soups or pouring over granola. I let the second batch sit overnight and then drained it with cheesecloth for a thicker consistency, like Greek yogurt. If you want a voluptuous form, you probably shouldn’t skip this step. Whey can be saved, too, and used elsewhere around the kitchen, like for caramel yogurt spiked with cardamom. I love that sort of closed-loop cooking.
I can’t remember the proportions to Eric’s mom’s recipe, but I think it called for a mix of full fat and low fat milk. Anyway, I searched online for directions this time. Salad in a Jar is a site with great tips, and if you’re still not sure if homemade yogurt is worth the effort, spend a few minutes over there. Paula is serious about her yogurt, and she’s written several helpful posts on the subject. Here’s what I’ve learned:
*You can use any yogurt starter as long as it has active cultures. Heat-treated yogurt won’t produce the same probiotics your homemade yogurt needs to properly start, or grow, itself. Your yogurt will taste different than my yogurt every time because we’re probably using different starters and different milks. That’s part of the beauty of it.
*An instant read thermometer is the safest, surest way to success. It’s important to heat the milk to the right temperature, and a thermometer will tell you if you have easier than your eye on the first try. I didn’t use one, though, and things went alright. Do what you feel comfortable with, heat your milk to boiling, and you’ll be fine too.
*An easy place to incubate your yogurt is in the oven wrapped in a towel. Keep the light on and the temperature will remain where it needs to for your yogurt to set. Don’t disturb it. You can peek after six hours.
*Making yogurt is ritualistic – it takes time, and it goes well with music. My mix included this and this. Yours may be different, but they’re all good in the end.
1 quart lowfat milk
1 tablespoon yogurt with live cultures
Set a double boiler by placing a metal bowl atop a pot of boiling water, making sure the water doesn’t touch the bottom of the bowl. Heat the milk slowly, whisking periodically, until just before it comes to a boil (between 175-180 degrees). When the milk looks as if it’s about to roll, it’s ready.
Remove the pot from heat and cover with a dish towel. Let it cool to between 100-115 degrees, which takes about 30 minutes or more. The milk should be warm to the touch, but not at all hot (slightly warmer than body temperature).
Then whisk 1/2 cup of the milk with the yogurt in a separate bowl and add it back to the pot of milk. Wrap the pot with a towel. Preheat an oven to 350 degrees, and once it’s up to temperature, wait one minute and then switch it off. Put the pot in the oven and keep the light on and the door closed.
It can take six to fifteen hours for yogurt to set. Shake the pot gently back and forth – if the yogurt looks firm and not runny, it’s had enough time. A thin yellow layer of whey should have formed on top. You can whisk this back in, or drain it out with cheesecloth, a laundry bag for delicates, or a fine mesh strainer. Just be sure to rinse out any form of strainer you use immediately – it’ll be much easier before any residue has a chance to dry.
Yogurt is the foundation for so many dishes, and when you have it on hand, you have a kind of freedom. I would love to know what sort of foods you make or twists you take with yogurt, too.
Cacik adapted from Turkish Cookery by Inci Kut (makes just over two cups)
My friend Paolo lived in Turkey for awhile, and he made cacik (sounds like ja-jik) a lot while we lived together here in Seoul. Paolo didn’t bring a winter coat to Korea from Canada, but he did carry over a small stack of cookbooks. Love that kind of prioritizing. The recipe below is from one of those books.
2 cups (500 grams) thin yogurt (or thick yogurt thinned with water)
1 English cucumber, peeled and cut to a small dice
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon or more grated garlic
dried mint (or fresh mint, minced)
paprika or dried red pepper powder (like gochuggaru, or Korean red pepper powder)
extra virgin olive oil
Sprinkle the cucumber with salt and leave aside. Mix yogurt with garlic and cucumber. Sprinkle with dried mint and red pepper powder. Finish with a slow drizzle of olive oil. Serve chilled as a soup or with bread to dip. Or both.
Caramel Yogurt from The New York Times (makes four half cup servings)
The original recipe suggests serving the finished yogurt with a sprinkling of cardamom or cinnamon. I used cardamom sugar (hi Niki!) instead of regular sugar, which made an incredibly delicious and unexpected caramel. To make cardamom sugar, pop the seeds from 6 cardamom pods and grind to powder, then mix into 1/2 cup granulated sugar (or mix 1 teaspoon ground cardamom with 1/2 cup granulated sugar). Or, follow the recipe below with plain sugar. Goes exceptionally well with bitter black coffee. Just be careful not to spill it while its hot.
1 quart yogurt
1/2 cup sugar
Drain the yogurt until thick and dry to yield about two cups of yogurt and over one cup of whey. Bring sugar, salt, and one cup whey to a boil in a pot. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly. Cook 20-30 minutes until the caramel is frothy, the liquid has boiled off and the syrup is a shade of deep brown.
Add two tablespoons whey back to the pot of caramel and stir quickly to incorporate. If the mixture is too stiff or thick to stir, add more whey in small amounts. Allow caramel to cool a bit, then stir in 1/4 cup yogurt and whisk well to blend. Add the rest of the yogurt and stir to blend all the way. Cover and chill for 30 minutes or more.