When the last dog days of summer blaze, yogurt saves the supper. For me yogurt is essential year round. I’ve been making my own yogurt for over fifty years following guidelines from a Gujarati woman who once taught me the skill in a torrid dry season in Tanzania. Back then I was able to come by an occasional pint of fresh milk delivered to my kitchen door in a clean twenty-ounce brown beer bottle stoppered at the top with a wad of newspaper. Fresh milk was precious, needed sterilization and a way to keep it. Making yogurt was the answer.
In America yogurt wasn’t common during the ’40s and ’50s. When I tasted its tangy freshness for the first time alongsidespicy Indian food, it was something totally new. In fact, having first learned to enjoy yogurt with savories, I’ve never been able to go for it with sugared fruit so popular nowadays.
My Indian friend’s method for making yogurt was simple—no special equipment needed. If you have a heavy saucepan, a couple of glass jars and an insulated picnic box or a Styrofoam container and a heavy towel, you can make yogurt. People have been using this method for thousands of years. It’s nothing to be afraid of and can give you a way to preserve milk, make milk more digestible, and save lots of money. Yogurt may be used as a substitute for buttermilk, sour cream; homemade yogurt is so thick and creamy there’s no need to go for the Greek.
To begin you need a starter (bacteria that will grow in warm milk transforming lactase sugar in milk to lactic acid that thickens and lengthens the life of the milk). To find a starter, buy a small container of the best organic whole-milk plain yogurt you can find. Make sure there are no additives; the starter should contain only milk and yogurt culture—no sugars, flavorings or stabilizers. You will need to buy the culture only once. From then on, one batch of homemade yogurt will give you starter for the next batch.
Usually I make two quarts of yogurt at a time, but you can make any amount, even as little as one cup. I firmly believe in making whole-milk yogurt because it tastes better, and, used in small quantities, it’s worth the calories. Any type of cow, goat or sheep’s milk can be used.
First rinse a large, heavy saucepan with cold water and shake out water (this will help to prevent milk from sticking). Pour in selected amount of milk and place saucepan over moderate heat. Bring milk to a boil, stirring occasionally. (Lay wooden spoon used for stirring across top of saucepan—this will help prevent a boil-over.) Let the milk come to a boil that foams and rises in the saucepan; take care to remove from heat before any milk spills over. Set saucepan away from heat and let milk cool. Stir from time to time to prevent a skin from forming over milk (don’t worry, though, if a skin forms; the yogurt culture will break down the skin in the finished product).
Ready the jars and lids. Make sure jars and lids are impeccably clean. Run them through a dishwasher or wash with dish soap and rinse with very hot water. I prefer to use pint jars, but any size will do, from jam jars to quart jars.
As milk is cooling, place a rounded soup-spoonful of yogurt (or yogurt from your last making) in the bottom of each clean jar. Allow boiled milk to cool until you can hold a scrupulously clean pinkie finger in the milk and count to ten, or ten seconds. At this point the milk is lukewarm and will not kill the bacteria, which is a living organism. Pour the lukewarm boiled milk into the culture-inoculated jars; stir; screw on the lids and place the warm jars in an insulated picnic box, Styrofoam box or small cardboard box lined with a soft towel. Fold the towel over the jars; clip on the lid and allow the box to rest undisturbed at room temperature for a few hours.
In summer yogurt may be ready in four hours; in winter it may take eight to ten hours to set. Yogurt is ready when liquid milk has turned into solid custard in jars. There will be a little liquid whey floating on the top, and vertical ridges may show along the sides of the jars. Remove jars from box and refrigerate. If unopened, yogurt will keep for weeks. I once accidentally found a forgotten jar of yogurt that had been in the back of my fridge for three months; it was perfectly good.
When you spoon yogurt from the jar, a pool of whey will ooze into that space. The liquid whey is also good; it can be poured into a sauce, a soup, added to a salad dressing or a smoothie. People are paying big bucks these days to buy powdered health-giving whey, but yours is a free byproduct from your homemade yogurt. This ancient craft of preserving milk is a miracle! Make it your own today!