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Most people are familiar with the claimed health benefits of yogurt--the live bacteria cultures it contains are supposed to help maintain (or restore, if you've recently been sick) the natural balance of bacteria that colonize the gut, and to aid digestion. Irrespective of whether these claims are true, yogurt is an easily-digested food that's high in protein and calcium. But it can also be expensive; a cup of Dannon yogurt can go for as much as $1.50 in a cafeteria, and perhaps $0.75 in a grocery store. Even the cheaper store brands aren't necessarily that cheap, and many of them have gelatins and other stuff that some people might not want in their yogurt. Some yogurts don't even have active cultures (yogurts that do will have a statement somewhere on the container).
Fortunately, you can make homemade yogurt without a lot of specialized equipment. By and large, doing so will be cheaper than buying it from the supermarket, and also gives you lots of opportunities to experiment and create different flavors and flavor combinations than you'll ever see in a supermarket. Before I get to the basic recipe, however, some general information is in order.
Making yogurt at home is a fairly straightforward process, if you follow some basic guidelines. Many people who try and fail take shortcuts, or aren't careful enough with what they're doing, and end up wasting lots of ingredients. Remember, you're practicing microbiology here! If you want your yogurt to turn out right, you have to keep that in mind and make sure the environment is a friendly one for those nice Lactobacillus and Streptococcus bacteria, while keeping out other bacteria that can give the yogurt an unpalatable taste.
First, make sure you can provide an environment where the temperature can be maintained at 110 F. That's what the culture needs in order to grow and turn your milk mixture into yogurt, and it needs to "cook" at that temperature for at least three hours. As little as 5 degrees above or below makes a big difference in the quality of your yogurt (and the time it takes to cook it), so invest in testing some possibilities before starting to cook. To test your cooking setup, place a candy thermometer in a container of 110 F water, then place this in your yogurt-cooking setup. Check it after half an hour, and if needed adjust the conditions to get a steady 110 F environment (if you need to do this, start your testing each time with new 110 F water to make it go a little faster).
You can buy a special yogurt maker (essentially just cups in a warming container of some sort), but it isn't necessary. Your oven may be the best cooking place. If you have a gas oven, it may be warm enough with just the pilot light on--stick an oven thermometer in there to check it. If not, turning on the oven light (100 watts) may do the trick, in either a gas or electric oven. In many ovens, just barely turning the temperature dial on will bring it to the proper temperature.
If your oven is too hot, you can get around that by placing your yogurt containers in a water bath. Put them in a large pan that will surround at least half of the container with water, then pour in 110 F water. Place this into the oven, and set it at whatever temperature is required to maintain the water temperature (again, test before making yogurt) at 110.
Other possibilities include using a styrofoam container or insulated cooler with a steady heat source (such as a light bulb or heating pad), an insulated thermos, the top of a water heater, a sunny window, a heating pad and towels (to hold the heat in), or a crockpot set on low.
Make sure that your equipment is clean before beginning. Some of the steps involve careful monitoring of the yogurt--not a good time to try to get other things ready. Sterilize the yogurt containers right before beginning (a dip in boiling water will do), and have whatever flavorings you want to use ready and at 110 F.
If possible, use containers with tight-fitting lids to minimize the chance of other bacteria contaminating your yogurt. Tupperware and similar items will work, as will the cups store-bought yogurt comes in. You may want to use a variety of sizes--6 to 8-ounce cups for individual servings, and larger ones for storing unflavored yogurt. If containers with lids aren't available, you can fashion a covering out of aluminum foil or plastic wrap, but be extra careful about cleanliness.
The basic recipe is very simple, calling for water or milk and instant milk, which provides more solids and therefore makes the yogurt thicker, and some plain active yogurt, to act as a starter. The different liquids do have different end textures (and fat content, obviously), so you may want to experiment with them to see which you like best. (Whole milk produces the richest texture, not surprisingly.) If you want a less tart taste to your yogurt, you can add sugar or honey before you cook it, but if you want to use some yogurt for savory recipes this isn't a good idea. You can make yogurt with cow's milk or whatever milk you want to try; just make sure it's pasteurized. The yogurt will keep in the refrigerator for two to three weeks.
No matter how careful you are with the yogurt, you'll probably end up with variations in texture that are inevitable in the home kitchen. Some of that variability is due to the flavorings you use; some can be minimized by making sure everything is at the right temperature before adding the yogurt. Longer cooking times tend to increase the amount of whey on the top of the yogurt. You can either pour that off (thereby losing some protein) or stir it back into the yogurt before eating. Using far-free yogurt as your starter culture will also affect the texture; the batch I made with it turned out tasting fine, but with a less-firm texture. If you want to have a very smooth yogurt, forego adding the flavors before cooking, and after the yogurt has cooked and cooled, whirl it in a blender to even out the texture. (It'll still need to be stirred before use, as the whey tends to separate out.)
The possibilities for flavoring your yogurt are limited only by your imagination and taste buds! A very easy way to flavor it is to do the "fruit on the bottom" thing. Jams and preserves work very nicely; put about one teaspoon (or more, to your taste) in a sterilized 6-ounce cup and let it warm to 110 F before adding the yogurt culture. Another method which yields very tasty results is to buy dried fruit, and cook it in a water/sugar/spice syrup until soft. Let cool to 110 F, and spoon into the bottom of the sterilized cups. You can make yummy flavors like "apple pie" (apples, cinnamon, and nutmeg), "peach pie" (cinnamon and clove), or combinations--how about blueberry-raspberry, or cranberry-apple? Fresh fruits, cooked or uncooked, in general are well-suited to yogurt also. One caution: donít use uncooked bananas; they float to the top of the yogurt, become an unattractive brown, and are not particularly tasty.
You can also use liquids, such as flavoring extracts, coffee, or juices as flavoring bases. The flavoring liquid needs to be fairly concentrated, or your yogurt will end up being very thin. Some vanilla extract and sugar makes a very nice-tasting yogurt that can also become the foundation for dessert sauces, icings, and other sweet toppings. Liquid jello (making it only with the hot water) produced acceptable results, but the texture of the yogurt was thicker (because of the gelatin) and not as smooth as regular yogurt. (Part of that may also have been because the jello wasnít cool enough when the yogurt was added.)
Some flavorings will work best if stirred in right before eating. Peanut butter and honey yogurt is nice, but the flavoring hardens during refrigeration and becomes a pain to try to incorporate into the yogurt. Likewise, melting chocolate to make chocolate yogurt isn't a good idea. Cocoa powder is tricky too, because it doesn't blend well. Nestle makes an unsweetened chocolate product called "Choco Bake" that's liquid at room temperature; if you want a chocolate yogurt that might be the best thing to try. Using chocolate milk when making yogurt would be interesting, too. Adding nuts, raisins, and other items that won't suffer from being in a liquid environment expands the flavor possibilities. How about strawberry chip yogurt--strawberry fruit or preserves to flavor the yogurt, and a sprinkle of mini chocolate chips?
Plain yogurt is a well-known sour cream substitute for baked potatoes, but it's also a great base for making salad dressings and other sauces. For a very quick salad dressing or vegetable dip, add a packet of dried onion soup mix or herb seasoning mix to yogurt, stir well, and let sit to allow flavors to blend before using. Add dill (fresh or dried), salt, and pepper to taste to yogurt and you have a great topping for fish. Experiment with your own seasoning combinations (including grated cheeses like romano or parmesan) and uses--for topping salads, steamed vegetables, or entree sauces. Adding plain yogurt to a basic mushroom sauce adds a very nice touch. When using yogurt in cooking, add it at the very end of the cooking, and don't allow the sauce to boil (that could cause it to curdle).
"Yogurt cheese" is a very trendy and expensive gourmet item these days. It's simply yogurt that has been well-drained of whey. To make it yourself, line a colander with a double thickness of cheesecloth, add the yogurt, and allow to sit refrigerated for several hours. (You can collect the protein-rich whey and use it in soups or other recipes, or just discard it.) Once the cheese is the desired texture, it can be used in recipes (it'll thicken sauces more than undrained yogurt), or herbs and spices can be added to make dips or spreads for vegetables, crackers, and chips.
Whew! That's a lot of ideas for one simple food... and there are more (dessert toppings, ice creams, frozen treats, soups). Yogurt is a versatile, healthful food that almost anyone, from infants to the elderly, can enjoy. Once you've become familiar with the basics of yogurt-making, I think you'll prefer to make your own, saving money and enjoying your own yogurt creations.
Basic Yogurt Recipe (graphics free to be printer-friendly)
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