Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Think Greek yogurt is really good but really expensive?

Join the club!

What? You think I'll actually solve that problem for you? 

Well, I can't do anything about the crazy prices in the store (on sale this week - only $1 for 5 or 6 oz, ugh - our yogurt budget for all of us would be sky-high!), but hopefully I can convince you that making your own at home is pretty doable, very tasty, and cheap as well! Last week there was a sale on milk, so I got 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 quarts of full fat Greek yogurt for $1! (and even non-Greek yogurt is pretty expensive these days) You don't have to do complicated math to see the huge savings!

(ok, here's the part of food blogging that you don't like, Laura. Just skip down to the printable recipe... oops! We don't have that option on our blog! Oh well! ;)

I've been interesting in yogurt making for a long time.  I remember as a kid my mom had a yogurt maker and I would use it to make yogurt sometimes.  It seemed sorta like magic! After becoming a biologist, I decided it was even cooler than magic, really.  But the yogurt itself was... well, not that great.  It was fairly sour and thinner than store bought, and not really great.  Some comic strip characters don't appreciate yogurt, I realize, but it can and should be really good, not sour and thin.

A few years ago I tried making regular yogurt at home again.  And I had some of the same problems.

This summer, mostly due to finding and reading this blog post, I've got the method down and we are loving our (cheap) and very tasty Greek yogurt! 

The overall method is very simple:
1. Heat milk up. (I start with 1/2 gallon of whole milk and heat to 185 deg F on stove)
2. Cool milk down. (to 115-110 deg F)
3. Add a bit (~2 t.) of starter (other yogurt - either saved from your last batch, or purchased plain yogurt - the exact amount doesn't matter)
4. Let sit in a warm place. (for 4-6 hours)
5. Drain out liquid, leaving a thick Greek yogurt. (~1 hour of draining time)
6. Whisk resulting yogurt very well, improving texture!
7. ENJOY!!

I do several things differently from the post I just linked to, here are a few more details than you probably want or need:

First: I make mine out of whole milk.  I just like whole milk yogurt better, and since we don't eat much meat, I figure I have some saturated fat 'credits' to burn! Oh, and kids are supposed to have whole milk yogurt... that's the real reason... uh huh, sure, yes (*nodding vigorously*).  I did try making it out of 2% milk once... it just wasn't as good.  But try whatever fat level you want!

Second: I heat the milk on the stove.  I think the microwave would be too "hands on" for me.  I use a large non-stick stock pan (because the bottom always sticks, so this way it's much easier to clean up). Do I ever become so hands off that I forget out the milk and have it boil over?  Yes, today in fact, but it still made good yogurt, though it wasn't quite as thick as it usually is.

Third:  I heat the milk a little hotter.  The original blogger says 175-180 deg F, I think 185 deg F is better.  Admittedly, my controlled scientific study on this hasn't been done, but the times I heated it up to 185 deg F it seemed to set up a little thicker in the end, which I liked.

Fourth:  There is no need to use Greek yogurt from the store as your original culture. I used Dannon (full fat, though I'm not sure it matters) plain yogurt for my first original batch, and it worked great and is very tasty.  Every other time after that, just use a bit of your last batch to start your next (assuming it isn't too old.)  Make sure the temp of the milk is 110-115 deg F when you add the bit (~1 T) of yogurt culture.

Fifth:  (I did get this idea from somewhere on Salad in a Jar's website) Freeze a bit of your first batch of homemade yogurt.  Preferably in ~1 T size cubes.  I froze ~1/4 c. in one chunk and the couple times I've had to use it I've had to chisel a piece off with a knife - so freeze in small pieces!  Why would you need this? Well, maybe because the old batch was inadvertently eaten before saving a bit or you go out of town and didn't have "new enough" yogurt in the fridge when you returned or something like that. This will save you from having to buy the expensive yogurt again just to start another batch.

Sixth:  Find a good incubation method! This is the tough part, perhaps, and may require some trial and error on your part.  I use a larger soft-sided cooler.  I fill mason jars with my inoculated milk, cover, and then put in the cooler.  And then I put a jar (actually an old glass 1 qt vinegar bottle we used up) with very hot (simmering, almost boiling) water into the cooler too.  After covering the top with towels, it stays nice and toasty in there. (There are a lot more ideas here)

Seventh:  Timing! The website says the yogurt will be done in 6-11 hours.  When I used to do this a couple years ago, I would let it go overnight.  But I think that was one of my problems.  I've found it takes only 4 hours for me, so make sure you check it at three or four hours.  (They say you shouldn't disturb it, so don't check too often before that!)  If you tilt the jar and it pulls away from the edge a bit or doesn't move at all, and looks like one big gelatin chunk, it's probably done.

This picture actually shows the yogurt tilting a bit more than normal (this was my 'overboiled' batch). Usually it doesn't move when I tilt the jar like this.

Eighth:  After the milk has turned into yogurt, you need to drain off some of the liquid to make greek yogurt.  Do this right away, it drains off a lot quicker when it is still warm (one of my problems a few years ago).  You can buy a very expensive strainer (as described here) but I don't mind using cheesecloth in a normal strainer. It can be a bit messy, but I'm cheap and it works fine.  There are a lot more good tips on straining yogurt at that link too, including pictures of what stages might look like (and she's a much better food photographer than I am... not hard, I realize!)

Ninth:  The liquid that drains off the yogurt is called whey and is really good to use instead of milk when making homemade pancakes (I think it makes them extra-fluffy, but I haven't done a controlled experiment of that) or in homemade bread. And probably lots of other ways! Don't throw it away!

Tenth: After straining the yogurt, whisking it is crucial to give it good texture.  See here for some pictures of the transformation! This was also one of my problems a few years ago.

Conclusion:  I realize this post doesn't make it sound easy, but once you do a couple times, it really is easy and the results are so worth it!  It's great with homemade granola on it (either with or without a little honey swirled in as well) or with a bit of strawberry jam stirred in if you like a fruity flavor, or a million other ways. Also fabulous for cutting out excess added sugar in your diet (or saving it for more desserts!) since it's tasty even plain.

Finished product - I get between 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 quarts of thick Greek yogurt when I start with 1/2 gallon of milk (plus ~2 or 3 c. of whey.)

I've been making it twice a week for two months now and my family is completely hooked!

Give it a try and let me know what you think!