Friday, September 21, 2012

"You might be a redneck if you've made yogurt in your Igloo cooler!"

And then again, you might be smarter than the average bear because you're not paying between $75.00-$200.00 for a frou-frou yogurt maker that makes less than a cooler can.

For a long time I wanted a yogurt maker, but the ones I saw online were expensive, some aren't as effective,  some had plastic containers that melted (plus the chemical leaching became an issue), others broke the tiny glass containers during the heating cycle and were expensive to replace, and the rest either extolled the virtues of timers on the units or complained it was an unnecessary feature.  Totally confused, I kept researching yogurt makers until I was blue in the face, and still was no more educated...only resigned I'd have to forever buy it in the store week after week.

Not that long ago, I got started on the "how to make homemade yogurt" kick again.  My friend, Diane, was terrified I was going to poison myself, but after a few months of making my own, it thankfully hasn't happened.  First thing in the morning, I start the day with yogurt I know is fresh and healthy - and each quart jar doesn't last more than a few days, so no "nuclear blast twinkie" issue here!

It's not difficult, a little bit time consuming, but it's easy peasy and worth a try!

First you start with 7.5 cups of water, and 3 1/3 cups of non fat powdered milk.  Mix well and then place the glass bowl in the microwave for approximately 13 minutes at full power.

The time will depend on how powerful your microwave is, but your goal is to heat the milk to at least 180 degrees (a little over is OK, but don't get it boiling!).  Some people just pour straight milk in a container and heat it; it's all up to you what you want (fat free, 2% fat, whole milk).  The purpose of heating the milk to that temperature is because it's the point at which food is sterilized, resulting in the dying off of any microorganisms that might be in there.  

While you're waiting for the milk to cool off, you should be boiling water to sterilize the containers your yogurt will be made in.  I am a card carrying member of the "Royal Order of the Mason Jar" (I buy somewhere between 200-300 a year), so I always have plenty on hand.  The recipe I gave you should use two quart jars, and one half pint (you can use a pint jar if you want to let the bacteria have more room to grow, which is what I usually do).  Let them sterilize approximately 10 minutes (or longer if you live at a higher altitude) then pull them out and set them on a kitchen towel as a cold surface may cause the jar to crack or break from a cold shock.  

The next step is to let the milk cool down to at least 115 degrees, and this step is very important!  You will be adding a starter to your yogurt to encourage the growth of friendly bacteria that helps to make the yogurt, and is good for your digestive system.  If you add the starter before it drops below 115 degrees, you'll accidentally kill the bacteria, and when you check your yogurt the next day, you'll have only milk. 

You can get yogurt starter from two sources: your last batch of yogurt, or from the grocery store.  A yogurt starter must be good quality, so I suggest one of the plain Greek style yogurts like Fage (pronounced "Fay-eh"), or Chobani.  The single serve cups will give you probably two starters as all you need is 2 tablespoons.  If you have leftover starter, pour it in an ice cube tray as each well is approximately a tablespoon.  

If you decide to save your starter, it's OK if it goes in the freezer and it won't hurt the good bacteria at all.  If you use your starter from a previous batch, conventional wisdom says not to let it go more than a week before using or the bacteria isn't as good/strong/capable of reproducing.  After four batches, I typically eat the smallest container (I'll explain in a minute) and pull two cubes out of the ice cube tray.  Don't worry - the cubes will melt at 115 degrees (whisk gently and don't worry about the bubbles).

Some say that you can indefinitely use your starter yogurt, but I've found after four times, the cultures seem to "break down".  By that, I mean they don't gel as well as the fresh ones do.  I eat from the two quart jars and use the smallest one for a starter for the next batch.  When I run out of that starter or I sense a change in the consistency of the yogurt, I then eat the smallest jar and resort to a fresh yogurt ice cube to "recharge" my yogurt's ability to make a good gel.  Sometimes I can get more than four batches out of the last batch, but it all depends and as you make more yogurt, you'll learn to spot the consistency changes, too.  

I've also used fresh starter and mixed it together with my smaller jar, then spooned the whole mess into the ice cube trays if I know I'm not going to make as much yogurt as I ordinarily do.  Why not?  Maybe I'm burnt out on yogurt and want a week or two's break, going on get the picture.

Pour the milk into the jars....and now the fun's about to start!

Meet Ivan, the Igloo cooler, and Harry the heating pad - both work together to make fresh yogurt for me twice a week.  The general temperature rule when it comes to yogurt making is it needs to be at least a constant 100 degrees.  My oven isn't new enough to go that low, so after testing the cooler (an insulated environment for heat and cold food stuffs), I decided this was a pretty good place to make yogurt as it doesn't lose the heat.  

I start "Harry" on high when the milk goes in the microwave, but before I go to bed, I turn it down to medium.  If you're uncomfortable with leaving the pad on at night or you don't have one, you can always take a couple of quart sized mason jars and fill them with boiling water and place them inside the cooler as an alternative heat source, but keep in mind it's not constant, although it will last some period of time since it's in an insulated container.  

I've seen lots of creative methods - place your jars in a crockpot, fill with water, and turn to the low setting.  Others have their computer routers laid down on their sides and sit the jar on top of it, wrapped in a kitchen towel.  Sorry, but I can't live without my internet should something go wrong, and to explain why there's milk in the router might get your name put in for the "Bonehead of the Year" award.  The more sane who have newer ovens with preheat/proof settings as low as 100 degrees are blessed as they can toss their jars in the oven.  The really good dehydrators that have removable square trays also have heat settings that can incubate yogurt at the right temperatures, too.

Anyway, back to the post!  You need to incubate the yogurt for as little as 12 hours to get a really soft gel, 14 hours will get you a firmer gel.  The difference in time depends on the final step. 

The shorter the incubation period, the softer the mass, and the quicker the whey drains out.  Here's what you need to know about whey to help you determine what you're going to do next:
  • 12 hour incubation means you'll have to use a paper coffee filter to line a small strainer (6"-9") with another bowl slightly bigger and taller so your strainer doesn't come close to the bottom.  You will let this sit in your fridge for 24 hours.  During that period, you'll flip it over once (use a new coffee filter for the bottom).
  • 14 hour incubation you'll do the same thing, except you'll flip the yogurt mass twice - once a day, for two days.  

You're not sure what whey is or what it looks like?  That's easy!

  • 12 hour incubation will yield a white glob of yogurt in either a sea of yellow fluid (whey), or floating strictly at the top of the jar.  
  • 14 hour incubation you probably won't see any whey fluid as it's inside the yogurt (solid mass of white).

If you know you're allergic to whey, the longer it drains out, the less likely you are to have a reaction.  Personally, I can tolerate commercially prepared whey powders and milk, but I break out in hives with the fresh whey fluid (that was a lousy 2.5 weeks in my life).  I don't have that problem as long as the whey is drained well.  You will know by the taste if there's a substantial amount still in the yogurt because it tastes quite tart and generally is unpleasant.

Whether or not you have a problem with whey, don't throw out the fluid because it has other uses.  You can search on the internet for a good list, but here's a few:
  • If you raise tomato plants, pour it on as a fertilizer because it's high in calcium.  You can keep buying bone meal if you wish, but why dip into your pocket when you've got a yogurt byproduct readily handy for free?
  •  Use the whey in bread and biscuit making (this is how I found out I was allergic to fresh whey fluid) by replacing some of the fluid in the recipe.  It makes really flavorful and soft bread!
  • Some health nuts drink it mixed with lemonade (it's called an "Arnold Palmer") and since it's rich in nutrients, I can sort of understand why - assuming you can get past the nasty taste!
Once drained, I add a scant 1.5 tablespoons of sugar per quart, but you might have to taste test it if you use an artificial sweetener, and then milk to rehydrate it a bit.  Since I love the Greek style, I leave it on the thick side.  If I plan to top it with fresh fruit, the sugar level is perfect; if I opt to use one of my homemade jams, I can get away with much less sugar upfront.

(Forgive my my messy kitchen - I was about to start cleaning it when I got hungry, and before I ate the yogurt, I wanted to show you what kind of consistency you can expect from it.  Doesn't it look and act like sour cream?  Keep in mind this is FAT FREE yogurt, and if your store bought stuff can't do this, think about what you're missing!)

I've found that if you toss the yogurt "cake" in a bowl, you're better off to break it up with a whisk first, add a little bit of sugar, and a tiny amount of milk.  If you add too much milk upfront, the yogurt clumps push the milk around and it's really easy to splash the milk onto you instead of keeping it in the bowl.  Once it's broken up and smooth (it should be really thick at this point), add milk to get the consistency you want.  It's also a good time to add any flavorings, but go on the light side as a little bit goes a long way with concentrated extracts.

I've also left my yogurt in longer than two days with something to act as a weight on top of it to drain out additional fluid, then wrapped it up tight in a square.  You can save it that way if you have an overabundance of yogurt and rehydrate it later, or you can leave it wrapped for a day so it takes that shape, and use it as yogurt cheese.  It's all a matter of taste if you wish to add sugar, salt, garlic, or any sort of spices to it before you wrap it up, but I prefer mine plain.

My guilty little pleasure is to take out one of my homemade jams or jellies and pour it on top.  Mind you, not every flavor works on top of a cream cheese style block, but pepper and wine jellies work very well.  I don't add sugar to the block because the jams or jellies have plenty of sugar in them, so you don't miss it.  I serve it with a plate of crackers, and you scoop just enough for your cracker.

If you want to ask me the shelf life of yogurt, I honestly couldn't say because Fred and I eat it too fast!

The one thing I can tell you is it used to cost between $12-$15 a week at the store, and now I buy a bag of nonfat dry milk for $14 and it lasts me through almost 9 batches.  So, quick math check here: $14 (store generic label, or $17 for Carnation at Costco) once a month versus store bought at $48-$60.  That's real savings between $31-$34 on the low side, and $43-$46 on the high side each month!  Still laughing at my cooler now?

Happy Eats!

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