homemade yogurt, with erica strauss

copyright NWEdibleMY ROUTE TO HOMEMADE YOGURT began with a virtual trip to Seattle, to Erica Strauss, “a professional chef turned gardening and urban homesteading fanatic and an accidental garden writer.”

Last year I had word that my website was nominated for a “best garden blog” contest, put on by “Better Homes and Gardens” magazine. Curious, I clicked over to the sites of all the other nominees—many of whom I did not know.

One, in particular, stood out as a kindred spirit, and then a funny thing happened to seem to say, “Get in touch with that blogger” even more emphatically: A reader of mine emailed with congratulations on the contest nomination, but called me “Erica” in the greeting.

“ERICA is my longtime best friend’s name, but I’m MARGARET,” I wrote back with a smiley face next to it.

“Oh, I confuse you two because I love both your websites.” the reader replied, also “smiling.”

Guess I’d really better meet “this” Erica, I thought, and emailed the other nominee at once.

copyright NWEdible“This” Erica is Erica Strauss of Seattle, who says she is an accidental garden writer because she never decided to follow her bliss, but managed to stumble into it. She’d always liked writing, and cooking and, about a decade ago, discovered she really liked growing vegetables. In January 2011, she put it all together and started writing about what she calls “hipster homesteading stuff like urban gardening and backyard chickens and cooking and canning and DIY projects and natural living and frugality.”

Like making your own yogurt.

Erica Strauss of NWEdible.com–as in Northwest Edible Life—visited me on my public-radio show to talk about yogurt-making (listen in now), which is what she and I quickly got to talking about once we met, a conversation that continues batch after batch after batch.

yogurt-making q&a with erica strauss

Q. So before we start making yogurt, tell us a little more about your Seattle homestead and all its residents–I just read your husband’s piece on the solar roof panels, by the way. Are you in Seattle proper?

copyright NWEdibleA. We recently put solar panels on the roof, so we’re trying to be a little more sustainable and self-sufficient.

We’re about 30 minutes north of the city, in a suburb. We have an almost-4-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl, and a whole little mini-urban homestead going on, with about a dozen chickens and three ducks, and we grow a ton of vegetables and lots of fruit trees on about a third of an acre (including the footprint of the house and the driveway).

[Click on the image above by Erica to see the layout of the mini-homestead.]

Q. You first started making yogurt during a very budget-conscious month, as an exercise in frugality. Tell us.

A. Some years ago, I decided to put the brakes on my consumerist tendencies, and my husband and I embarked on what we call “no-spend month.” We gave ourselves a $300 budget for everything that wasn’t like a fixed utility, like the mortgage payment or the gas bill.

I got very, very tight with my grocery budget that month. I was standing in the dairy aisle and looking at this tub of organic yogurt, which was like $8 for a half-gallon, and this gallon of organic milk, which was like $4, and the volume ratio on milk-to-yogurt is 1-to-1, so I was doing the math in my head, and I said, “I think I need to buy milk and make yogurt, because I can’t really afford those few extra dollars this month.” So that’s how it started.

[Here’s the original story on yogurt-making that I found on Erica’s website when we first “met.”]

Q. So before we tell the tale our recent Yogurt Chronicles, maybe we should share your original recipe–which is where my adventure began, except that I tried it with goat milk instead of cow milk, because I can never really follow anyone’s instructions. [Laughter.] By the way: goat milk isn’t as much of a price break over yogurt as cow milk, but what appealed to me was not buying all those plastic tubs any more (and I only use goat dairy).

A. Yogurt is very easy: just milk that’s been cultured. The cultures for yogurt act at warmer temperatures than room temperature, so it’s not so much a recipe as a technique.

You just have to warm milk to about 110 degrees F, and then you have to add the culture—which is yogurt. You can buy cultures online, specific strains of the bacterial cultures, or you can just use a live, active-culture plain-milk yogurt from the store.

That’s what I do—I choose a yogurt that I like the flavor of, because different bacteria will give you a slightly different flavor, so start with one you like.

I usually add about 4 tablespoons of plain yogurt (about a quarter cup) per quart of milk.

I use whole milk, but you can use low-fat. Then the trick is that you have to keep your warm milk-and-yogurt mixture warm for several hours. I shoot for about 7 to 8 hours, and that’s really the trickiest part: how to keep something at about 110 degrees for that long.

Q. So before I went to 110 for that time, I first heated my milk hotter than that, briefly.

A. If you’re starting with raw milk, you definitely want to bring it up to 180 degrees, to pasteurize it. What that does is kill off competing bacteria, and also changes the protein structure, so you get a little thicker yogurt product at the end.

What I have found with experimentation [here’s Erica’s latest story on that], is that if you’re using a high-temperature pasteurized milk from the store, that extra heating isn’t always necessary. If it’s already pasteurized, and you just open it so it’s sanitary, and warm it to 110, that saves time.

Q. I was using goat milk from the food coop and wasn’t sure about what process it had been through.

A. You’ll want to know where your milk is coming from, because if it’s a low-temperature pasteurized milk—which is a little less common at the grocery store—like what’s called a vat pasteurized milk, you’ll want to heat it higher first.

Q. I went up to 180 in my first yogurt-making attempt, but failed—the yogurt didn’t set. You diagnosed it for me: What I probably did was put the live cultures in when the milk was too warm, and killed them off, or killed them when I was trying to stabilize it at 110 all those hours.

A. I think that overheating your starter culture is the Number 1 reason yogurt doesn’t turn out; it’s very common.

In terms of keeping it warm, I have a little warming drawer under my oven that I can set at 110. It’s kind of a total yuppie thing that I use for a hippie thing, so it’s sort of a yuppie-hippie transfer that I’ve done with my appliance. But a lot of people don’t have warming drawers.

Another great thing you can do: Use a cooler. As long as it’s plastic and waterproof, you can put your jars of yogurt that you’re culturing inside, and fill the cooler partway with warm water.

Some people use their crockpot, but I’ve had very mixed results there.

Q. And that’s where I went to hell in a handbasket on the first batch, I think—trying to use my crockpot on high to first heat to 180, which took a million years.

And by the way, in case people wonder how we know the temperature is 180 or 110 or whatever: We have an instant-read candy thermometer in the pot of milk.

copyright NWEdibleA. I’m not a fan of the “stick your finger in it method,” which is kind of a grandmother way to do it, where if it’s just barely warm to the touch it’s about 110. That’s not very sanitary for something you’re trying to develop a culture in.

Q. The other issue with the crockpot was trying to bring the temperature down from 180 to 110 in that well-insulated device.

At your advice, for the next batch, I skipped the crockpot: I used a heavy-bottomed pot to heat my milk, and then I let it cool down (I put the pot in a sink of cold water to get it down to 110 quickly).

I had warmed my electric oven just barely, then turned it off, but left the light on for a little warmth, and wrapped the covered pot in a towel for extra measure, and left in in the closed oven with the light. That worked; the yogurt set.

Speaking of which: Some people like thicker or thinner yogurt, and my batches have varied. How can you adjust thickness?

A. The first way to influence the thickness is at the first culture point (the 110 degrees). The longer you leave your yogurt to culture before your chill it down in the fridge, the thicker the curd is going to be.

If you go for 4 hours at 110, you’ll get a thinner and less-tangy product; the longer you culture it, you’ll get thicker and tangier yogurt.

Q. I put mine in pint canning jars in the fridge, and I was surprised that it seemed to continue to set in there, and thicken. The last one I ate was thicker than the earlier ones.

A. I bet the last jar you dipped into was tangier, too.

Q. Yes. Some brands use thickeners—like tapioca, and milk solids from powdered milk, and so on, right?

A. The next way to thicken it, after adjusting how long you culture it at 110: You can add dry milk powder to your liquid milk, to increase the protein content and make a firmer curd.

And you can also make a Greek-style yogurt by taking your finished yogurt, after it’s chilled down in the fridge, and just strain it—you just drain off the extra whey. That’s my preferred method, because I can use the whey as a secondary product in bread-making.

Q. What do you strain it in?

A. I use a really cheap kitchen strainer, and I line it with a lint-free kitchen towel—like a flour-sack towel. Usually I leave it for half an hour at room temperature, or if it’s going to strain longer than that, I move it to the fridge.

Q. I wanted to say I was laughing Sunday when listening to NPR, to “The Splendid Table,” which had Sandor Katz as guest, and they were talking yogurt, too. And they talked about store-bought starters (instead of using yogurt as the starter). Have you tried that yet?

A. I haven’t, but Sandor Katz, who is the fermentation guru, said that if you get one of these commercial heirloom starters, it will last through indefinite generations of yogurt making. One of the issues you can run into with store-bought yogurt as your culture is that after a few batches, you need to refresh it with new yogurt.

Q. So you can’t use the last bit of the previous batch of yogurt you made infinitely as your starter.

A. Correct. Some of these specific yogurt starters have an ability like a traditional sourdough starter to just maintain themselves. I want to try some of the Bulgarian starter and see how that tastes.

Q. Any add-ons or add-ins? I know you can thicken it even farther and make yogurt cheese, and mix in herbs and such, but what else, and when?

A. I always culture my yogurt plain, and then if we want to have a sweet yogurt, I strain it just a little, to get it Greek style, and then I like to add 100 percent pure maple syrup. Maple syrup in thick yogurt is really delicious. Sometimes the kids prefer strawberry jam on theirs—so we might put some homemade preserves in theirs to make different flavors.

Q. What else is preserving over there right now–fermenting in your kitchen?

A. Cherry wine, dilly beans, kosher pickles, various recipes with alcohol ferments…so many things. [Some of the many foods Erica cans and/or ferments.]

prefer the podcast?

ERICA STRAUSS of NWEdible.com was my guest on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Get it free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The July 28, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

(Photos copyright NWEdible.com, and used with permission.)

  1. Would the same basic method be used for making yogurt with almond milk or coconut milk? Also, would the extra ingredients in commercial almond milk (even organic) affect the process?

  2. Kristen says:

    Small world! I just started making yogurt too. I have been using a cooler with a heating pad inside with good results.

    1. Barclay A Dunn says:

      I was thinking of using a heating pad, but didn’t want to leave it on the kitchen counter. Great idea! Thanks!

    2. I still have a waterbed. I turn the temperature up on yogurt making day and put a quart in each corner. I am comfortable making raw low temperature yogurt with raw milk that I get directly from the raw milk dairy soon after it is milked. I heat it to the original 101 degrees that it comes out of the udder and add the culture. I have used the cooler with hot water but the bed is more consistent and the results are thick without getting sour. Because I make a gallon at a time it is often 2 weeks before I use the last of a batch and it is still perfect.

  3. Holly says:

    I’ve always been afraid to make my own yogurt. It seems so difficult. But the difference between the European yogurts and what is sold here in the US is so different. It’s night and day. Being able to control what you get for yogurt has always been a dream. Now I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and try it!! Thanks.

    1. margaret says:

      I was in the same situation, Holly. Now it seems easy, like putting up a pot of anything else I do regularly. It was just the first batch or two that threw me, till I figured out which pot, which warming place, and so on.

  4. Hi Marian, the website Cultures for Health that Margaret linked to has some good info on alternative milk yogurt making. I don’t have experience with this, but from chatting with folks, there are a few extra steps and ingredients involved to get a thick product. I’d recommend you start here

    1. Erica, thanks so much for writing. I went to the link you provided, and yes, you need to add gelatin or pectin and maybe calcium to get non-dairy milks to thicken. But it doesn’t sound hard to set up. I enjoyed your talk with Margaret and I look forward to reading your blog now as well.

  5. Saiisha says:

    Yogurt is something my mom always made from scratch, but somehow I’ve never gotten the hang of it, despite a few tries. I think I need some sort of commitment to it which I’ve been lacking :)

    This article has gotten me excited again… I’ll go try it one more time… Thank you both!

  6. JessB says:

    Wow, thanks for bringing such an interesting blog to our attention! I just bought a thermometer the other day to make yogurt-perfect timing!! I’m interested in looking into the commercial starters. Thanks again!

  7. Sheri A says:

    The following yogurt-making method couldn’t be simpler and has always worked for me, every time. The drawback is how long it takes:
    Add 2 tablespoons of active culture yogurt to 4 cups of milk and mix.
    Heat the oven to 200 degrees, then turn off the oven and turn on the light bulb inside the oven.
    Put the milk/yogurt mix in the oven with the light bulb on and leave it for 15 hours.
    That’s it.
    I then strain mine to get a thicker greek-style yogurt.

  8. Susan Wright says:

    I think I will try making yogurt , where do you get those plastic lids for your canning jars? They look pretty spiffy.

  9. terri says:

    i’ve been making my own yogurt for a few years now. from what i understand, heating the milk (somewhere above 185 F) is not so much for pasteurization as for changing the milk proteins (to get a thicker product).

  10. Gigi says:

    Love the post. I’ve been making yoghurt for some time and, after putting the yoghurt in a Mason jar, wrap in in two fluffy bath towels and let it set on the counter for 5 or more hours. It always works and makes me feel good looking at it all bundled up.

  11. Max says:

    I use hot pepper stems (cayenne, habanero, thai chili) for my yogurt starter and find that the yogurt is thicker and does not degrade when used as a start from batch to batch. Got the idea from Sandor Katz’s book ‘The art of fermentation’. It is a great book with loads of information, I highly recommend it.

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