thick, creamy slow-cooker yogurt, with alana chernila

DSC_0276-1024x680READY TO MAKE YOGURT—but perhaps more easily, and slowly, than ever before? Think slow-cooker, as in: In the Crockpot. My friend, neighbor and hit cookbook author Alana Chernila taught me how–along with how to make cheap, great counter spray; what goes into her lacto-fermented hot sauce, and some other tricks.

Last year, Alana and I began teaching a series of workshops at my place on cheesemaking, and also on other subjects around food and gardening. She has a new book, “The Homemade Kitchen,” coming this fall, a followup to her popular 2012 debut with “The Homemade Pantry” (Amazon affiliate link). Alana joined me on the public-radio show and podcast to talk thick, creamy, easy yogurt; what vegetables she’s growing for her special hot sauce, kimchee and sauerkraut, and more.

Read along as you listen to the March 23, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).



crockpot yogurt and more, with alana chernila



Q. So what’s simmering or fermenting or incubating or otherwise in process over there in your kitchen?

A. I’m in the same position many people are right now: We just believe that things will start coming up in the ground. I’m feeling optimistic–I’m working on ferments just with vegetables I can buy at the store, just so I can remember how to make it all work.

I have some sauerkraut going right now; I had some cabbages that stored really well, so I’m making it from those.

I’ve got my weekly batch of yogurt going in the slow-cooker—so there are a few things humming over here in the kitchen.

Q. Our “cheesemaking” classes is really more of a home dairy 101 workshop, with lots of recipes, not all of them cheese. In the afternoon we take a break between steps at one point and sit down and talk about yogurt. It’s like group therapy: Everybody confesses their yogurt failures.

DSC_0302-1024x680A. Everybody has something to say about yogurt…

Q. …What they like, what they don’t like…

A. …What they’re afraid of…

Q. …What flopped, why it flopped, or what it tasted like, or that it was too watery.

A. It’s yogurt therapy, for sure. You just never know what’s happened in people’s homes. Everyone has a different way of making it work, and that also leads to crazy stories about where people do their incubations, or what their grandmothers did.

Q. You say grandmother and I have to tell an unrelated story, sorry. My friend Marco’s mother was from Bari, in the heel of the boot of Italy. She would make focaccia and put it in the dining room, always under her pink Easter coat—the coat he identified that she wore to church that day. That’s where the dough did its thing. So to him, the pink Easter coat is part of the recipe, an ingredient. So that’s what happens in our yogurt therapy—everyone confesses what Mama or Grandma told them to do, or they read in a book, but can’t quite replicate.

Back to yogurt: You bring finished yogurt with you for everyone to taste in class—and everyone’s surprised at the texture and flavor. What was the secret you finally uncovered?

A. I have made yogurt in every way possible. But my favorite way is in the slow-cooker, or Crockpot. I started making yogurt this way at the suggestion of a reader at a book event, and I researched directions, and worked on it awhile before I got it to work for me.

But when it did, I’ve found it’s more consistent and that it makes this smooth and creamy and custardy yogurt that I am looking for.

Q. Without any of the additives that some commercial yogurts light have: gelatin, or tapioca starch, for instance.

A. And it doesn’t require any straining; it really makes a yogurt that’s nearly as thick as Greek yogurt. I started making it in the slow cooker because it has the capacity to make so much yogurt, so then I could strain it, and end up with more than like one little sad little cup of yogurt.

But now I make it in the slow cooker and don’t strain it, since I got the recipe down. It changes from slow-cooker to slow-cooker, because they’re very particularly little appliances.

Q. Right: how quickly they heat, and what their high-medium-low is equivalent to; you still have to keep an eye on it.

A. But the good news is that as soon as you learn your way around your own slow-cooker, then you have your own method, and know the timing and what it needs.

Q. You also do something a little different in terms of the time that you culture, or let your yogurt incubate. This is another thing where you can read different references and they all give you different numbers of hours: 8 hours, 10 hours, 16 hours…

A. Sometimes they even say 5, or 5 to 6, and that’s what I used to do. But now I never culture for less than 18 hours, and often for as much as 24. It often depends on my schedule; when I remember to check on it. That makes this thick, wonderful yogurt that’s sweet and tart at the same time. Not pucker, but rich.

Q. It develops more of a rounded flavor.

A. I’ve heard that the closer you get to a 24-hour fermentation, the closer you get to having no lactose, for those who are conscious of that.

Q. What milk do we start with? Do we avoid ultra-pasteurized, for instance?

A. Some people have success even with that, so if all you can get is ultra-pasteurized, I say go for it. But know that if you have a problem with your yogurt—that’s the first place to look for a reason why.

Q. Because it was heated so high, and just doesn’t have any more oomph in it?

A. It just doesn’t have any life in it for those cultures to grab onto.

Q. Preferably pasteurized?

A. You can also use raw milk, but the process is a little different. So I usually recommend locally produced pasteurized milk—local not just to buy local, but more because the closer you are to the source of that milk, the best chances you have of getting a milk that hasn’t been heated too high.

Q. So we get a good milk from a good dairy that is somewhat nearby, and we put a half-gallon in our slow-cooker.  And then…

A. I’m using a slow-cooker I got at like K-Mart 15 years ago; you can get one at a tag sale. Those old slow-cookers are fine for this. With mine, I put it on high, but some people with new, fancier slow-cookers might use the low setting.

The goal is to get your milk up to 180 degrees F.  That will take a different amount of time in different slow-cookers; in mine it takes about 2 hours.

thermometer in goat milkQ. Thermometer?

A. Yes, you use a thermometer to check on it occasionally. As soon as it’s about 180, which is when it looks like it’s close to boiling, take the slow-cooker insert out of the appliance, to cool the milk down. I sometimes even crack the lid.

Q. To what temperature do we cool it?

A. To 110F—and again, for me this takes about 2 hours. The reason we heat and then cool the milk, is because that is what give you a nice firm yogurt . When people are getting runny yogurt, I say make sure you’re not lazing out on that heating and cooling process—say, just heating to 140. You’ll get a runnier yogurt.

Q. Then we get to 110, however long that takes…

A. …and there’s some wiggle room; it can be 115—but not so hot that it will kill the culture we’re going to add. I add plain yogurt with live culture that’s not expired; any brand you love the taste of.

Q. I think that’s important—because it will affect your flavor; how sharp it is, etc.

A. Start with the yogurt you usually buy, but without any sweetener. It can be whole milk or nonfat. Add about a half a cup to the milk that’s sitting at 110.

Here’s the key: You do not stir. You leave the glob of yogurt in there. Cover the Crockpot insert, and then here’s my pink Easter coat: I have a wool blanket.

Q. I’ve seen it at our workshops!

A. I wrap the pot in my wool blanket, and put it in the warmest spot in my house. That could be above the refrigerator, or near the wood stove, or if you have a room with radiant heat…

Q. …a cozy spot so that we now incubate the yogurt and it stays about 110.

A. You don’t have to be too fussy about it; even if  it’s a cold night, give it an extra blanket, and it will be OK.

Q. I have an electric oven, so I preheat it just barely to take the chill off, then turn off the oven, but leave the light inside it on. I don’t have a cozy spot, so that’s where I incubate mine, especially in winter.

A. It’s really about finding the situation that works for you—everyone has a piece of equipment that works, and a place, but we have to find it.

[Get the recipe for Alana’s Crockpot yogurt.]

planting vegetables with fermentation in mind

Q. I want to shift gears: Gardeners often rush to pick great-sounding seed varieties, but without thinking, what is the end purpose I want to use this vegetable for?

Is this the green bean that’s good for (fill in the blank)? I like to make vegetable soup, and some green beans get mushy and olive green and don’t add much; in good ones for soup, the green pod is not fibrous, but the beans inside are meaty and creamy already.

Or with a potato or a tomato, think: What are you going to do: Store it? Can it? Mash it? Fry it?

Are there some vegetable varieties you seek out because you do so much fermentation?

A. My favorite cabbage is ‘Tendersweet,’ a great fresh eating cabbage, but also fantastic in kimchee and sauerkraut.

DSC_0327Q. And you make hot sauce?

A. It’s my favorite thing to make. I grow a lot of hot peppers, and oddly enough, I’m often fighting with the groundhog under the porch, who really like sweet and hot peppers.

I can’t believe he’s after the hot peppers—but I often have to supplement with hot peppers from the CSA farm I belong to.

I do a lacto-fermented hot sauce—enough to last through the year. I make it with several types of peppers, which is what I have found to be the best, with so many flavors.

‘Krimzon Lee’ is my favorite one—an amazing pepper that’s also great for spaghetti sauce, if you like a little heat. It’s part-sweet, part-hot red pepper. It’s gorgeous; the shape is very brilliant red and the shape is sensual and lovely.

Fresh it’s too spicy, but fantastic in hot sauce and offers a nice roundness to the flavor.

Q. Any others?

A. I like to have some jalapenos in there, and also the ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ pepper. I think it’s a nice all-purpose hot pepper. A few years ago a friend gave me a seedling of a crazy-hot Thai pepper that grew these tiny little black Thai peppers that made great hot sauce.

Q. I have to say before we go: I saw on your blog your great post about how you were addicted to that designer counter spray for like $7.99 a bottle…

A. Mrs. Meyers, yes. I was seduced by it.

Q. But now you started making your own—from tea tree oil, white vinegar, water, and essential  oils like lavender and rosemary. Can I share the recipe?
A. Yes, of course.

alana chernila’s homemade counter spray

DSC_0312From Alana’s eatingfromthegroundup.com

‘MY FAVORITE oil to add to this spray is a blend called thieves, which is a little hard to find. It’s pricey, but I’ve been working through the same bottle for 10 years now, and we use it a lot during times when everyone’s sick. It’s rumored to have all sorts of miraculous germ-busting powers, but I also just love the way it smells (think gingerbread in a winter kitchen). Tea tree oil has a strong smell, but it’s a great disinfectant. If you’re not keen on the smell, just reduce the amount or leave it out altogether.”

makes just over 3 cups

  • 3 cups (720 ml) water
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) distilled white vinegar
  • 10 to 15 drops tea tree oil
  • 5 to 10 drops other essential oils (lavender, rosemary, lemon, or thieves are all good options)

1. Combine the water, vinegar, and oil in a spray bottle. Cover, and shake vigorously to combine.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 23, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(Photos courtesy of Alana Chernila, except thermometer.)

  1. polly says:

    Thanks for the counter spray recipe. I sent it, along with a sampler of essential oils, as a shower gift. And now I am going to have a good time discovering my own perfect mixture.

  2. carol says:

    Re the crock-pot yogurt . . . what’s the reason for not stirring the glob of starter yogurt into the heated milk? We make this stuff regularly, and have always mixed it in well.

    One time our yogurt failed when the only starter we had was some commercial stuff. We reprocessed it (heating, cooling, etc.) which yielded a very firm yogurt with the liquid floating over it. We drained off the liquid and pressed even more out. It made a very nice soft cheese, something between a goat cheese and creamed cheese.

  3. patsquared2 says:

    Great interview – thanks for the crockpot idea. FYI – I have an Excalibur dehydrator and I can use it to hold my yogurt while it cooks. too. Quick question – can you make this recipe using goat’s milk? I love Trader Joe’s Goat Milk yogurt and would like to try making it but not sure it will work.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Patsquared2. Goat’s milk has its own chemistry, so to speak, so you will need to experiment. Also: goat’s milk is much more expensive than cow’s, so where I live, it doesn’t really save much compared to buying the goat yogurt, and the goat milk is not always available. But yes, you can do it — and will just need to experiment the first batch or two to get the timing right.

      1. alice schrade says:

        Can I use a rice cooker instead of the slow cooker??? I have the thermometer and actually the REAL yoghurt maker, but since I bought it and did it wrong the first time, I NEVER used it again. Such a wimp.

        1. margaret says:

          I don’t know, Alice, about the rice cooker. I don’t know how they work exactly (how the temp is controlled, if it even can be) etc. Sorry!

  4. Maryann Harvey says:

    Thank you for the yogurt recipe; I’m looking forward to making it. Can you add fruit or other flavors in the beginning or after it’s done?

  5. tara says:

    Thank you, this is great information. I’m wondering what the difference is if you are making yogurt with raw milk. You mentioned it was different but then didn’t talk about it again.

  6. Qberry Farm says:

    This is my contrarian method of making yogurt:
    I live in a state where I can buy raw milk from a licensed small dairy. It is usually 8-12 hours after milking but occasionally I can get it in my own jars while still warm. When it is cold and in a plastic gallon jug I put the jug in a caning boiler with a rack in the bottom. then fill the pot with hot water from the tap which gets the warming started. I put the pot on the stove on medium heat. I remove the top of the jug and insert a dial thermometer which reaches to the center of the jug. When the temperature of reads 101 which is the temperature it usually comes out of the udder it is ready to go into the 2 quart glass jars that have the starter in the bottom. I give it 2 stirs with the spoon that I used to put the starter in the jars to slightly disperse the starter and make sure it is warmed up.
    Now for the secret contrarian ingredient. I still have a water bed, I put one jar in each corner of the waterbed next to the warm water and put the covers around it. It stays there for 8-12 hours then it goes in the refrigerator. When I finish using up the container that the starter came from then I open the first jar. The curd is usually just as firm as the starter I purchased but the difference is the jar will usually have 2 inches of creme frech on top so I like to have some special desert to put it on.

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