Homemade Yogurt: A Troubleshooter's Guide


When writing a book proposal, you need to present your expert qualifications. Why are you the best person to author your book? I bring this up only because it's so startlingly obvious that I am too well suited to write this post, and I'm looking for a silver lining. Because, if there is anyone capable of exploring every possible mistake to be made in the otherwise straightforward and simple process of making yogurt, it's probably me. Making your own yogurt may be easy, but that doesn't mean you should be casual about it. In fact, it could be one of those activities that are so deceptively pedestrian, you actually need to be more on your toes than you are naturally inclined. Lest you get careless. As sometimes happens to some people.

Before you begin, you need  milk, containers (glass mason jars seem to be the most popular choice), and some kind of starter, either a packet of freeze-dried yogurt starter, such as from yogourmet, or plain, already made yogurt. Some  like to include some powdered milk, too, as a thickener. Plan on having 2 tablespoons plain yogurt as a starter to 1 quart of milk. Freeze-dried starters will come with their own instructions and amounts.

Here’s what to do:

  1. First, sterilize your jars by boiling, approximately 10 minutes.
  2. Next, heat your milk  in a heavy stockpot to 170 degrees F.
  3. Remove your milk from heat source and let it cool to about 110 degrees F.
  4. Stir a small amount of milk into the starter to help break up the yogurt, then mix in with the rest of the milk. For 1 quart of milk, use approximately 2 tablespoons of plain yogurt with live, active cultures (some recommend using a little more, up to ½ cup). Whisk to combine smoothly.
  5. Pour your milk into your jars, filling to about an inch from the top, and put your lids on. Place jars in the oven with the pilot light on until the yogurt sets, which should take between 4 to 8 hours. Place in the refrigerator.

It's definitely not rocket science. Then again, anything involving growing bacteria really does deserve a certain meticulousness, wouldn't you agree? Normally, I'd consider myself far more likely to perseverate on details than to throw caution to the wind, but we all have our moments of weakness. Here's what I learned from mine.

Rule #1: Do use a thermometer. At least on your first couple of tries.

Trial one, in  letting my milk (in jars) cool, I chose to follow "when jars are warm, but you can comfortably hold them for more than several seconds, you've probably reached the desired temp" rule of thumb.

The big problem with the above is that I have persistently, ridiculously cold hands. I have occasionally joked  (badly) when meeting people that I am an embalmer, just to freak them out a little as they make contact with my chilly fingers. Dave calls me "asbestos hands". It's probably Raynaud's, and more discomfiting than severe. In any case, it means that I have been known to hold cookie sheets straight out of the oven without a potholder, and since my jars of milk felt perfectly comfortable really darn fast, I added my starter too soon. In other words, I killed the bacteria. I was really disappointed, especially as I used a pack of Yogourmet starter Artie generously gave me, and  I'd wasted it.

Moving along, because what's the use of crying over (literally) spilled milk? On to the second trial, which leads me to:

Rule #2: After incubating, don't chill in the freezer. (Or, if you do, choose your space carefully.)

I  read that chilling in the freezer for up to an hour after incubation would improve texture. I wouldn't have believed it, but the jars really can crack when placed directly over ice cubes. Double shame, as those Ball jars have the nostalgia factor akin to a Norman Rockwell painting for me. They're kind of like sturdy, reassuring works of art.

Rule #3: Don't forget to sterilize your jars.

I have a tendency to over-think, about everything. Too bad the thinking often happens in hindsight. Realized I had neglected to sterilize the jars. Didn't even pour boiling water into them. You know how things like that go, too. Once the worry strikes that you may have left the oven on, you have to go back and check, because if you didn't, and should have...

Given all of the above, you'd think it was just time to move on from yogurt, period. But I do tell my Kindergartners every day that learning is about making mistakes, and I have to practice what I preach. Plus, it really is worth it. I got a little cavalier, and let my usual neurotic over-thinking persona take a back seat as I rushed the process between work and workouts.  Now I finally know what I'm doing and can proudly join the ranks of my other healthy foodie friends who talk about how easy-peasy making yogurt is. I guess inside I'm never really going to outgrow that middle school yearning for social acceptance,  and making the grade as a fellow homemade yogurt maker is a small detail I am going savor like crazy, it's true. : )