Dining Reviews

A Sustainable Culture

yogurt-for-webThe popularity of old world yogurt is surging, and it’s easy to make at home

Yogurt is a product of the ages. With a name originating in Turkey and probiotic benefits touted by the health food industry. A fondness for Greek-style yogurt has taken the country by storm, resulting in a tripling of the number of yogurt factories in New York State, and a $2 billion a year industry. What sets this Mediterranean yogurt apart is straining.

Other cultures refer to the product as “hung” yogurt. Stirred yogurt is placed in a fine mesh strainer which has been lined with cheesecloth and suspended over a deep container. Watery whey seeps out, resulting in a thicker, denser yogurt with more protein by volume. It makes a lovely base for a stiffer tzatziki cucumber-garlic dip and spread.

Typically, three cups of milk yield three cups of yogurt. Most commercial straining is actually done in separators that use centrifugal force to remove 2/3 of the yogurt’s volume as whey, explaining the higher prices garnered by strained varieties.

Because of the bacterial action that turns milk into yogurt, the whey is very acidic compared to cheese makers’ whey and contains less protein. Release of this by-product into waterways, which is strictly prohibited in the United States, would pull oxygen out of the water, causing substantial ecosystem damage and demise of aquatic species.

While yogurt manufacturers appear to be looking for profitable uses for the whey, they pay farmers to take it away. It may be destined to feed pigs and cows, fertilize fields, or be mixed with manure in a biodigester to produce methane gas which is converted to electricity.

The active live cultures found in yogurt are called probiotics, a family of organisms whose description “for life” refers to beneficial properties. Most of human beneficial bacterium resides in the gastro-intestinal tract, and there is evidence that the probiotics found in fermented foods may assist with digestion when the body’s normal supply is damaged, such as after a course of antibiotics. However, citing inadequate scientific data, neither the FDA nor the European Food Safety Authority has authorized sellers of food products to make any health claims related to probiotics. As for me, I just like the convenience of this calcium-rich product with a reasonable shelf life.

When I was in college, my roommates made yogurt. ”They’ve got too much time on their hands,” I thought as I grabbed a hard-boiled egg and a fifty cent carton of supermarket fruit yogurt from the refrigerator.

But now, a good regular yogurt costs about a dollar. With a gallon of organic milk ($6.99) I can make 21 such servings for 33 cents each, with regular hormone-free milk it runs 19 cents. The payback period for my $50 yogurt maker is just eight batches. Additional benefits of doing it myself include taking advantage of reusable containers, ensuring a gluten-free product, and eliminating preservatives, thickeners, and artificial flavors.

The secret to making yogurt, like sourdough bread, is a bacteria-laden starter which is allowed to breed, transforming the milk. You can purchase a dried form at a health food store, or find it in a purchased portion of plain yogurt. Just make sure it contains live cultures, including L. bulgaricus, and S. thermophilus. For subsequent batches, use your homemade yogurt as the starter.

Whole or 2 percent milk is recommended, but nonfat can be used as well, although most recipes recommend the addition of non-fat dry milk to achieve a thicker result. Soy and nut milks apparently also can be substituted.

The directions for my machine called for a quart of milk (with eight six-ounce glasses. I needed 12 additional ounces) plus two heaping tablespoons of plain yogurt. First, heat the milk until it steams, bubbles gather around the circumference of the saucepan, and it is very close to boiling (185 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit). At this temperature, the milk proteins are denatured and will not curdle. Skim any skin from the milk’s surface.

The milk must then be cooled to 110 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit to create the perfect environment for bacterial activity. My machine came with a stir stick-thermometer with no numbers, just a pair of parallel black lines that were meant to represent this temperature range. My digital thermometer showed that they were about 10 degrees off.

Put the yogurt starter in one of the yogurt cups, and add ¼ cup of the cooled milk, mixing well until homogenous and lump-free. Whisk this mixture thoroughly into the pan of milk until absolutely smooth. Fill the yogurt containers (I used a glass measuring cup with a spout to minimize spillage), cap them, place into the machine and proceed following manufacturer’s instructions for operation. I set my machine for the recommended 10-hour processing time.

Since I used unadulterated nonfat milk, my additive-free yogurt tasted just like its Greek-style parent, although it was not as thick. It was firm, but had a very soft texture. Next time I’ll increase the processing time to create a denser product.

This wholesome yogurt can be enjoyed in savory sauces and marinades, salad dressings, with fruit and granola, or turned into a dessert with honey, agave or your favorite sweetener.

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