Saturday, January 2, 2016

Homemade Thick & Creamy Greek Yogurt

So my husband has a bit of a problem with farm animals.  Chickens were his gateway animal, and from there we've grown to a full-scale village farm.  We currently have 13 sheep, 3 pigs, 4 ducks, 3 cows and several chickens and rabbits.  Besides feeding the husband's addiction, the farm also employs several local folks who would otherwise not have other job opportunities.  Thankfully this means that I'm off the hook for the farm chores.  It also means that I have a readily available supply of milk and eggs.

So when your two milk cows are producing about 24 LITERS (6+ gallons!) of milk per day, you learn to do something with your milk pretty quickly.  So I learned about farmer's cheese, mozzarella cheese, sour cream, yogurt, soured/clabbered milk, etc etc etc.  By far my favorite thing to make with milk is yogurt.  Thick, creamy, delicious, lovely yogurt.  You have never tasted anything like this from a store.

It took me a few attempts before I was able to tweak the process so I could get the result I wanted every time, but now I've got it down and I can turn out a delectable batch of greek yogurt any time I like.    

It's not too complicated, but it is a process that takes several hours (mostly hands-off time). It really just requires your attention a few minutes here and there.  It's best to plan to make this when you know you'll be home most of the day, but you can easily be attending to other things during most of the process.

It's really not too hard.  Don't worry, I'll walk you through it....

The Step-By-Step

Heat and Cool the Milk

So to start with, we need some milk and some plain yogurt.  This is a 3 liter jar of raw milk straight from the cow.  You can, however, use store-bought milk just fine.  (Stay away from ultra-pasteurized but pasteurized and homogenized are both fine). You can also use whatever percent milkfat you like (skim, 2%, whole, whatever) but I think the whole milk makes a creamier yogurt.  

The yogurt needs to have live cultures in them, which most do, but double-check the packaging.  (Here in Ukraine I don't think it necessarily tells you the cultures are live on the package, but I've seen the label in America).   

A kitchen thermometer is also nice, but I'll help you out with some workarounds if you don't have one.

First you dump the milk into a pot and you heat the milk to 180 degrees F  (or 82 degrees C).  We are heating the milk to kill any natural cultures in the milk that might compete with the yogurt culture.

(If you don't have a thermometer, you want to heat it to just under boiling.  Watch for the steam to begin rising and let it heat a few minutes longer, but remove the milk from the heat before it starts boiling.)

Don't worry about the skin forming on the milk, we'll take care of that later.

Now that our natural milk cultures are dead, remove the milk from the heat and cool it down.  This takes awhile, so I speed up the process by setting my milk pot on a windowsill with the window cracked.  

Now we wait until the milk has cooled to 115 F (which is about 45 C).  

If you don't have a thermometer, try sticking your pinky finger into the middle of the milk and keeping it there for a count of ten.  If it's too hot for your pinky, let it cool some more.

Add the Culture, Keep it Warm

Before we add the yogurt, let's skim off that pesky skin.  I like to use one of these things for the job.

Now we add the yogurt.  I add two heaping spoons to my 3 liters of milk.  I'm guessing it's about a 1/4 cup of yogurt altogether.

What's nice is that once you make a batch, you can just set aside a little to start your next batch.  Kind of like sourdough starter, it just keeps perpetuating itself.

Whisk in the yogurt.

Now here's the part you may need to experiment with a bit.  Your goal here is to keep the milk-yogurt mixture between 110-115 F for 6-8 hours or overnight.  There are several methods you can use:

You can wrap the milk pot in a towel, set it in the oven with the light on.  I tried this method the first couple of times I made yogurt.  It did work, but I think maybe the temp wasn't warm enough to really get the yogurt cultures working optimally.  I did get yogurt out of it, but it was less thick than I liked.

You can also put your mixture in an airtight container and submerge in warm water inside of a cooler.  I've never tried this particular method, but I've seen several sites online where people use this method successfully.

I've also found placing the milk in a large jar and setting on top of our radiators seem to work alright.

My favorite method is using my slow cooker.  Mine has a "warm" setting which isn't actually cooking it but just keeping it warm.  Even then, I can't keep it on the warm setting the whole time because it gets too hot and kills the culture.  So I hit the warm button and set it for 30 minutes, let it heat for the 30 minutes, then it goes off and I let it be off for 15-30 minutes, then I hit the warm button again for another 30 minutes.  This seems to keep it right at the optimal temperature.

This all sounds pretty complicated, but the idea is just make sure the milk stays warm, but doesn't get hot.  The yogurt will not thicken if it's not warm enough, and it will die if you get it too hot.  So it's just figuring out what works for you at keeping it at that happy medium.  This is also where a thermometer comes in handy, so you can keep checking on it making sure it's not too hot and not too cool.  

Checking to See if It's Thick Enough

So at some point, you'll start seeing some whey (the clear, yellowish, watery stuff) separate from the yogurt.  You know you're getting close.

So when I take a spoonful of the yogurt out, I can see here that it's definitely thickened beyond the milk consistency, but it's still pretty soft.  If you stop here, your yogurt will be nice and smooth, but not as thick.  For me, I like it thick, so I'm going to keep letting those cultures work for awhile.

So maybe an hour or so later, this is what it looks like -- much more whey has separated out.

And the yogurt is definitely thickened some more.  The time you leave the yogurt to thicken is up to you, just keep going until it looks like you want it to look.

Strain the Yogurt

So now we are going to pour off the whey and then strain the yogurt to get the final consistency we want.  This step is what makes yogurt into greek yogurt.  You are letting some of the liquid drip off in order to get a thicker end product.

So now we need this set-up.  You need a colander or strainer sitting on a bowl or pot to catch the whey.

Now line the colander with a tea-towel.  Nothing fuzzy.  Unlike our 13 sheep.  Who are quite fuzzy.

Pour your yogurt mixture into the towel-lined colander.

Right now, it looks like this.  Don't worry, it'll sit in that nice cozy towel and turn into deliciously thick and wonderful greek yogurt.  Just a little time.

Now I've let it sit and strain for an hour or two.  It looks a little lumpy at this point, but now we're getting that thick consistency we expect from a yummy greek yogurt.

The whey you drained off can be discarded, or used in baking in place of the liquid, you can use it to make smoothies (good protein!), make homemade ginger ale, or you can feed it to all the farm animals your husband keeps buying.  

My yogurt doesn't always end up this lumpy, it just depends on the cultures you're using and the success of the culturing process.  But if I end up with my yogurt that's not as smooth as I like, I've found a few seconds of whisking takes care of it.  

And look at that gorgeous stuff.  And trust me, it tastes better than any yogurt you've ever had from a store.  So creamy and fresh and delicious.

Now the fun part.  What do you do with your yummy yogurt?  Here are some fun ideas:

Make healthier, yummy salad dressings.  Use the yogurt in place of mayo or sour cream.

Make pizza crust!  1 cup greek yogurt mixed with 1 cup self-rising flour for one pizza crust. Easy and tasty. Much quicker than a yeast crust.

Make greek chicken.  Bake chicken pieces in yogurt mixed with herbs.

For vanilla yogurt, mix in sugar or honey or agave and a little vanilla extract.  I eat this stuff straight out of the fridge.  All. Day. Long. 

For other flavors, mix in fresh fruit or jam or other flavorings.  Go crazy!

Use vanilla yogurt topped with fruit or granola for a delicious breakfast.

Make breakfast popsicles for the kids.  Thin the vanilla yogurt with a little milk, mix in a few spoonfuls of fun breakfast cereal and freeze in popsicle molds.  My kids think this is the most awesome treat.  Even when they are tired of yogurt and cereal!

Make yourself some amazing frozen yogurt.  I like chopping up some frozen strawberries and swirling a little nutella into the vanilla yogurt.   Freeze and..... oh. so. good.  Experiment with different mix-ins and flavors.

Add some yogurt to smoothies.  It amps up the creaminess and adds protein.

And, don't forget to save a little yogurt for your next batch!

The Recipe


3 liters of milk (about 12 cups)
1/4 cup plain yogurt (with live yogurt culture -- check package label)

Heat the milk to 180F and let cool to 115F.
Skim off any skin that has formed on the surface of the milk.
Stir in the 1/4 cup of yogurt.  Whisk to combine.
Keep the mixture warm (between 110F and 115F) for 6-8 hours or overnight. (See above for different methods).
Line a colander with a tea towel and place over a large bowl or pot.  Pour the thickened yogurt mixture into the towel-lined colander and let sit for 30 minutes-2 hours until desired thickness is achieved.
Pour back into a bowl or plastic container -- whisk if necessary to make smooth.  Refrigerate.

To make vanilla greek yogurt, add vanilla extract and sugar or honey to taste.


Problem:  Your yogurt is still like milk, thin and runny.

Reason: You need to fix either your culture or your temperature.  Most likely problem is temperature.  If you overheated the mixture with the culture in it, you may have killed the yogurt culture which will mean your milk will not thicken into yogurt.  If your mixture hasn't been heated enough or long enough, the culture will not activate and also will not thicken.

Solution:  If you think you may have heated the yogurt mixture too hot (like over 120F) then you probably killed your culture.  Add more yogurt and try again, being sure to keep the temp evenly between 110 and 115F.   If you think that the temp has been too low, you can keep trying to heat the milk and extend the time that you keep it warm.  

If neither of those options work, you may have a problem with your yogurt culture.  You could try a different brand of plain yogurt that has live cultures in it.