Thursday, December 28, 2006

Triumphant Yogurt

I had a big success yesterday. I managed to make a batch of yogurt without burning the milk. Considering that the last three times I’ve tried to make yogurt I’ve managed to burn the hell out of the milk, this is a big step forward.

Since I believe I’m the only freak in my circle of friends who makes something that most people go out and buy for 89 cents a cup at the grocery store, perhaps a quick explanation of how yogurt is made would be in order.

You start with milk, obviously, the amount dictated by how much yogurt you want to make, and the type dictated by what kind. Skim milk, as I understand it, can’t be used to make yogurt—it’s too thin to start with, and the yogurt doesn’t thicken properly. However, either whole or some version of reduced fat milk works fine. I actually use whole milk, because I think it tastes better as yogurt.

You heat the milk until it’s just starting to froth, remove it from the stove, and let it cool to about 110 degrees. I understand this is when you can stick your finger in it and leave it there for 10 seconds, but I always use an instant read thermometer. Then you add yogurt starter. This can either be a couple of tablespoons of plain store-bought yogurt, or a true “starter,” which can also be bought at the grocery store. I’ve found the commercial starter to work better and much faster than the couple-of-tablespoons-of-yogurt method, but if you can’t find the starter, the other way does work. Either way, this is one of those cases where you dish out a little of the warm milk, stir the starter (whichever one you choose) into it, and stir the little bit back into the whole.

I’ve read that it’s possible to make yogurt with a glass jar, a gas oven with a pilot light, and maybe an old baby blanket or two, but since all my baby blankets are currently in use, I go with the yogurt maker. This is nothing more than a plastic tray that plugs in and has some kind of low wattage heating element in it. The milk gets portioned out into glass jars with lids, the jars go in the tray, a domed lid goes over the whole, and you wait. When I used to use a little yogurt as a starter, it could take upwards of 10 hours for the yogurt to get to the consistency I prefer (thick). With the starter, I find that it’s ready in 6 or so hours. Newer models I've seen have an actual timer on them that turns the unit off after the set amount of time. Naturally mine does not have this feature. A word of warning—if you let the yogurt sit in the maker for too long, it passes through the “thick” stage and goes back to a consistency that resembles the original milk of which it was made. I don’t know why, I just know it’s so.

Once the yogurt is done, it goes in the fridge, where it thickens up a little more and is ready to eat. Since I don’t like plain milk, I eat mine with cereal. It’s also very nice with honey and some toasted nuts.

You’ll notice there’s no sugar or sweetener in this yogurt. That’s correct. It’s plain unsweetened yogurt. It takes a little getting used to, but once you adjust to the somewhat tart flavor of it, the stuff sweetened with anything (sugar or artificial sweetener) will taste too sweet and chemically. I haven’t tried adding flavorings like vanilla, but I suppose it could be done. I guess you could also make it with chocolate milk, which would make an interesting chocolate yogurt that could be kind of dessert-y, since commercial chocolate milk has sugar in it. I have no idea if this would even work, but it might. I would suspect that if you used some form of cream—light or heavy—that you’d wind up with something the consistency of panna cotta, although it wouldn’t be anything you could eat on a regular basis, unless your cholesterol and triglyceride levels were dangerously low.

So there’s some experimentation to be done here, but first I had to conquer a problem that I’ve been having in the last six months or so. Namely, I put the milk on to heat, then wander off and get caught up in some other activity, and am only called back to my yogurt making when my husband yells something like “Is this milk supposed to be boiling all over the stovetop like this?” (what a comedian). By the time I ruin that much milk (about 48 ounces), I don’t have enough left to make another batch, so I’d be headed off to the store to buy more. That would usually mean taking a kid with me, which can be such a hassle that I usually just resolve to eat toast for breakfast instead.

Thus, yesterday’s events, in which I put milk on to heat, walked away from it three or four times to tend the baby, but still managed to remember it was on the stove, and get back to take it off at the appropriate time was quite a triumph. This morning I had a bowl of homemade yogurt with granola by way of a celebration.

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