by Laura Parker Roerden
My family decided we would cut back on our plastic pollution recently and have been slowly replacing plastic items with real ones. The health risks are real–plastic is entering our waterways, the ocean and our food webs, concentrating dangerous chemicals in the food we eat. So we took a look at it together. What were we doing well? What could we improve upon?
One of the worst offenders for single-use plastic in our home was yogurt containers, which in many places are not recyclable. We love yogurt. I’m the daughter of dairy farmer, so I tend to like all milk products. Yogurt, in particular, has undeniable health and immune system benefits. But we were throwing a mountains worth of plastic into our recycling bins each week and spending a small fortune on it.
One day a friend, Women Working for Oceans founder Barb Burgess, mentioned that she was making yogurt at home after a French neighbor had said to her with astonishment, “You don’t make your own yogurt?” Perhaps to the French not making your own yogurt is like buying a plastic-wrapped peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The whole point is its simplicity. Well, okay then! If it is that easy, then why not try it?
Turns out it’s true: not only is it easy and cheaper to make your own yogurt, but making it yourself feels nurturing and homey. The whole process conjures up images of clay crock pots and cotton towels, of French countrysides, and wooden breakfast tables with the first light of morning where families connect before heading off into their days.
It reminds us of a time when we understood food as a reflection of the land and where fermentation was a necessity of economy and safe storage; and we had a healthy co-habitation with the bacterial engines that drive life. Barb told me that she makes yogurt with her husband Bill every night for their morning breakfast, creating a nice ritual of togetherness.
Making your own yogurt can even engage you and your children’s ingenuity and problem solving skills, as you search for simple ways to maintain a several hour heat source between 110 and 115 F for 5-10 hours. Some people achieve this through their oven; others by buying yogurt makers. But there is an entire culture of rogue solutions to this task including DIY wooden containers with light bulbs; use of an already heated oven from making dinner (simply shut off the stove, but keep it closed overnight); repurposing crockpots and food dehydrators; heating pads; microwaves; placement over radiators; to even cuddling in bed with a jar and a hot water bottle. My own kids suggested our chicken brooder to incubate yogurt, but I don’t even want to talk about the cleanliness implications of that idea!
I have a healthy fear of bacterial processes run amock (farming will do that to you) so I favor the stable temperature approach of a commercial yogurt maker or oven. But you’ll be nothing short of delighted if you spend some time indulging on Pinterest on home-made yogurt incubation ideas: people’s creativity will make you believe there is indeed hope for humanity.
Home-Made Yogurt Recipe
- Milk (whole or skim, depending on the consistency you’d like)
- Yogurt culture (this can come from commercial prepared plain yogurt, just save a little for use in this recipe) or you can buy cultures online. I buy cultures, as they tend to be of higher quality of the immune system enhancing live bacteria than commercially-prepared yogurt and more consistently perform. They are also inexpensive and do not involve buying more plastic.
- Candy (food) thermometer
- Oven-safe pan with cover
- Ice for a bath that will cool your pan
Safety Note: Be sure your equipment is clean and sanitized. Right out of the dishwasher should be sufficient if your settings are hot.
- Heat milk on stove to just around a simmer of 180 F degrees for 30 minutes. You can transfer the pan to the oven for this stage if you don’t want to babysit the maintenance of temperature on the stove top.
- Cool the pan quickly to a temperature of 115 F degrees in an ice bath. Add yogurt culture (follow directions on packet) and stir.
- Incubate: Keep the yogurt at 115 F degrees for 5-10 hours. You can do this safely by keeping it in the pan with a lid on it in the oven at temperature. Or transfer to clean glass containers in a simple yogurt maker and plug in.
- If you incubated in your pan, transfer to clean glass jars (small mason canning jars work beautifully) and store in the refrigerator. This is where you can add fruit preserves at the bottom.
Fruit and toppings can be added at any stage, but I’d recommend making plain yogurt the first time to add toppings later, so that you’re aware of the thickness you are working with before adding thinning ingredients like fruit, which contains a good amount of water. You’ll need to experiment to do this in a way that finishes with a result you like.
Since we make fruit preserves anyway, I’ve had best results by putting a little fruit preserve in the bottom of the jar for the incubation process, before pouring the milk on top. The times I’ve added sugar to fruit and cooked it down, then added this quick preserve to the milk for throughout flavor coverage have resulted in much too thin yogurt for my taste (though I will say blueberries work better than strawberries.) You can always add gelatin to thicken at this stage, but that just sounds too fussy to me. The goal is simplicity.
Price Comparison: 3-9 X More to BUY
$4.56 gallon for homemade yogurt
$38.40 gallon for commercially-prepared yogurt (if bought in 6 ounce cups)
$14.08 gallon for commercially prepared yogurt (if bought in larger containers)
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Laura Parker Roerden is the founding director of Ocean Matters and the former managing editor of Educators for Social Responsibility and New Designs for Youth Development. She serves on the boards of Women Working for Oceans (W20) and Earth, Ltd. and is a member of the Pleiades Network of Women in Sustainability. She lives on her fifth generation family farm in MA.