Chalk this up to childhood memories best forgotten: When I was in elementary school, my classmates dubbed me Yogurt Girl. This (hopefully affectionate) title was earned thanks to my propensity for eating a fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt single every day — not just during lunch, but also during snack. Twice-a-day yogurt consumption didn’t merely earn me a rockin’ nickname; it also cultivated in me a lifelong love of yogurt.
Which is why I’m so excited that we here at Greatist have decided to explore the world of DIY yogurt-making. There’s some terminology and several steps involved, so the process can look sort of daunting — but don’t let this intimidate you! It’s actually not that tough, and we’ve broken down all the lingo and instructions to guide you every step of the way.
Before we get to the materials and ingredients list, let’s break down some of the decisions you’ll have to make in the grocery store.
Choosing a milk.
Yogurt can be made with anything from skim to whole milk. Whole milk tends to be easiest for beginners because it holds together well and makes for thick, mild yogurt. In general, whole and two-percent milks will produce yogurt with more structure and creaminess. Lower-fat milk will create runnier and less creamy yogurt, but that doesn’t mean it won’t taste good. If your diet or taste preferences call for lower-fat milk, then go for it. If going the low-fat route, feel free to add thickeners (such as nonfat dry milk powder, unflavored gelatin, or pectin) if you prefer a less runny texture. Organic, ultra-pasteurized, or regular milk can all be used. Note: While it’s possible to make yogurt from soy milk or almond milk, the ingredients and process are a bit different, so we’ll be sticking strictly to cow’s milk in this article. If you want to take a stab at non-dairy yogurt, check out this recipe for soy milk yogurt or this recipe for make-your-own almond milk yogurt.
Choosing a starter.
A “starter” contains the live bacterial cultures that help transform milk into yogurt. You can start a batch of homemade yogurt two ways: from a few tablespoons of store-bought (or previously homemade) plain yogurt, or with a yogurt starter powder. If using store-bought yogurt, pick a plain yogurt (regular or Greek should work fine) that tastes good to you and check the label to verify that it has live, active cultures (this part is very important). Also check to make sure the yogurt doesn’t contain flavors or added sweeteners (like sugar, Splenda, or Aspartame). It’s also best to avoid a yogurt that uses additives or thickeners (like pectin, gelatin, or dry milk powder). Fat content doesn’t matter. Note: These photos are of Stonyfield whole milk plain yogurt. If using previously made homemade yogurt as a starter, it’s best to create only six to eight batches from the original batch. After that, purchase some new yogurt to start all over again with a fresh culture (otherwise, the acidity balance can get off). If yogurt from a homemade batch’s culture doesn’t seem to be setting up right, it might be time to introduce a fresh starter culture.
Powdered starters tend to have set amounts of live bacteria, which allows them to perform consistently (so no worries about acidity balance). They can be difficult to find at some grocery stores but can be found at health food stores or online. Many come in pre-measured envelopes or packets; read the package instructions to determine how much starter to use for a batch of yogurt.
Choosing an incubator.
Toward the end of the yogurt-making process, you’ll need to incubate the mixture for several hours (this step is essential for converting milk into yogurt). The easiest incubation option is to purchase a yogurt maker, which is a no-frills device designed to keep the yogurt at a stable temperature while it incubates. But there’s no need to drop some dough on a yogurt maker if it’s not in the budget. There are several other options for incubating without pulling out the wallet: A thermos, oven, microwave, or slow cooker, and heating pad all work. See the instructions below for further details.
Choosing flavors and toppings.
Flavorings aren’t necessary, but they can certainly spruce up a batch of plain yogurt and appeal to different palates. Flavorings can be added right before the yogurt is served. Sweet options include fresh or preserved fruit, honey, molasses, palm sugar, jam, and flavored syrups. The more daring among us (or those without a sweet tooth), can give savory options a try: Dried spices, diced cucumber or other vegetables, minced garlic, or fresh herbs such as mint, parsley, dill, or basil are all good options. Just use whatever amount suits your taste buds and experiment with what flavor combinations are most appealing.
Recipe: DIY Yogurt
Makes approximately 4 cups of yogurt. Recipe and instructions slightly adapted from Epicurious.
What You’ll Need:
Before embarking on a yogurt-making adventure, make sure to have these materials on hand:
Heavy, large pot or microwavable container (for warming milk)
Candy thermometer, preferably with clip for attaching to the side of the pot
Whisk or large spoon
Incubator (see above)
Cheesecloth and colander for straining (optional, see step #9)
And of course, the actual ingredients:
1 quart (4 cups) milk
3 tablespoons starter (plain yogurt or powdered yogurt starter (see above)
Thickeners (optional, see above)
Flavorings and toppings (optional, see above)
Note: This recipe can be doubled or tripled; simply increase the amount of starter and milk proportionately.
What to Do:
- Set up.
a. Clean and sterilize your equipment, tools, and work surface. There are two ways to do this: Use the “sanitize” setting on the dishwasher, or sterilize everything with boiling water. Set out all the equipment for easy access.
b. Prepare an ice bath. Simply fill the large bowl or (clean!) sink with ice.
c. Set up the candy thermometer. Attach it to the heavy, large pot. The tip should be low enough to be covered a bit by the milk, but should not touch the bottom of the pan.
- Heat the milk. Add the milk to the large pot, and place over medium heat. Heat the milk until it reaches at least 180 degrees (or begins to boil). Make sure to stir occasionally to prevent a “skin” from forming, and watch to make sure the milk doesn’t reach a roiling boil or boil up toward (or over!) the edges of the pot. (Not into the stove thing? Use the microwave, instead! Place the milk in a large microwave-safe bowl or a large glass measuring cup with a spout (for easy pouring) and microwave it in 2- to 3-minute intervals, until it reaches 180 degrees or boils.)
- Cool the milk.
a. Once the milk reaches 180 degrees, remove it from the heat and allow it to cool to 110 or to 115 degrees.
b. To speed the cooling process, place the large pot in the ice bath, stirring the milk occasionally. If the milk temperature drops below 110 degrees, return it to the heat.
- Add the starter. Once the milk reaches between 110 and 115 degrees, it’s time to add the starter culture.
a.For yogurt starter: In the small bowl, combine about 1 cup of the warm milk with the yogurt and stir to combine. Add the yogurt-milk mixture to the pot and stir gently until completely incorporated.
b. For powdered starter: Follow the manufacturer's instructions! This will involve adding the specified amount of powdered culture to the warm milk, and whisking gently until the powder has dissolved completely.
Note: If using thickeners, add them now, too! To thicken: Whisk in 3 or 4 tablespoons of nonfat powdered dry milk. Or, if using pectin or gelatin, just follow the instructions on the package.
- Get prepped for incubation.
a. First, pour or ladle the warm mixture into a thermos (if going with that method), or a covered heat-safe container (if using the microwave, oven, or crock pot method).
b.During incubation, you’ll want to keep the mixture at a temperature of 100 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Note: If the milk’s temperature drops below this threshold during incubation, it should still be fine; your yogurt just might have a looser texture.
- Now it’s time to incubate.
a. If using a thermos: Simply warm up the inside by swirling around hot tap water inside before adding the yogurt. (Pour out the water first, obviously!). Wrap the container in a towel or blanket and leave it somewhere that it won't be disturbed.
b. If using the oven: Warm the oven to about 115 degrees (if your oven doesn’t have a low temperature setting, just set it to the lowest temperature possible and allow it to heat up for a bit). Turn the oven off. Set the container in the oven.
c. If using a crockpot: Heat the crockpot to about 115 degrees, then unplug it. (If it only has high and low settings, just use one of them to get the pot warm, and then turn it off.). Wrap the yogurt-filled container in a towel and let it sit, covered, inside the crock pot.
d. If using the microwave: Cover the bowl and swaddle it in a few towels to help retain heat. Pro tip: If you have a heating pad, feel free to heat it up and put it underneath or beside the container to further ensure it stays warm.
e. If using a heating pad: Set the heating pad to low heat and wrap it around the container, or set the covered container on top of the heating pad and wrap a few towels around the container — the goal is to distribute the heat as evenly as possible around the yogurt. This option might be a bit slower than the others; don’t be shocked if the yogurt needs to sit for upwards of ten hours.
- Let it set. Five hours is the minimum amount of time required for incubation, but you can safely incubate for longer — even overnight. The longer the incubation period, the thicker and tarter the yogurt. After five hours, the yogurt is basically “done” when you want it to be. The texture should be creamy, and the flavor will be tart. Take a taste! If you like it, stop incubating. If you’d like it to be tangier, let it incubate for a few more hours. If you want the yogurt to be thicker, follow the instructions in step #9 once you’ve finished incubating. Note: Do not disturb or jostle the yogurt during incubation.
- Strain the mixture (optional). Now, if you want to make a thicker, Greek-style yogurt, follow these steps (if you want to keep it traditional, skip to the next step!). For thicker yogurt: After incubation, spoon the yogurt into a cheesecloth-lined colander set over a bowl Cover with plastic wrap and let it drain in the refrigerator for at least one hour or overnight (probably closer to overnight). If you want extra thick yogurt — think Fage- or Chobani-esque — use a double layer of cheesecloth or a coffee filter, and allow the mixture to strain overnight. Discard the whey that drains out of the yogurt (or reserve it for another use!).
- Transfer the yogurt to storage containers. Covered glass, ceramic, or plastic containers work well. Or just cover the yogurt in the bowl and refrigerate until cold (about 2 to 3 hours). If you used a thermos to incubate, be sure to transfer the finished yogurt to a non-insulated container for chilling so the temperature will drop.)
- Add flavorings (optional). After the yogurt has fully set and cooled, feel free to add flavorings and mix-ins! Or, store plain and top with extras right before serving.
The yogurt should last for approximately two weeks, though it will have the best flavor during the first week and will become more tart as it ages. If more whey separates out of the yogurt while it’s in the fridge, just stir the whey back in before serving. Enjoy!
Have you made your own yogurt? Got any tips for the newbies among us? Share in the comments below, or get in touch with the author on Twitter @LauraNewc.