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Better Living Through Homemade Yogurt

Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin explains how fast people can still enjoy slow food. When the economy took a nosedive, I did the same thing a lot of...

Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin explains how fast people can still enjoy slow food.

When the economy took a nosedive, I did the same thing a lot of other Americans did: I looked at my household expenses and my lifestyle with newly frugal eyes, and began thinking about costs and personal priorities in new ways. That included food.Rethinking what I cook and eat post-econopocalypse meant simpler, slower food; a more local and traditional diet which, in fact, makes good sense in any economic weather. But I live an urban life. I spend a lot of time online or working in short attention bursts. I don't have a lot of time to cook or prepare food, and my city apartment doesn't afford room to raise goats or grow tomatoes. Despite this, I've gradually eased into a number of new rituals and good habits that reduced my grocery bill and make me feel happier and healthier. One of them is making yogurt each week.It takes maybe 20 minutes of actual work and attention, zero equipment beyond stuff I already had in my kitchen, and yields a yummier, healthier, and yes, "probiotic" product that costs five to 10 times less than the store-bought stuff.Here are the basics of rolling your own yogurt the lazy Xeni way. First, choose your starter culture. You can order this online, get it from a fellow slow foodie obsessive, or just do it slacker-style, like me: Buy a small single-serving container of plain yogurt at the corner bodega. Any brand with live Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus cultures will work ($.99 worth of the ubiquitous Dannon does just fine). The instructions that follow are for homemade yogurt with other yogurt as a starter.Next, pick your milk. I use organic 2 percent, but whole milk is even richer. I don't like the more acidic taste or runny texture of yogurt made with lower-fat milks (though you can add dry milk powder to these to compensate). Full-fat soy milk will work if you're vegan, but it forms a more gelatinous "set" than cow or goat milk.Next, heat your fresh milk to 180–190 degrees Fahrenheit, which is right about when it starts to steam and form little bubbles. Heating to this point changes the structure of whey proteins within the milk, and helps ensure a nice consistency. I improvised a double boiler for heating milk like this: Half-fill a large, wide metal pot with water, and set a metal bowl filled with milk in the middle of that pot. Boil the water, and stir the milk in the bowl that floats in that water.When you've scalded the milk, let it cool off to about 110–120 degrees. If you have a thermometer in your kitchen, use it. If you don't (and I still don't), do the "baby bottle" test: dribble a few drops on the inside of your wrist. If it feels really warm but doesn't burn your skin there, it's just right.When you've cooled the milk to this temperature, whisk in (or stir with a spoon-whatever!) two tablespoons of yogurt. This can be the store-bought yogurt, or the last two spoons from your last batch of homemade stuff. I like to thin it down with a bit of the warm milk before I stir it in, to make sure it's evenly distributed.

Now you need to incubate. After you've mixed your "innoculation" yogurt into the warm milk, pour the "innoculated" milk into a sterilized glass jar or other container, cover it, and keep it still and warm for about four to five hours until it sets. I just cover that same metal bowl I used to scald the milk, so I don't have to bother sterilizing another dish to pour it into. Sometimes, I'll instead use a bunch of small ceramic cups, sterilized by running them through my dishwasher. All your equipment should be sterile, because you don't want to introduce any other bacterial contaminants that could prevent the yogurt from setting.To keep it warm during that four to five hour setting period, I wrap my metal bowl in some kitchen towels, and leave the swaddled bowl in the oven with the pilot light on. And really now: leave it alone in there! It's like rising bread dough. If you jiggle it or poke at it, you'll mess up the setting process. Go play Warcraft while you wait, do some email, whatever, but don't fuss with it.As soon as your yogurt sets, stick it in the fridge to allow it to further firm, and halt acid production. If you leave it in "incubation" mode too long, it will become harsh tasting, and eventually, the whey will separate. You don't want this.Here are a few websites I bookmarked when I was making yogurt for the first time. Some of these offer suggestions on other cool stuff you can do with yogurt, like straining it through cheesecloth to make the thick "Greek style" kind, or using it to produce other products like yogurt cheese. It never lasts long enough in my home for any of this fancy stuff, though. A spoonful of local raw honey, maybe a handful of nuts or fresh seasonal fruit, a pinch of salt-nom nom nom.Some of the websites listed below offer equally easy alternatives to my "oven pilot light" method for incubating the yogurt. You can set your milk on a heating pad overnight, or pour it into jars resting inside an insulated beach cooler filled with warm water. But isn't this great? You don't have to buy a yogurt-making machine, and there are a number of ways to reliably produce delicious creamy yogurt with stuff you have lying around the house already. Cheap, easy, lazy, yummy. Enjoy!LEARN MORE Fankhauser's Yogurt Making IllustratedUniversity of Missouri ExtensionNational Center for Food PreservationHarold McGee's "Curious Cook" column in The New York Times Wild Fermentation, which is a website and a terrific book.Xeni Jardin is a Boing Boing tv host and executive producer, and Boing Boing blog co-editor living in Los Angeles, CA.Photos by flickr user (cc) Biology Big Brother

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