Of all the things I've done and tried for my job, I never thought that making homemade yogurt would be the hardest. I like yogurt as much as the next millennial, and it seemed like a fun and easy project from the recipes and guides that I researched, so I gamely took on the task as I have making homemade cold brew and eating bugs.
I realize now that I must have seriously overestimated my kitchen prowess, because it took a whole week of mistakes and failed attempts to finally walk away with a batch of yogurt that actually looked and tasted like yogurt. Here's everything I did wrong (plus tips from an expert) so you don't have to fail like I did.
In theory, making yogurt is simple. All you need is milk and yogurt.
Yes, you need yogurt to make yogurt. I know this sounds redundant, but it's like how you can't make sourdough bread unless you already have sourdough. You need bacteria to breed more bacteria. So if you buy yogurt once, you technically never need to buy it again.
In anticipation of this story, I read a lot of different homemade yogurt recipes and found that they all subscribe to the same basic formula: Heat milk just below boiling for 20ish minutes, cool it back down, stir in the yogurt, and let it sit undisturbed until it's ready.
Gemma Stafford, chef and blogger at Bigger Bolder Baking, tells SELF that unlike with baking, yogurt-making is a forgiving process. You don't need to use exact measurements, and you can add or subtract the amount of starter yogurt you use depending on your taste (more for a stronger flavor, less for a weaker flavor).
Yet somehow despite its forgiving nature, I messed up three batches before I got one right. Where did I go wrong?
The first mistake I made was adding the yogurt too soon.
If you add the yogurt too soon, like when the milk is still too hot, you'll accidentally kill the cultures. I know because I did that!
A lot of the recipes I read recommended using a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature. They said you shouldn't let your milk get hotter than 185 degrees F or cooler than 115 degrees F. That 115 degree sweet spot is also when you're supposed to incorporate the starter yogurt, which I did not realize the first time around. I purchased a candy thermometer to keep myself from similarly f-ing up my future attempts.
If you don't have a candy thermometer and you don't feel like buying one, Stafford tells SELF you don't have to as long as you're willing to keep an eagle eye on your milk while it's cooking. She says that you shouldn't have any problems if you only keep the milk over a low heat and never let it boil, then make sure its cool enough to touch before you add the yogurt. "People have been making yogurt at home for generations without thermometers," she justifies. Fair enough, Gemma.
Using the wrong kind of milk was my second mistake.
Turns out, there is a wrong kind of milk, and I was using it. I live in Berlin where you can buy shelf-stable milk by the liter for practically nothing (like, 60 cents, no joke). It's shelf-stable because it's extremely pasteurized, which is good for preservation, but not so good for making yogurt.
At first, I'd thought the problem might have been the yogurt I'd been using, but as soon as Stafford told me, "using the freshest milk possible will yield you the best yogurt," a lightbulb went off in my head and I realized my cheap milk was to blame. I headed to the store and grabbed the freshest milk I could find.
Luckily, the type of fresh milk you use doesn't really matter.
I successfully made a batch with both whole milk and skim milk. As long as it's fresh, you can use it to make yogurt.
The third and final mistake I made was using the wrong storage unit.
Since I let the yogurt cultivate in plastic jars the first three failed attempts, I figured it was probably time for me to store it in something else. Stafford says that she prefers to use glass jars, because she's noticed that the resulting yogurt is often better.
By my fourth attempt, I was at my wits' end. If this glass jar trick didn't work, I was going to lose it. But it did! I divided my yogurt mixture between two Mason jars, let it sit while I slept, and when I woke up, fresh, springy, homemade yogurt was waiting in my kitchen to greet me. I'd never been so grateful to see sour milk in my life.
Now that you know what not to do, here's a quick breakdown of what you should do.
Here's how I made my successful batch: I used 4 cups of (fresh) milk, which I let cook at just below a boil for 20 minutes. Then, I dunked the pot in a bath of ice water and stirred it to speed up the cooling process. When it was warm to the touch, I stirred in 3 tablespoons of yogurt (any kind will work) until it was fully incorporated. Then I transferred the mixture to two glass jars, closed them tightly, and left them in a warm spot in my kitchen for 12 hours. The longer you leave your yogurt, the thicker it will become. When you're finished letting it cultivate, store it in the fridge and you should be able to enjoy it for up to 2 weeks. If you prefer your yogurt flavored, you can add syrups, jams, spices, or whatever you like to it after it's finished cultivating. Unfortunately you can't flavor it during the cooking process.
Use your homemade yogurt in these recipes.
Healthier Tuna Salad With Pita Points
This recipe subs mayonnaise for yogurt and the results are fantastic. Get the recipe here.
Cherry-Pecan Yogurt Bark
Sweet and sour, this icy treat makes a great snack or dessert. Get the recipe here.
Peaches and Cream Overnight Oats
In this case, the cream is yogurt, and it's awesome. Get the recipe here.