Homemade Yogurt and a Cultural Experience
It was a rough winter here in the northeastern US of A. We had snow up to our brains, cold blasting out our ears, and ice-encrusted souls. In the city, we fought for parking spots with pickaxes and guardian garbage cans, and the good people of rural New England chuckled around their woodstoves as they watched coverage of our sorry marooned souls. By and by, April arrived, but spring in these parts, as many-a gentle reader may know, is similarly no bloody joke. My compatriots in the North Country are still chinking frost and snow off their windshields in the morning, and recently endured days of post-April Fool’s Day snow. Jack Frost, does your cruelty know no limits? Here in Boston, the snowbanks have disappeared and the green blades of crocuses are poking timidly through the rotted autumn leaves. Soon we’ll be blessed with mud and biting insects. Ah, sweet poetry of spring.
And yet, there is good to be reaped from this cursed season, this ellipsis of winter. One of the magical products of northeastern springtime: the much-hallowed maple syrup. When the days get warm and the nights stay chilly, the sugar maples start sending the sap up through their tree veins, and enterprising folk hammer their taps into maple trunks, collect this sweet tree water, and transform it into liquid gold. Despite spending my childhood in New England, I had never actually taken part in this process, so DG and I jumped at an invitation from our friends in northern Vermont, Julie and Ben, to join their family for a weekend, take part in the gathering, and learn how the magic happens. They promised a genuine old-school Vermont maple-sugaring experience, complete with bucket-hauling, draft horses, a sugar shack, and meals cooked on a woodstove — with one caveat.
You see, sap-gathering is a tricky thing. The weather is fickle at this time of year, and the syrup can only be made if Mother Nature cooperates. Too cold and the sap doesn’t run, too warm and the season is kaput — warm sap breeds bacteria and yields un-tasty syrup. We strategized and tiptoed around the calendar, aiming for a time when it seemed most likely the sap would be running so we could hop on the sugaring train. The chosen weekend looked promising: the season had begun and some syrup had been made, but it had not been going for so long that it looked like things were tapering off. Choo choo! We were feeling pretty clever. Guess what. When we pulled into the station, the mercury plunged. Despite a glorious, sunny weekend near the shores of Lake Champlain, we were shut out of the sugaring business by cold temperatures. On our first full day (after marooning our four-wheel drive vehicle on a ledge in their driveway like consarned city slickers and having a gruff fellow named Maurice haul us out), we trudged through the snowy woods to peek in tin-roofed buckets and see whether the trees were producing for us, and the prospect looked pretty bleak. Aside from a few sap-sicles that we broke off the taps and sucked on for their sweet hint of maply goodness, there wasn’t much to harvest. A quick look at the forecast showed that it would only get colder. The old-timers shook their woolly-capped heads. There would be no sugaring that weekend. We did, however, get a guided tour of the operations in the sugar shack, with much emphasis on the importance of doing things the old-fashioned way, and made the acquaintance of the famed sugaring horses, Blondie and Blaze. We also made off with some precious syrup made just that previous week. And we didn’t even have to haul buckets to earn it!
Don’t think for a minute that the no-sap verdict ruined our fun. Good friends, cold beers, a big kitchen, two entertaining kiddos, and plenty of logs for the fire made for merriment aplenty. Also, Julie and I had been scheming for months to get our cooking motors firing on all cylinders when we got together, with one of the primary goals being the realization of what I now call the Maple Moussetastic Chocolate Dreampie. Apart from this (extremely successful) endeavor, we just enjoyed cooking side by side and picking up on one another’s hints and shortcuts. On a trip to the grocery store to pick up a last minute item for aforementioned dreampie, Julie offhandedly mentioned her recent frustration at finding out that her kids’ favorite yogurt was not as healthy as she’d thought. My response? “Do you have a candy thermometer?” Probably a little puzzled at my non sequitur, she said yes, which was my clever segué to inducting her in the yogurt-making masses.
Yes, my friends, making yogurt is easy, easy, easy. So easy, in fact, that you will do it and declare, “That will never work, it is too easy!” But it does. Try it, and believe. Not only is it easy, but the results are even tastier than anything you can buy at the store and much, much less expensive. It’s the beautiful trifecta: cheaper, tastier, and ever-so-simple. Oh, and healthy! (Quadfecta?) In today’s chatterbox post, I will give you the lowdown on how to make your own yogurt at home, from a method that I pulled together from a few different sources and have successfully passed on to a number of curious friends (like my newly nursing mother-friend in California who had a fridge full of milk and couldn’t consume it fast enough). Honestly, for every one person whom I induct into the sisterhood of yogurt-makers (brothers also welcome), three more come to me and ask for this magic knowledge. And so, at the behest of the people, I enshrine it here for all to share.
All you need to do the deed is fresh milk, a little bit of starter yogurt, a saucepan, a jar, some towels, and a candy thermometer. I generally use a quart-sized mason jar, but I have used an old spaghetti sauce jar in a pinch and it didn’t affect the outcome one bit. If you go that route, just make sure you’ve cleaned your old jar really well, because the prospect of spaghetti- or pickle-flavored yogurt is unsavory at best. I would hesitate to use a plastic container because I doubt it would hold in heat as well as a glass jar, and the incubation period is when the magic happens, so don’t risk messing that part up. Nobody wants a tub of sloshy, slightly fermented milk. As for the candy thermometer, they’re easily obtainable at many grocery stores, a kitchen-supply store, or online. Mine is the basic $7 model that you clip to the side of your pan and it hasn’t failed me yet. (Although it did get damp inside it once, which is annoying since the thing with the numbers on it is actually a slip of paper that wrinkles when it gets wet. An overnight sitting on my heating vent solved that problem.) Be ye warned, the temperature is just as important as the ingredients in making yogurt, so don’t try to fudge the numbers. If at all possible, don’t wander too far from the stove during the initial steps, and keep an eye on the temperature. I’ve burned (as a result of walking away during step one) and curdled (as a result of not waiting long enough for step two) too many quarts of milk to let you do the same. Further notes and recommendations can be found within the recipe below.
Once you have your stash of homemade yogurt, sprinkle it with berries, dollop it on your granola, and swirl it in your smoothies. Or, as I have been doing, drizzle a spiral of golden maple syrup over it, and whisper to your belly, “You’re welcome.”
Lastly, lest you think I am a big spring Grinch, I offer you this bit of culture: a message of springtime hope from the blessed Massachusetts poet, Mary Oliver. It is one of my favorite word compositions.
*Sugaring photos from the archives of the beautiful and talented Julie.
Makes 1 quart
- You can double, triple, or quadruple this recipe, just make sure that you stick to the basic ratio of yogurt-to-milk and that you have a good way to keep all the jars warm while the culture incubates. There are lots of ways that people get creative with this, which you can find with Google’s kind help. I offer you my way, which is simple, successful, and is not complicated with appliances or equipment.
- If you wish to flavor your yogurt with fruit or jam, do so after it is done, or, better yet, right before you serve it. A teaspoon of jam is all you need to turn your plain yogurt into a blueberry bonanza that anyone will love.
- This recipe is for cow’s milk yogurt. I use whole milk because that is what I buy and think is the tastiest, but have made it successfully with low-fat and skim milk. I cannot vouch for its success with alternative milks (goat, soy, rice, etc.). I have one report of success with lactose-free milk.
- For your starter yogurt, any kind will work as long as it has live, active cultures. Even if it’s flavored, the flavor will be diluted, and it will work just fine as long as you don’t mind a hint of that flavor in your first batch. I use the dregs of my last batch to make my next one, and recommend you do the same.
- A shorter incubation period will result in creamier yogurt, a longer one in tangier yogurt.
1 quart (4 cups) milk
2 T yogurt
saucepan large enough to hold your quantity of milk
quart-sized jar with lid
Pour the milk into the saucepan, and clip the candy thermometer to the side of the pan, positioning it so that the tip is submerged in the milk and so that you can easily read the temperature. Warm the milk slowly over low heat until the thermometer registers between 180⁰ and 190⁰F, at which point the milk will steam and form small bubbles on the surface (this should take about 20 minutes).
Turn off the heat and allow the milk to cool to around 115⁰ to 120⁰F (this should take about 15 minutes). Mix a few tablespoons of the warm milk with your starter yogurt to temper it, and then stir that into the pan of warm milk. Pour the mixture into the jar and attach the lid.
Swaddle the jar in several kitchen towels (I use two dish towels and a tea cozy), wrapping it well to keep the warmth in, and set it in a warm place to incubate for four to 12 hours (shorter for creamy, longer for tangy).
After the allotted time, open the jar and check that the yogurt has set. Refrigerate the yogurt until cold to complete the firming and slow down the fermentation.
Welcome to the family of yogurt-makers!