When it comes to yogurt, I have very high standards. First, it’s got to be plain. Even though yogurt flavours have gotten far more exciting over the years, I use it for more than just snacking. I also like to flavour my yogurt with my own jams and marmalades when I’m in the mood for eating it straight out of the tub.
Second, my ideal yogurt is thick. I remember this being an uncommon feature of yogurt for most of my childhood, when the low fat craze was in full swing and grocery stores carried only bland, artificially flavoured mixtures that were either thin and runny or thickened with gelatin. Now, Balkan- and Greek-style yogurts are regular fixtures of the dairy case and the days of only being able to find of low-fat strawberry seem to be mostly behind us. Naturally thickened without the help of any ingredients aside from milk and bacteria, these yogurts, if they tasted better, would be perfect.
This brings me point number three: my ideal yogurt tastes really great. On it’s own, I mean. This important to me not just because of how I use it in other food, like as a cooling foil for a spicy roti, or to make cheese, or as the base of a really delicious cake, for example. It’s important to me because I know it’s possible for plain yogurt to taste good, without additional fuss.
I haven’t always had such strong opinions about yogurt. When I lived in Edmonton, yogurt was cheap and plentiful, and I ate it indiscriminately. Then, I moved to Toronto and found myself in for a rude awakening. Dairy products are expensive out here, guys! While at the local No Frills, shopping to fill the fridge in my very first apartment for the very first time, I handed over nearly $4.00 for 2 litres of milk, feeling bewildered and a bit annoyed. Where I come from, milk is less than $1.00 per litre, and it gets cheaper when you buy in volume. And yogurt? Forget about that. At nearly $4.00 a tub, I knew that I would never be able to eat as much yogurt as I wanted to without going broke. Though I eventually learned where to buy milk at almost-Edmonton prices, I had trouble finding a yogurt whose price didn’t make me wince. So, I gave it up for several years. I didn’t cut it out of my life as much as I treated it more like ice cream: something nice to be enjoyed every once in a while.
I started eating yogurt regularly again after moving into a neighborhood that was basically a residential main road with a handful of small, family-type businesses and lots of traffic at rush hour. One of these businesses was a little natural food store that sold Hewitt’s yogurt. Hewitt’s yogurt is amazing, and it’s got everything I look for in a perfect yogurt: It’s nice and thick. It has only two ingredients (milk and bacteria). It’s got a tangy, milky flavour with just the right amount of sourness. This was a yogurt that was smooth-tasting and delicious, and, best of all, it was affordable! At less than $2.50 per tub, yogurt was back on the menu and I couldn’t have been happier. Like most good things that are sold at a reasonable price, however, my Hewitt’s yogurt run didn’t–couldn’t–last forever. The shop changed owners and the prices went up. Then, I moved out of the neighborhood. It’s not all bad, though, because if I really, really wanted some Hewitt’s yogurt, I could just go to the very good natural food store in my current neighborhood. There’s also another, better option: I could make my own.
To be honest, this isn’t an idea that sprang fully formed from my head. I’d read and gotten excited about homemade yogurt in the past, but the thought of having to find a place to put a yogurt maker in my tiny apartment made me feel tired. Eventually the idea sort of went out of my head. In fact, I’d almost completely forgotten that yogurt could be made at home until one lazy Sunday afternoon, when I saw a particularly useful episode of River Cottage – Every Day. The River Cottage shows are a combination of food, travel and real estate porn, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the star of the show, has this sort of hokey, old-fashioned-TV-presenter way of talking to the camera. He talks with his hands in a way that reminds me of this, and he pauses for dramatic effect far more than is reasonable. It’s the sort of thing that should drive me crazy, and, yet, he’s one of my favorite people on TV. He urges people to care about their living environment and where their food comes from, and I believe (or have convinced myself, in any case) that it comes from a place of sincerity. Most importantly, he knows how to play with food.
It was Hugh (because, in my head, we’re on a first-name basis now) who showed me that yogurt is not only easy to make, it can be made using equipment you already have in your kitchen: a pot to heat the milk, a digital instant-read termometer to keep track of the temperature, and an oven with a pilot light or working light bulb. That’s. It. Can you believe it?
P.S. I think it’s even better than Hewitt’s, too!
Yogurt, recipe adapted from River Cottage Every Day by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Hugh’s recipe only makes a small amount of yogurt, certainly not enough to last more than a few days. This recipe will give you enough to nearly fill two 1-litre jars, which will last, and keep, for up to two weeks.
6 cups, or 1 bag, of whole milk
75 g, or 3/4 cup, skim milk powder (this probably seems like a weird ingredient, but it makes the yogurt thicker and richer tasting)
1/4 cup plain yogurt with live bacteria (saved from the previous batch)
Whisk the milk and milk powder together in a large, wide pot. You can use a smaller pot if that’s all you have, but a larger pot with a wider base will ensure that the milk heats up quickly and evenly. Stirring often, heat the milk over gentle heat (medium-low) to 46˚C/ 115˚F, which, depending on the size of your pot, will take about 5 or 10 minutes, and then remove from the heat. At this point, I like to transfer the milk to a red clay crock, which has become my go-to yogurt incubator because of the way it holds heat. Transferring to a different dish also helps bring the temperature of your milk down a bit more quickly if you’ve accidentally overheated it, as I have done before. Once you’re sure the temperature is in the neighborhood of 46˚C/115˚F, give or take a few degrees, whisk in your plain yogurt. Cover your crock or pot in plastic wrap before replacing the lid, slide it into the oven and turn the light on.
This is where I diverge from most other recipes, which tell you to remove the yogurt from the oven after 6-8 hours. This is not nearly long enough if you want nice, thick yogurt with a great flavour. As I learned by accident, it’s best to leave the yogurt to incubate for at least 12 or 13 hours. Then, remove it from the oven and put it in the fridge for about 6 hours, which slows the fermentation. After that, it’s ready to jar up and eat!
Simple, quick, and delicious. How are you going to enjoy your fresh yogurt?