Particularly for growing children, a healthy diet certainly should contain a fair amount of dairy. Yogurt is excellent, easily digestible and balanced source of protein, fats, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins – just ask calves, which can grow to almost double their weight in eight weeks or so. Just as importantly, since a healthy diet only matters when it’s eaten, kids love it, especially as a smoothie-type beverage.
Some of the principal nutrients found in yogurt are omega 3 fatty acids (essential for brain development), calcium and vitamin D (building and maintaining strong bones), whey protein (like what bodybuilders’ protein shakes are based on), as well as probiotics (which strengthen the immune system and improves digestion – no more hard or runny tummies). For all these reasons and more, yogurt is often called a “super food.”
Right from the outset, we should make a clear distinction between homemade yogurt and that which you buy from a store. Firstly, commercially produced yogurt may or may not be probiotic, meaning that it contains live microorganisms that benefit your health. This may seem yucky, but the helpful bacteria in your body outnumber your own cells and assist in everything from digestion to a strong immune system. Apart from these benefits, a diet including a probiotic component can assist in preventing type 2 diabetes, lower the risk of cancer, and improve your metabolism and blood pressure.
The second reason you might choose to make your own yogurt is the fact that industrial producers tend to add various preservatives, colorings, flavorings, texture modifiers and excess sugar. Please note that some of the more expensive brands have limited themselves to zero artificial additives; you should be able to tell by reading the packaging. The effects of these chemicals, especially during a child’s developmental years and over the longer term, are still poorly understood and a lot of research remains to be done. It’s a parent’s own choice to either say “well, everyone else is doing it” or “I’m avoiding a risk I can’t quantify.”
If you are interested in learning to make your own yogurt instead of buying “strawberry flavored” stuff that tastes like no fruit you’ve ever eaten, just read on to find out how simple it really is. You need put nothing in it you don’t want your children to ingest, while you can load it up with as much fresh fruit as you want, all while experimenting with natural flavorings such as maple syrup, honey, cinnamon or whatever else you would like to try.
Step 1: Finding the Best Milk
Any cook knows that a great dish starts with finding the best ingredients, which in this case means mainly the milk you’ll be using. Personally, I would not consider using anything other than whole milk, and possibly add additional cream to it, but skim milk works perfectly well too, resulting in a thinner, more free-flowing yogurt.
City dwellers might not be in luck, but if you live near the countryside, you should investigate the possibility of buying directly from a dairy or farm. Often enough, these places offer their fresh, whole milk at ridiculously low prices if you bring your own container (think gallon buckets). The milk you buy may or may not be pasteurized – since this decision affects the health of your children, you should make up your own mind, but pasteurization is not truly necessary if the health of the cows is constantly monitored. Unfortunately, the high temperatures this process entails do alter the flavor of the milk.
Just as importantly, if you obtain your raw material directly from the source, you can ask questions about their processes if you so desire. Is the herd exclusively or mainly fed on grass, as is natural, or do they receive mixed feed high in energy and protein? Do the cows ingest a lot of hormones and antibiotics, some of which will make its way into their milk?
Making your own yogurt from milk will generally cost you less than half of what you pay for the branded stuff, so it’s worthwhile to buy good quality fresh milk. Alternatively, using powdered milk is convenient and cheap, although the taste of your finished yogurt will not be the best. In the case of lactose intolerance, which is far more common in adults than infants, goat milk can be substituted for . Many individuals who suffer from lactose allergies can eat yogurt without experiencing any distress so this may not be necessary. Fresh yogurt is digested at about three times the rate of milk.
Step 2: Choosing Your Equipment
Preserving food through fermentation is as old as human civilization. Since you are working with natural processes, getting it right is simple, and you don’t need any expensive kitchen gadgets to help you. You’ll generally find that what you make in your own kitchen with little effort is very similar in quality to what you find on a supermarket’s shelves, bearing in mind that most bought yogurts contain gelatin, gums or other thickening agents, and often not the freshest fruit.
A glass jar or jug (preferably with a lid) is need to make good yogurt. Just place it in a warm spot in your kitchen; if you put it in the oven after doing some baking, it’s a good idea to stick a note on the oven door in case someone else turns it on. If you can’t find a warm spot, try filling a saucepan with warm water, place your container with the milk mixture in that, and simply wrap the whole thing in a blanket: it should stay warm for hours. Accurate temperature control will result in better, more consistent yogurt, but even without absolute perfection in this respect, things rarely go wrong.
If you plan to make yogurt on a very frequent basis, you can consider investing in an appliance made for the purpose. Essentially, it’s just a container that maintains the optimum temperature for fermentation, so there’s no need to get the most expensive model on the market. For better control, it is recommended to buy one that at least has a timer, while some can be programmed to take care of the initial high-temperature step without human help.
A slow cooker can also be used to make yogurt, if it can be set to maintain a temperature of 40°C (110°F). This is especially good since the timer can be set to shut off after a few hours. Simply put your milk mixture into some convenient glass containers, pour a few inches of warm water into the slow cooker, and place the jars into the water.
Step 3: Choosing a Starter Culture
You can either buy a powdered culture from your local health food store or online, or a get small amount of probiotic yogurt at the store. After your first batch, you can simply use half a cup of this to make the next, although there is a small risk of contamination over time.
All yogurt cultures are essentially similar, although you will see a difference when using Bulgarian, Greek or other specific starters. Bulgarian is one of the tangiest, while some cultures, called “sweet,” may be more suitable for your kids’ palates.
Step 4: Heat up Your Milk
For perfect yogurt, the most important trick is to heat the milk to 80°C (180°F) and keeping it there for twenty minutes or so. If you do have a kitchen thermometer, this should be easy, but if not, just do your best to reach this temperature, which is sufficient to kill off any unwanted microorganisms that may be present. Even if you boil the milk accidentally, you can still make a kind of yogurt with it, although the taste won’t be that great.
The heat also helps break down protein molecules, which results in a thicker, richer texture. If desired, you can skip this step entirely, especially if you are only interested in producing drinkable concoctions. The final texture is also affected by stirring the yogurt during fermentation, or not, not stirring giving you something firmer.
Step 5: Fermentation
After this process, just let it cool until it’s blood warm, 40°C (110°F) or so. You can test this quite adequately by sticking a finger into the liquid. At this point, simply add in the culture powder or probiotic yogurt to start the fermentation process. Adding the culture while the milk is too hot will instantly kill it.
If using a powdered culture, sprinkle it evenly over the surface and leave for a few minutes to absorb moisture before stirring it in; if using bought probiotic yogurt or a sample from your previous batch, just make sure it penetrates the milk evenly, or mix in a bowl with a small amount of the mixture before adding.
Successful fermentation is all about the culture and keeping the mixture warm (but not hot) for several hours. See the various methods in Step 2 for more information, but don’t be afraid to try it. Check how things are going from time to time, using a spoon to taste and check the consistency. The time it takes to the desired stage of fermentation to be reached can be anything between three and ten hours. Even if your first batch of yogurt doesn’t work out, there’s little point in crying over a little-spoiled milk, as the saying goes.
Step 6: Cooling and Adding Flavorings
When you are satisfied that you’ve made yogurt, just remove from whatever you’ve been using to keep it warm and let it cool to room temperature. At this point, you should have a thicket yogurt (it will be looser when at room temperature but come together in the fridge) which you can use in salad dressings, as a topping for fresh fruit and cereal or, of course, to make delectable dairy drinks. An overly strong acidic taste or a grainy texture can be signs of over-fermentation, just stop the process earlier next time.
Since we’re after drinkable yogurt, it’s a good idea to stir it vigorously when it’s reached ambient temperature, which shakes up the natural bonds and makes it more viscous. You can also add sugar, citric acid and whatever flavorings you prefer at this point; for the nutritional benefits, fruit is highly recommended. Note that for this purpose, you can buy fresh fruits such as berries, bananas, or almost any other type and keep them in the freezer for use as needed. You can also consider buying frozen fruit puree in portion-sized packets.
Step 7: Serving and Storage
If you’ve ended up with yogurt that’s a little too thick to sip easily, you need only stir in a little milk, or use a blender for the same purpose. Using a blender or food processor not only saves a little effort, but also makes incorporating fruit a breeze, and if done immediately before serving, incorporates small air bubbles into the drink. This improves the flavor quite a bit.
To make this snack more portable, finding a BPA-free plastic container with a wide mouth is a good idea, especially to simplify cleaning. Homemade yogurt will last in the fridge for at least a week and should be safe to eat even after a few hours at room temperature, although there’s no real guarantee in this respect.
Step 8: See What Else You Can Do
Unflavored yogurt can be used as a much healthier substitute for mayonnaise, in baking and in a multitude of other applications. As a snack or drink on its own, making your own means that you can add whatever flavors you want to. Some things you might wish to try are:
- Combinations of more than one fruit: pineapple with mango, plums with apricot, etc.
- Using fruit juice instead of synthetic coloring to improve the appearance.
- Pour layers of different flavors into clear glasses for an elegant, healthy dessert.
- Add additional texture by stirring in a few sunflower seeds, unsalted nuts, or whatever your inspiration suggests.
- Explore savory yogurt options, such as adding whole spices when you first heat the milk.