My Adventures in Making Yogurt

I have made yogurt about four times since my first attempt earlier this year. It’s definitely been a learning experience, and I’m happy to say I’m progressing each time I make it. Each successive batch has come a little closer in texture to what I consider to be the perfect yogurt. I just made another batch on Friday of last week and I think I’m almost there.

Foods like yogurt and kefir from raw milk are extremely beneficial for digestive and immune system health. We all need a lot of healthy bacteria in our bodies to maintain every organ system. Without them, our bodies fall into a state of inflammation, disease, and illness.

These are notes from my adventures of all the yogurt I’ve made thus far, and the results from each batch. All yogurt batches I have made were using certified organic raw milk from pasture-raised Jersey and Guernsey cows. My starter has been plain, organic, whole-milk yogurt from grass-fed cows (whatever store brand I was buying at the time – the first three batches were Nancy’s Yogurt, the last batch was Stonyfield Farm). I’m sharing what I did that didn’t work so you can understand how I arrived at the method I’m using now.

First batch of yogurt

The first time I attempted to make yogurt, I found some random recipes on the Internet and sort of pieced the techniques together. I put my raw milk in a pan on the stove and added the yogurt before heating – don’t ask me why I did this. Most instructions I’ve seen for yogurt making instruct the preparer to add the starter after heating and achieve a certain temperature (which varies according to recipe).

Even though many recipes advised me to do so, I was never willing to heat my milk up to 180 degrees because doing so would destroy good bacteria. And in that defeats the purpose of making homemade yogurt in the first place. So I only allowed the milk to reach just above 100 degrees before adding the yogurt starter before turning it down and placing it in the jars to sit overnight.

The pouring process was difficult and I made a mess. I poured the milk from the pan into a funnel sitting on top of my jar. I disliked this part of  yogurt-making the most because I had a great deal of milk to clean up afterward.

This batch was left in a glass jar on the counter overnight. The results were adequate, and my son really like the taste (which is most important to my efforts), and my husband thought it was pretty good. But I had a hard time eating it because it seemed a little too watery to me. Unfortunately, even I am influenced to some extent by commercial yogurts and their perfectly uniform texture. The taste was just a bit too sour for me as well.

Second batch of yogurt

I have definitely had some valuable learning experiences from yogurt-making, and one of them was learning how best to pour the milk from the pan into the jar. I made a big mess again, just like the first time because I tried pouring the milk from the pan into a funnel sitting on top of the jar. And even though it was in the sink, a lot of milk spilled anyway.

This time I decided to place the jars in a cooler and wrap it in a heating pad. I didn’t have much experience with the proper heat levels in making yogurt, but I knew it shouldn’t get too warm or it would destroy the bacteria. Well, that effort was a complete flop. When I checked it later, the yogurt had become hard and rubbery. So I had to throw it out and start again.

Third batch of yogurt

The key to making good yogurt is to keep trying. The third time I used a yogurt-maker we had recently purchased (it was only about $50), because a friend had told me she used one and achieved perfect results. Of course, I didn’t take into account that there are many types of yogurt makers and I think that makes a difference in the way the yogurt turns out. My friend’s yogurt maker is one that makes the batch all at once in one big container.

The type I bought, a brand called Donvier, seemed very easy to use and comes with 8 little cups. But I found that when it came time to pour the milk into the cups, it was really difficult to keep the milk from spilling everywhere – even though I was using a soup ladle to pour it into the cups. And the amount of milk I had heated on the stove was more than I could fit in the cups, and I had to use additional jars anyway, which I placed in my oven this time and let sit with the oven light on for about 15 hours.

My results with the third batch were as follows:

The yogurt in jars in my oven turned out pretty good, better than my first two batches.  It was fairly thick and it definitely passed the family test. But the yogurt in the jars that were in the yogurt-maker, surprisingly enough, turned out very watery and was much too sour. Although my family thought it was okay, I really didn’t care for it and ended up throwing out half of it later. I should have saved the whey for something else like lacto-fermented vegetables or homemade condiments, but I was sort of running out of patience at that point and just wanted to start over again.

Here are my other thoughts about the yogurt maker: I didn’t like how little the amount of yogurt there was in each jar serving. I’d always have to get more from another jar to make it enough for one person. Also, the jar lids were exceedingly difficult to remove, and cleaning the jars and lids was not very easy. I had to thoroughly rinse out each individual jar and lid as the yogurt sticks to the containers quite stubbornly. My theory is that since the jars are plastic, this somehow affects the yogurt’s ability to stick to it even more than it would to glass.

Which leads me to yet another dislike of the jars – that they are plastic and are subjected to heat during the yogurt-making process. Although the heat is not high, it’s still heat, and plastic is not supposed to heated in the first place  due to leeching – especially when it contains food. I’m not sure if these cups are made with BPA or not, but it still concerns me. I’ve made a concerted effort to remove a lot of plastic from my home, so I was definitely not pleased when the yogurt maker arrived and I discovered the entire unit is made of plastic. So, overall, I’m giving this particular yogurt maker a grade of ‘F’.

Fourth batch of yogurt

In our area, most cows are not producing a lot of milk this time of year until early spring because the weather is usually cold and most grass-fed cows are now either on alfalfa exclusively, or only graze on grass weather permitting. So we made arrangements with  Saint John’s Organic Farm in Emmett, Idaho where we get our milk to pick up a larger amount of milk to freeze for over the winter.

We had just received one of our pouches of raw milk (the third week of December). The first pouch we froze, and then thawed out. It tasted really sweet and my son didn’t like it. My husband and I weren’t crazy about the globules in the milk from the cream which froze, but still wanted to use the milk anyway. We talked to the farm about it, and the only thing Susan (the owner) could come up with was that since the cows were now eating alfalfa exclusively due to poor weather conditions, perhaps this had some effect on the taste.

I also believe the freezing process had some effect as well. But I’m still perplexed because before we started buying milk from Saint John’s Organic Farm, we were getting Organic Pastures milk shipped to us about every six weeks for over a year. We always froze it because we’d buy about 6 half gallons at a time.  Although we never had any taste issues from freezing their milk, there were the globules present from the cream.

At any rate, I figured it was time to make yogurt again, so we used most of our thawed out  2.5 gallon pouch for yogurt.

This time, we filled our big stockpot with milk to make yogurt and a smaller sauce pan with milk for kefir. I used the basic recipe for kefir-making from The Nourished Life’s kefir recipe. Besides the fact that I had a lot of milk sitting around that my son wouldn’t drink due to its over-sweetness, it was this post that motivated me to make kefir for the first time and make yogurt once again.

Here are the steps I used for my yogurt:

  • I heated the milk up to approximately 100 degrees – I just tested it with my finger and it felt warm but not too hot. As Elizabeth from The Nourished Life says, some people may not think it’s sanitary, but I agree that it seemed to work.
  • After the milk was warm enough, I removed it from the heat and added about 3 tablespoons of plain, organic, store-bought, whole milk yogurt to the milk and stirred it gently until mixed in. I use either Brown Cow or Nancy’s.
  • Then I ladled the milk-yogurt mixture into three different sized jars from my cupboard for the yogurt, and the milk-kefir grain mixture into one quart-sized container from Traderspoint Creamery yogurt (I just LOVE their jars, and their yogurt is out-of-this world!). Two of my jars were wide-mouthed, and this helped a great deal with keeping the mess to a minimum. One of the jars is small-mouthed, and that made a bit of a spill on the counter, but overall, I am much happier with the results of using a ladle for this process rather than a funnel.
  • I placed the jars in my oven with no heat and just the oven light turned on. It’s quite amazing how much heat you can get just from the oven light, and it’s not hot, but it’s just enough for the yogurt to receive what it needs to culture.
  • Then I placed all three of my yogurt jars in my oven and just turned the light on.
  • I checked all jars periodically, but left the yogurt jars in the oven for at least 10 hours before opening it up to see how things were going. The yogurt needed to be in the oven longer, as it appeared to be still too liquidy for good yogurt texture. I took care not to jostle the jars, but very carefully examined the quality of the liquid by turning it very slowly around to look for liquid movement inside.
  • At the time I checked the yogurt, it was about just before midnight and I had placed the jars in the oven around nine a.m. that same day. I was unsure about leaving it in the oven overnight, but didn’t really want to have to get up just to check it again, especially if it still wasn’t ready. But I was too tired to worry too much, so I just figured the next time I woke up I’d see how things were progressing.
  • At the time I checked the yogurt, it was about just before midnight and I had placed the jars in the oven around nine a.m. that same day. I was unsure about leaving it in the oven overnight, but didn’t really want to have to get up just to check it again, especially if it still wasn’t ready. But I was too tired to worry too much, so I just figured the next time I woke up I’d see how things were progressing.

Making kefir

Kefir is by far the easiest of the cultured dairy foods to make. You can use live kefir grains from someone who is willing to share, or you can buy it from a reputable company selling them.

  • The first time I made kefir, I used kefir grains from Donna Gates’ Body Ecology web site. The directions say to stir it in, but my jar has a really narrow neck so, I gently shook the jar until it appeared to be mixed in. Update March 2012: All the kefir I have made over the last year are from grains I got from a local friend.
  • Next, I placed the kefir jar on top of my refrigerator to sit overnight. The longer you leave kefir or yogurt, the more cultures it produces due to the lactic acid content in the milk. It depends on whether you want less casein and lactose, which is broken down by friendly bacteria during the culturing process.

Final results

I woke up around 5:20 a.m. and went into the kitchen to peer at the yogurt. I gently turned one of the jars, and it seemed like it was doing well and solidifying nicely. So I removed all three jars from the oven and placed them in the refrigerator. About 7 hours later I checked one of the jars by opening it and tasting the yogurt. It was delicious!

I gave some to my son with some sliced bananas, and he absolutely loved it. The type of yogurt starter I used made a definite difference in the taste from the previous times. This time I used the Stonyfield Farms yogurt (which is delectable), and my yogurt turned out very similar in taste and texture to this brand.

My kefir turned out great too. I just opened it today and made fruit smoothies out of it for myself and my son, and it was tasty and tangy. Add yogurt or cream to it, fruit, coconut oil, half an avocado, and an egg yolk from a pastured hen, and you’ve got a complete meal.

www.mypicshares.com

Want more information about probiotics and friendly bacteria? Here’s a post about the health benefits of home-made cultured foods.

Did your yogurt “flop”? Don’t throw it away! Here’s what to do with it

What are your experiences making yogurt and kefir? I’d love to hear from everyone about their experiences, both good and bad, and what worked and what didn’t.

25 Comments

  • motherhen68
    December 23, 2009 - 3:21 PM | Permalink

    It’s so good to hear of other’s issues with yogurt making. I use the crockpot method as I don’t have access to raw milk. The first few times I made yogurt, everything went great. I had one batch fail, but I put it in the oven with the light overnight (after the whole crockpot time) and it solidified and tasted great. Then we got busy and I didn’t make yogurt all summer.

    I bought an ice cream maker for my husband’s birthday and wanted to make some frozen Greek style yogurt. The first batch I made went well. The second time, let’s just say, not a success. It was just runny. I ended up using it as yogurt and made frozen yogurt from it, but it didn’t have the thickness for the Greek style since I couldn’t drain the whey.

    I think my problem was my house was cold. We live in SW Louisiana, so typically it’s not that cold. We’ve had an unusually cold early winter and my house stays about 65 during the day and down into the 50′s at night. Leaving that yogurt in a crock pot that wasn’t turned on wasn’t enough heat (IMO) to culture it. Next time I make yogurt, I think I”m going to try it with the glass jars in the oven with the light on.

    As for milk kefir, I never have a problem with this. I’m the only one drinking it, so I leave a jar of milk on my counter for 12 hours and then I put it in the fridge with the grains still in the milk till I’m ready to drink it, usually 3-4 days. When it was so cold last week, I placed the jars between my fridge & microwave oven which seems to be pretty warm. It’s actually a convenient location to culture things as my compost bin sits in front of it and sorta hides the jars. I had to LOL @ my sister when she came over and wanted to know why in world would I have jars of spoiled milk sitting on my counter LOL.

  • December 23, 2009 - 5:35 PM | Permalink

    It’s interesting how different climates, appliances, and types of milk used affect the end result of making yogurt and kefir. We live in Boise and it’s always cold here in the winter, temperate in spring and fall, and quite hot in the summer. I was afraid my kefir wouldn’t turn out because it might not be warm enough on top of my fridge, and during the winter, but it seemed to be fine.

    Something that differs with my kefir grains (from Body Ecology) from everyone else’s experience that I’ve read about is that I don’t have to remove the grains to consume the kefir. I was puzzled about this because my results are so different than others where you have to strain them out, that I went back and re-read my instructions from the box where my kefir grains came, and it doesn’t say anywhere about straining the grains. My son and I both drank our smoothies yesterday with no ill effects, so this must be just fine.

    It seems like the most consistent results for myself and others are using the closed oven with the light on. But then again, I’m sure there could be some differences for some people depending on how hot the oven light makes the environment in the oven, what type of milk you are using, and the preparation of the milk and starter prior to insertion in the oven. Someone else asked me if I had done the oven procedure every time I made yogurt, probably because I think everyone pretty much has a bit of inconsistencies in their turnout with yogurt making, unless they are a really seasoned yogurt maker who has made it many times (not me, yet!). I think the key is persistence and willingness to experiment and try different things. So far, none of the experimentation has caused anything bad to happen, and it has taught me a lot! :)

  • nourishedlife
    December 29, 2009 - 3:51 PM | Permalink

    I’m glad to hear my posts about yogurt and kefir were helpful! You know, I haven’t tried Stonyfield as a starter and I think I will next time. This time I tried Fage (a Greek yogurt) and it turned out with a very mild, smooth taste – I liked it, but I just enjoy experimenting and seeing the different results. The great thing is you can’t really botch a batch of yogurt (try saying that 10 times fast, lol) – it always makes great smoothies!

  • December 29, 2009 - 11:01 PM | Permalink

    Elizabeth – I have heard the Greek type yogurts are great for starters, and I will definitely have to try it on one of my next batches. I tend to like the sour taste of yogurt, but for some reason if it’s too sour in my homemade batches, I don’t like it quite as much as the Stonyfileld plain whole milk yogurt, or even the Brown Cow brand. This time I was lucky and it turned out really good. I think maybe it’s because the starter was from Stonyfield, and I absolutely love the taste and texture of that particular yogurt. It’s true, yogurt and kefir are so versatile, and like raw milk – you can use them even if they go “sour” or don’t turn out just as you’d hoped. The last thing I used my yogurt in besides just for breakfast or smoothies was in my beef stroganoff (in place of sour cream). It was really good! I had heard of recipes that use yogurt instead of sour cream like that, and I was definitely not disappointed. Thanks for your posts about yogurt and kefir – I really appreciate them! :)

  • motherhen68
    December 31, 2009 - 12:34 AM | Permalink

    I just wanted to give you an update. I did a mix and match between your version and the crockpot version. I heated the milk in the crockpot, let it sit covered for 3 hours, added the starter, put into glass jars and put in the oven w/the light on. It worked, and I was very happy.

  • December 31, 2009 - 1:29 AM | Permalink

    motherhen68 – that’s great to hear! I often read tips about making yogurt or cooking something and try to add my own touch to it, and I think that’s just fine. Sometimes it’s out of necessity because I lack a certain type of equipment or ingredient, but ultimately most of my experiments like that turn out pretty okay. We have been eating our yogurt from the batch we just made, and it’s really good, but I’ve noticed that as it sits in the refrigerator it tends to become more runny as time goes on. The taste is still great, it’s just the consistency that seems to change as the days go by. How long did you leave it in the oven, by the way? And, what temperature do you put the crockpot on?

  • Joy Cable
    February 12, 2010 - 9:06 AM | Permalink

    It was interesting reading your article about yogurt making. I bought a yogurt maker with 7 little glass jars, but found that each jar was too little, so I bought one that handled a quart jar. The jar that came with it was plastic, so I eliminated it, and I am using a wide mouth glass canning jar. My starter is either from my last batch, or periodically I buy new StonyField Farms Plain as a starter. I never heat my milk. I just put about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of starter and add whole milk, mix well, place in yogurt maker at least overnight, and it always works for me. I don’t know why you need to heat the milk. However, I cannot buy raw milk – illegal in my state – but I do buy non-homogenized, “lightly” pasturized milk from a local farmer. Possibly the light pasturization makes it work.

  • February 12, 2010 - 10:45 AM | Permalink

    Joy – I have heard of people making yogurt without heating it, but if you are using a yogurt maker, doesn’t that heat it up? All yogurt makers I’ve ever seen use heat. I would guess that heating it up would help to mix the milk with the yogurt starter you are using – at least, I think I read that somewhere. Heat can definitely destroy good bacteria, but that’s why I never heat it up beyond about 100 degrees and use my own stove so I can keep an eye on it. If you have a yogurt maker, it probably doesn’t exceed beyond a certain temperature, but I don’t know what your maker’s specifications are.

    I definitely didn’t like the size of the small jars in my Donvier set, in addition to them being plastic. It’s a much better idea, as you say, to use the glass jars (Mason are great). What recipe are you using, or is it just something you have done all on your own?

  • August 30, 2010 - 2:38 PM | Permalink

    I just heated a half gallon raw milk to 110 and added stoneyfields greek yogurt 4 tbls. and wrapped it into a towel put it in a small cooler and put it on my 100 degree porch during day until the sun started to go then put hot tap water in a cooler (not more than t110) for 3 more hours for a total of 12 hrs and was fairly thick.This is my second success but used a larger amout.The first time i only tried about a quart.Had to babysit the temp often though.
    I want to try keifer and am working on the getting grains part. Also i highly recommend fermenting saurkrout.Its cheap easy and extreamly healthy and protective for you.

  • Elizabeth M
    December 2, 2010 - 3:24 PM | Permalink

    Kefir grains are completely fine to eat. the straining is used to extract the grains so that you can put them in another batch of milk. Kefir will culture milk in the fridge, it just takes longer due to the low temp. When i have excess grains (which is often because mine proliferate like crazy) i blend them up in a smoothie, eat them straight or feed them to my dog who loves gobbling them up. Though you certainly do not NEED to strain the grains just pour off the kefir and add more milk, shaking gently to get the grains access to the new stuff. When you leave the grains with some of the kefir and mix it into new milk, it is called continuous fermentation. The kefir helps acidify the milk faster and thereby makes your fermentation process faster. Of old times they never strained the grains out… but left the entire mix in a leather/animal skin pouch and just added more milk every day. I didn’t get my grains from a box… they were given to me by a friend and in turn i have handed out dozens of kefir grain batches to others.

    Yogurt i have not tried simply because it requires heating the milk and keeping the mix at a constant temperature. I am all about easy…. also why i don’t make cheese… beyond “fresh cheese” by clabbering milk.

    If it is consistency you are missing from the store bought yogurts consider adding a little plain gelatin (real not jello) after you have produced your yogurt and let it cool in the fridge to firm up. :) The gelatin is good for you as well.

    I stick with kefir and do many things with it. I will do 24 and 48 hr ferments with it. I will play with it to make a sour cream like substance. I will use the whey in kraut and kvass ferments. I use it to soak grains, nuts and beans in. i put it in soups when i serve it to add some creaminess and tang to the soup which is soooo yummy.

    I will add… while this might be a little woowoo to some: Those grains are living organisms. You are not just producing some inanimate food substance but something that is living and alive. Love those grains and be grateful for their work. Take care of them and they will take care of you. I had the unfortunate experience one day of my sister coming over and watching me strain the grains… and she started calling them all kinds of ugly disgusting things and just generally being negative. by the end of the week i lost half of my batch of grains. I was very distraught. but with some good care and not allowing her around my grains again… they survived and are now again prolific producers. :)

  • December 3, 2010 - 9:56 PM | Permalink

    Question. If you are using kefir grains to end with, why go to all the trouble of making yogurt first?

    If you use kefir grains, you can leave them in the milk overnight on your counter, no heat needs to be involved at all (unless you want to do what you are doing now and set the jar on your fridge to capitalize on the warmth). If you want it thicker use a greater concentration of cream. I got some pretty good texture using Half and Half.

    I used to make yogurt, but after I got kefir grains, it just seems like a lot of extra work.

  • December 4, 2010 - 3:33 PM | Permalink

    Shawn – I make yogurt first because the rest of my family doesn’t like kefir, and I will drink it later. I like both yogurt and kefir,but they are not so easy to please. I love both and use both for different purposes. Most of the time, however, I just make yogurt and call it good. I use yogurt for so many different things, and the kefir doesn’t get the same use in our house. I don’t usually have cream around because it’s very scarce in my area since it takes so much milk just to make the cream. I have it a few times a year, but that’s about it. I don’t like to remove the cream from our own raw milk because then what’s left is skim milk, and we don’t drink skim milk in our household.

  • Linda
    December 10, 2011 - 1:24 AM | Permalink

    Hiya I was reading your recipe for Yogurt making, Can you tell me how much milk you used as I want to give it a try…Thankyou inadnance Linda

  • December 10, 2011 - 9:46 AM | Permalink

    Hi Linda – there are no exact amounts required in making yogurt. Right now I am using my 3.5 quart saucepan to heat the milk, but sometimes I use my 6 quart stock pan and make a large batch at one time. I have found that adding more yogurt culture or starter (whatever you choose to use) seems to make the yogurt thicker, less makes it more runny. I prefer the thicker variety. I have read in some places that using more yogurt culture does not necessarily make better yogurt, but in my case, I have found the opposite to be true. I usually add about two wooden spoonfuls of the plain yogurt starter to my 3.5 quart saucepan and stir it in until it dissolves. I hope this is helpful.

  • Julie
    December 10, 2011 - 8:57 PM | Permalink

    I’m glad to hear you only heat your raw milk to 100 degrees. I’ve been heating it to 180 but lately I feel like that might not be the best. I get great results from Stonyfield, also. Here’s my method of keeping the yogurt warm so it can culture:

    Put your jars in a cooler and add some warm towels fresh from the dryer. Let them sit overnight. Perfect everytime. :)

  • Linda H.
    January 25, 2012 - 5:13 AM | Permalink

    I’ve been making yogurt for about 3 years for my husband, who suffers from Ulcerative Colitis. We follow the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, which is designed for people with digestive diseases, and we get very good results from the instructions in the “Stopping the Vicious Cycle” book.

    I make 1 gallon of yogurt at a time, separating the milk into 4 one-quart size jars with wide mouths. I culture it using my counter-top roasting oven filled with a water bath. The oven temp settings start at 250 degrees, which is way too hot for culturing; so I tested it to determine which location lower on the dial would give me a constant 110-120 degree setting, and I marked that level with a black sharpie.

    I re-use the jars, so they are cleaned in the dishwasher in between batches. Just for safety’s sake I also “sterilize” them with water and a little bleach before filling them with the milk and culture. I make sure to rinse them out sufficiently to not smell the bleach.

    The instructions in the book require the yogurt to be cultured for a full 24 hours (which cultures out all of the lactose – an important issue for people with digestive disease – perhaps not so much for the rest of us).

    Using this method has resulted in perfect yogurt every time.

    • January 31, 2012 - 9:26 PM | Permalink

      Hi Linda – Thanks for sharing your method of yogurt-making here. There are many effective ways to make yogurt, kefir, and various cultured dairy foods. I have cultured yogurt for 24 hours or more a couple of times, and it did turn out tasting good, even though I left it to culture longer than usual. I think the longer I leave it to culture, the thicker it becomes. Elaine Gottschall’s SCD program seems to be a very effective way of restoring health, I’m glad you are getting good results from her protocol.

      I used to make yogurt in larger batches, sometimes 8 jars at a time (2 gallons, since my largest jars for yogurt are the quart-sized Mason jars). But over the last year or so I’ve been making only about 2-3 jars at a time due to time constraints, mostly from the fact that I work a lot (from home), and we recently sold our family business, my husband started a brand new job, and we sold our home and moved to a new house. Since things have been particularly busy, I’ve been making less at a time. Hopefully as things settle down after we’ve gotten everything unpacked and we’re more acclimated to the new home, I’ll be able to get time in my schedule to make larger batches of yogurt again.

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  • February 16, 2016 - 1:33 PM | Permalink

    Wow great extensive article on your journey on making yogurt. I have been using greek yogurt from consuming and also using it as an ingredient for my facemask. Now I feel inspire to make my own yogurt. Thank you for this piece.

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