"No matter how terrified you may be, own your fear and take that leap anyway because whether you land on your feet or on your butt, the journey is well worth it."
-- Laurie Laliberte
"If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough."
-- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage."
-- Anais Nin

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Yogurt Making 101

If you follow me on twitter, you know my latest addictions are avocados and Greek yogurt. Not necessarily together, but they do complement one another well. (I've found I prefer the plain, unsweetened, low- or non-fat Greek-style yogurt to sour cream.) The only problem is that Greek yogurt can be pricey, but I love making my own in the crock pot.

I believe I've mentioned it before, but here's a refresher: My BFF's sister (to protect the family's anonymity, I will refer to her here as "Sis"), who succumbed to leukemia about six months ago, was a huge fan of Stephanie O'Dea. Yes, that Stephanie O'Dea, the Queen of Slow Cooking. Sis turned me on to Stephanie's blog and, with a little inspiration from Pinterest, I began slow cooking on a regular basis after I moved from Boston to Oklahoma City. In fact, I believe the first dinner I cooked from scratch in my new kitchen included a crock pot entree.

Since then, I've been hooked. I use my crock pot at least once a week. It never gets tucked into a cabinet, not only because I don't really have the space, but also because I use it so much it makes sense to keep the crock pot handy. And my favorite thing to make is yogurt.

So now that we've come full circle ... A few weeks ago, I found a recipe on Pinterest claiming I could make homemade yogurt in my slow cooker. The recipe was from Stephanie O'Dea's blog. I figured, "how bad could it be?" I hadn't prepared any of Stephanie's recipes yet, but thanks to Sis, I had tasted a couple. So I made certain to purchase milk and plain Greek yogurt when I was at the grocery store. Milk because it's the base, and essentially the only ingredient; yogurt because it's Stephanie's starter of choice; and Greek because I'd never tried Greek-style yogurt before and I've read about what a terrific substitute it is for mayonnaise, sour cream, and other more fatty/less healthy cooking ingredients. (The first time I put Greek yogurt on a baked potato, I swore I'd never purchase sour cream again.)

The only drawback to making your own yogurt is time. You need to be able to devote a good fourteen or fifteen hours to this process. In today's world, that's quite a commitment. But I did the math and figured if I began the process some time around 4:30 in the afternoon, I could sleep through most of it.

As instructed, I poured my (whole, full fat) milk into the cooker and heated it for 2 1/2 hours on low, then unplugged it and let it sit for 3 hours. I added my starter, swaddled the pot in towels, and crossed my fingers. Stephanie's instructions confused me only a little. They said to, "Go to bed, or let it sit for 8 hours." I really wasn't sure if that meant it shouldn't sit for any longer than 8 hours, so I set my alarm to wake me about 8 hours after I wrapped my crock pot.

Yeah, that didn't work so well. I shut off the alarm and slept for another three hours (which, by the way, only garnered me a total of seven hours sleep). I was honestly terrified to open the pot, afraid of what I might find, afraid it had set too long. So how happy was I when I finally worked up the courage to remove the lid?

Immediately, I was hit with that pungent, tart aroma you encounter when you open a fresh cup of yogurt. I gave it a stir and found the consistency to be a bit richer and creamier than store bought, which makes sense since I usually purchase nonfat rather than lowfat. Honest to goodness, I nearly cried I was so excited. Who knew such a small accomplishment could be so rewarding, so empowering?

I was all over twitter within minutes, showing off my accomplishment and, of course, thanking the Woman Herself for posting the recipe on her blog. When I finally took a few minutes to breathe, I pulled out a large bowl and a colander that I lined with paper towels (you could use cheesecloth) and poured in my yogurt. Then I sat the contraption in the fridge after pulling out enough of my yogurt to use as a starter for the next batch.

In less than 24 hours, the thinner, traditional yogurt was a much thicker consistency and I had a bowl full of whey. In fact, it was just a bit too thick, so I ended up adding some of the whey back in to thin it out just a bit.

On to Yogurt Making 102

Elated, and perhaps inflated, by my success at making whole milk yogurt, I decided that my next batch should be made with almond milk. One of Stephanie O'dea's readers had had success making dairy-free yogurt. She published her process, which was virtually the same, but she went with a probiotic instead of using yogurt as a starter. She also added gelatin later to thicken it. So I decided to give it a shot.

I read up a bit and found that several bloggers had made dairy free yogurt using the same method I had used. Some even went with the basic yogurt starter rather than probiotic. Some, not all, used gelatin to thicken it; some drained the whey. So I put on my big girl pants and headed to the kitchen once again.

This time I got off to a later start. I went through each step: heat for 2 1/2 hours; cool for 3 hours; add starter, swaddle, and let sit overnight. Easy peasy mac 'n' cheesy! Okay, maybe not.

Because of the later start, I actually ended up staying up later than I normally would just to add the starter. This meant I got up in the morning with fewer than eight hours of sleep. So, when the pot had sat for eight hours, I opened it. It smelled yogurty at first whiff, but then it just smelled funky. Had I been more experienced at that point, I would have been wise enough to wrap it all back up and leave it be for a few more hours. I would have realized that the fermentation process was probably working and just needed more time, but my inner Anakin took over and I chose to move forward.

I put together my drainage contraption and stuck the whole shebang into the fridge. I sniffed at it a few times while it drained, but mostly, I just left it alone. It did not smell like yogurt. It didn't really smell like anything, actually.

After 24 hours, I pulled the mess I had made out of the refrigerator and gave it a stir. It was more like a thin ricotta than yogurt. And it tasted vile. I dumped the still-quite-loose mess down the sink along with the whey that had drained and resolved to take smaller steps next time around. By "smaller steps," I mean sticking to cow's milk until I have a bit more experience. Which brings me to . . .

Yogurt Making 101a, the Intermediate Class

This one happened just this week and I feared the worst while it was all going on. Without thinking, and because I was craving a baked potato and hadn't bought any yogurt, only enough to use as a starter, I threw a half gallon of milk into the slow cooker before I did any math. About an hour into the cooling time, I realized that I would need to make a difficult choice.

I had to leave early the following morning and wouldn't be home until mid- to late afternoon. Basically, my pot would have to sit and ferment either for only seven hours or for a full fourteen. (Additionally, I wasn't sure what to expect since I had used 1% milk instead of whole.) Neither sat well with me. But I chose to let it go all night, then all day, and hope for the best.

When I got home that afternoon, just a bit earlier than I thought I would, I steeled myself and unwrapped the pot. It was still quite warm, a good sign. Warm meant it was still fermenting rather than just spoiling. I didn't have a lot of time to deal with it since I had work to do and also needed to figure out dinner, so I poured it into a couple of containers; reserved enough for a starter; and stuck it in the fridge.

It smelled like yogurt, not as strong as the whole milk version had, but I knew I'd done it right this time. It was quite loose, smoothie loose, but that didn't scare me. I knew from experience that it would thicken a bit as it cooled. But the most important part was it tasted like yogurt which could mean only one thing: it was yogurt.

The next day, I figured I'd take some time to drain it so it was more like Greek yogurt. Much to my surprise, it had thickened considerably on its own. Still, I drained off quite a bit of whey and got it to about the same consistency as my first batch.

And here we are, full circle once more. The next batch of yogurt I make will be with the 1% milk again, but with the starter from the last rather than a store-bought yogurt. This will be the test for me.

At some point, I will again attempt a dairy-free version, but not before I try it with nonfat milk. And, coming this summer: fro-yo. I've made ice cream, so frozen yogurt should be a piece of cake. I'll just need to find an ice cream maker that fits my budget. (I'm cheap, remember?)

I really would encourage anyone and everyone who loves yogurt as much as I do to take the plunge and make your own.

Happy Crock Potting!

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