Friday, March 25, 2011

Adventures with Homemade Yogurt

Last week my kids and I tagged along when my husband went to Dallas on a business trip.  Dallas is our hometown, so we had a great time hanging out with our family and some of our old friends.  One person I got to visit while I was there was my good friend, Leisa.   Leisa has three little girls and is one of those moms that is very conscientious about her kids.  She works very hard to give her children healthy “food” in the spiritual, educational, as well as physical sense.  I am consistently impressed with her thoughtful and purposeful parenting.

So, in the course of our conversation as we spent the afternoon together, I had to tell her about all the new things I have been learning about food and nutrition (am I becoming a Real Food evangelist?).  We had some very deep discussions about grains, natural fats, raw dairy, and grassfed meat.  Two things that came out of our conversation were a trip to a local raw dairy farm and a lesson in yogurt making.  At the time, I showed her how to make yogurt from pasteurized milk because making raw milk yogurt is a bit of a can of worms (healthy worms, but worms nonetheless)…Her eyes were already a looking a little overwhelmed, so I was trying to keep it simple. 

Here’s how we did it:
We went to the grocery store and bought ½ gallon organic milk and plain, whole milk, live culture yogurt (we bought Dannon that day but I have also used Greek Gods and Trader Joes).

We preheated the oven just to warm and then let it cool so that the inside was warm but not hot.

We heated the milk in a saucepan on medium heat to 180 degrees, stirring to prevent sticking or burning (Makayla and Grace were the stirrers).  Then we took the milk off the heat and let it cool to 110 degrees.  We added two heaping Tbsps of the store bought yogurt and mixed it gently but thoroughly through the milk.  We put the milk into glass jars (she had some clean spaghetti sauce jars, I use quart sized mason jars at home) and put them in the oven.  I headed back to my hotel at that point but instructed her to leave the oven closed with the light on overnight.  The next morning she took the jars out and put them in fridge for a few hours.  After that, she strained the yogurt through a clean cloth, taking out some of the whey (which is great for other things like this and this and this) and thickening up the yogurt. 
I believe she also sweetened it with some homemade fruit jam.

The yogurt experiment went well, I guess, because today I got a text from her asking a very simple question: “When I make yogurt with raw milk, do I still have to heat it to 180 degrees?”  And thus, the can of worms was opened.  The answer to this “simple” question is the result of about 6 months of experimentation on my part.  Here it is:

In order to get the yogurt starter to "take", you have to kill off all the existing microbes so that the ones in the starter won't have any essence, you have to pasteurize it. That is what the heating to 180 degrees does. If you are using milk that is already pasteurized, it’s all good because the milk is already "dead" and you are putting the starter in to make it alive again.

However, if you are using raw milk, some people don't think you should heat it beyond 110 degrees because you don't want to hurt all the living components of the milk. You can make yogurt with raw milk by only heating it to 110 (which won't hurt it at all), letting it cool just a little and then adding the starter. The difference is that it will not get thick. It will be a runny, yogurt drink. It will be super healthy and delicious (and you can add stuff to flavor it up) but it will not be thick and firm like store bought yogurt. You will also get slightly different consistency each time because you are dealing with an already established ecosystem that will be individual for each batch of milk. I make this kind of yogurt sometimes and it is a yummy surprise...sometimes super sour, sometimes has little clumps, sometimes thicker, sometimes thinner. All of it is delicious and healthy.

On the other hand, if you want thick yogurt you must heat it to 180 and sacrifice a lot of the existing microbes and enzymes in order to give your starter a chance to grow.  This heating does not completely deaden and alter the milk like commercial high heat pasteurization and homogenization does. In addition, the milk still has all the great vitamins and minerals from the healthy cows. So this yogurt will be much more nutritious than Dannon or what not. Your results will, again, not be as consistent as when you start with store bought milk.  But however it turns out (thick, thin, clumpy, smooth) you can be sure it is still healthy and good for you. Raw milk does not go "bad", it just sours as the milk sugar gets used up by the microbes. 

My children are very very picky and I have found that if their yogurt is different every time, they will turn up their noses. So, this is what I do--I have found
a dairy where the cows are grassfed and healthy but the farmer does pasteurize (NOT homogenize). He does what is called "gentle, low heat batch pasteurization”, which is a different process than the high heat, factory processing that all store milk goes through. His milk is only heated to 165 degrees. I buy a gallon of this milk to use it to make yogurt for my kids rather than take my chances on raw milk yogurt. This way, my results are consistent, the yogurt is from healthy milk, and my kids eat it...we all win.
I do not know if there is a source for vat pasteurized and non-homogenized milk in your area. Ask around at the farmers market and on the internet. You might find one. If you can't and your kids insist on thick yogurt that looks the same every time, you could just continue to use organic whole milk from the store. By adding back in the live cultures, you are giving them good stuff for their tummies and making sure that they don't get the
yucky additives that store bought yogurt has. 

I hope my answer was helpful to Leisa.  I guess she is really going to just have to experiment to decide if she (and her children) will prefer homemade yogurt from raw milk, vat pasteurized, or settle for organic from the grocery store.  In my opinion, homemade yogurt made from any of these types of milk is nutritious and delicious…and it makes me feel like a super mom when I watch my kids eat it for breakfast.

So, I just got another question from Leisa.  She wants to know what to do with raw milk when it sours.  Another simple, straightforward question with a long, complicated answer…I’ll get right on it!