May 21, 2019

Accidental Culture and Why You Should Make Your Own Yogurt

Some of the most beloved foods were created by accident. Cereal, potato chips, ice cream cones and Worcestershire sauce — all happy accidents. And one of my favorite accidents is yogurt.

Of the few things I’d find it difficult to live without — cooking, sleep, exercise and yogurt — I can live without exercise and can get by on very little sleep, but cooking and yogurt — not a chance. Yogurt is one of those staples I grew up with; something doesn’t feel quite right if I’m not eating it on a regular basis and it’s rare when my fridge doesn’t have a lineup of jars full of the stuff I’ve made. 

It’s thought that the Neolithic herdsmen inadvertently created yogurt in 6,000 B.C.E. after milking their animals and traveling around Central Asia with the liquid in animal stomachs. The natural enzymes in these makeshift milk transport vessels curdled the milk, thus creating a fermented drink with a longer shelf life and a better taste. Genghis Khan, leader of the Mongol Empire, reportedly lived on yogurt as did his vast armies.

Being half Bulgarian means that yogurt is in my blood: It was a Bulgarian scientist, Stamen Grigorov, who was the first to identify the bacteria that caused milk to ferment and turn into yogurt in 1904. After studying yogurt made in the Trun region of Bulgaria by the village women in a traditional clay pot called a rukatka, Grigorov went to study in Switzerland, taking a sample of homemade yogurt with him. After examining the fermentation process, he identified the microorganisms and named them Lactobacillus bulgaricus as a nod toward his homeland and ended up linking Bulgarians with yogurt production forever. 

By the 1920s, because of the scientific community’s interest in Grigorov’s work, Bulgarian yogurt was all the rage in health-minded communities, particularly after Russian Nobel Prize-winning zoologist Elie Metchnikoff established a link between yogurt consumption in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria and the large concentration of centenarians in the villages there. Soon, news of the life-prolonging benefits of consuming yogurt spread across Europe and was introduced to much of the continent, where it remains a staple food.

“News of the life-prolonging benefits of consuming yogurt spread across Europe.”

The world’s biggest consumer of yogurt products is Russia, where it’s considered essential for weight management and healthful eating. The United States ranks second, and for that, we have a Greek-born, Sephardic Jew named Isaac Carasso to thank. 

In 1919, having immigrated to Barcelona, Spain, Carasso was the first to industrialize the production of yogurt. He named his company Danone (little Daniel) after his son, who in the 1940s took over a small yogurt factory in the Bronx, N.Y. That small company became the yogurt empire Dannon and was the first company to introduce fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt flavors after it was clear that Americans were less interested in the tart, plain yogurt eaten by Turkish immigrants to North America as early as the 1700s. Thus, the popularity of yogurt soared by the 1960s, making it one of the most important health foods ever marketed.

Today, while every supermarket seems to sell 47,000 types of yogurt ranging from Greek to goat to coconut and beyond, yogurt quality tends to differ from country to country and even store to store. Unfortunately, when you grow up on Israeli yogurt, labne and kefir, you get fussy and selective about the yogurt you consume. Not that American grocery store yogurt isn’t good, but the tang of yogurt that has been cultured in a long process rather than a product that has been thickened artificially and therefore doesn’t contain the probiotic benefits of fermentation tastes inferior to me.

Yogurt triggers vitamin B production when you consume it with the whey. Vitamins B and K are produced in our bowels when we eat yogurt, and this is thought to be protective from autoimmune and neural diseases. It’s also a must to eat yogurt when you are using antibiotics. Moreover, the lactic acid bacteria in yogurt boost your immune system. Like all fermented foods, yogurt prevents infections, gastrointestinal diseases and is even thought to prevent fluctuating blood sugar levels because it’s absorbed slowly by the bowels.

Of course, these health benefits rely on the quality of the yogurt. Only commercially available brands that are low in sugar and contain live active cultures can provide you any real benefits. While there are plenty of industrially produced yogurts on the market that are safe, there are also plenty of imposters out there, thickened with starches, containing high fructose corn syrup as well as preservatives that do not contain any active cultures. 

Yogurt is simple to make. Making yogurt at home allows you to control the ingredients, and you’ll taste the difference. 

Below is my yogurt recipe for the Instant Pot pressure cooker, which has a reliable yogurt setting. If you don’t own an Instant Pot or a yogurt maker, I’ve had great results using an oven preheated to the lowest setting and then shut off, and covering a pot wrapped in a beach towel to keep the temperature overnight a consistent 100 degrees F. Different strains of culture produce various tasting yogurts. I use a bit of my previous batch of yogurt to provide the culture but if I’ve forgotten to set some aside, I always keep a dried form of culture in my refrigerator. 

Lastly, I use ultra-pasteurized whole milk to make yogurt, which allows me to skip the boiling step. If you are using unpasteurized or raw milk, boil the milk first and then cool it to 100 degrees before adding the starter.

WHOLE MILK YOGURT IN INSTANT POT

8 cups ultra-pasteurized whole milk
1/4 cup yogurt with active cultures
(from a previous batch or a store-bought yogurt with Lactobacillus bulgaricus in it*)
*Substitute 2 tablespoons dry yogurt starter culture 

Sterilize all utensils, measuring spoons, whisk and the Instant Pot container with boiling water and let sit for 5 minutes or pour 2 cups cold water in the Instant Pot and pressure cook utensils for a few minutes to sterilize. This is an important step so as not to introduce a competing bacterium into your yogurt.

Pour 1 cup cold milk into the Instant Pot and add the 1/4 cup yogurt or the starter. Whisk well to combine. Add in the other 7 cups of milk and whisk well again.

Lock the Instant Pot lid into place and set it to yogurt normal function. I usually do this overnight before bed. I ferment yogurt for 10 hours but a time frame of 8 1/2 to 12 1/2 hours is fine, depending on how tangy you like it. The longer it’s fermented, the sourer it is.

When time is up, cover and place yogurt in the fridge to set, at least 6 hours or until thoroughly chilled, then transfer to clean glass jars. Set aside the 1/ 4 cup for the next batch. If you prefer thicker yogurt, strain in cheesecloth in the refrigerator until desired thickness. 

Makes 8 cups yogurt. 


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.