Ever since attending a demonstration by my friend Janet Fletcher when her excellent book, Yogurt: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner, was published in 2015, I’ve been making this easy homemade yogurt every week or two. Like many baby boomers, I made yogurt in college and for a short time after. But life got busy, and I thought I needed a yogurt maker, and it all seemed too complicated. I’m sorry I missed out on so many years of the best yogurt imaginable, easily made with only a few minutes’ attention at home.
I heat my milk in the microwave, averting the possibility of a scorched pot and wasted milk. It’s quick and easy, and there’s almost no cleanup. The whole process takes about 30 minutes, during which there’s plenty of time to make lunch or a pot of tea, or check how many likes your latest Instagram puppy pictures have racked up, or attend to other things as the yogurt heats and then cools.
I incubate the yogurt in a quart jar using the reusable white plastic covers you can purchase to replace canning lids for storage. My trick here is to put it into a gently warm oven for 30 minutes to get it going, then leave it in the cooling oven about 7 hours for yogurt that’s thick and luscious, full-flavored, and slightly tangy. When it’s ready, the yogurt goes straight into the fridge to finish setting. Made this way, the yogurt throws off only a bit of whey, which you can drain off and use in many ways (see below).
Keys to Thick, Creamy, Great Tasting Yogurt
I’m no scientist, but through reading and experimentation I’ve learned that the keys to proper thickness and just the right yogurt tang are:
- Reaching the 195°F mark, and keeping it close to that temperature for 10 minutes, denatures a protein in milk, facilitating the yogurt’s thickening.
- For the standing time, I leave the milk in the closed microwave but do not continue to re-warm it. I’ve left it a little longer or shorter, and have given it a blast halfway to keep it warm, and it always thickens well.
- Brød & Taylor makes a proofer that can be set to precise temperatures for culturing your yogurt. I don’t have one, but have loosely based my incubation schedule on their high-low temp culturing method of leaving the yogurt at 120°F for 1 hour and then 86°F until set. (You can find lots more yogurt science, their recipe, and more on their website.)
- The longer you incubate the yogurt the more sour it will become. If you like it less tangy, start checking at about 3 or 4 hours, transferring the jars to the refrigerator after they have set (the milk will not flow when you gently tip the jar). On the other hand, I’ve been known to occasionally forget my yogurt in the (off) oven overnight and it’s still wonderful even after 12 hours or more.
- The yogurt you use as your “seed” will affect both the texture and flavor of the resulting yogurt. In part, that’s because the different strains of yogurt cultures work differently. In particular, L. casei is said to contribute to a thicker yogurt. Start with a yogurt you love, and try different brands to discover what you like best.
- Whole milk makes a richer yogurt with a sweeter impression than one made with 2% milk. For decadent yogurt, use Jersey cow milk with its higher fat content. If I have cream left over from a recipe I sometimes add a bit to enrich my 2% yogurt.
- Some people add powdered milk for a thicker yogurt but I find the method I recommend here makes a good, thick yogurt without it, and has a cleaner taste.
Serve your easy homemade yogurt plain, or stir in fruit or granola or a spoonful of your favorite jam, or drizzle with maple syrup. Or go savory with grated cucumber and scallions. My favorite when I have some on hand: a spoonful of lemon curd swirled into the yogurt.
I’ve been eating homemade yogurt nearly every day since I started making it this way several years ago. Precision science aside, I’ve found that even with variations in temperature and timing, it’s hard to go wrong!
Easy Homemade Yogurt
Makes 1 quart
1 quart whole or 2% milk, as fresh as possible
2 tablespoons plain yogurt with no ingredients other than milk and live, active cultures, purchased or from the previous batch
- 1 or 2 liter Pyrex measuring cup, or a microwave-proof glass bowl with a pouring spout
- Quick-read digital thermometer
- Microwave oven
- Small bowl and small whisk
- Sterilized glass quart jar with plastic lid, plus a clean small lidded jar holding 2 to 3 tablespoons, for seed yogurt
- Oven that can be set to 120°F with a “cook time” or “stop time” setting (or a timer)
1. Pour the milk into the Pyrex measuring cup or bowl.
2. Heat in the microwave on full power until the milk is 195°F, about 7 minutes in a 1200 watt oven. Take care not to let the milk boil over.
3. Let the milk stand for 10 minutes in the closed oven. Take a tea break.
4. Immerse the bowl of milk in cold water to cool the milk to between 113°F and 120°F. Get your jars ready.
5. While the milk cools, stir the yogurt with a whisk in a small bowl to smooth it. When it’s ready, stir some of the cooled milk into the yogurt, then stir it back into the milk.
6. Pour the yogurt into the clean jar. Skim off any milk proteins that rise to the top if you wish, and screw on the lid. Don’t forget to start or replenish your small jar with 2 to 3 tablespoons, as well.
7. Heat the oven to 120°F with a rack set low enough to stand the larger jar upright. Stand the two jars on the oven rack and let warm for 30 minutes (fine to put them in while it heats), then turn off the oven leaving the yogurt inside until it is set, typically 3 to 4 hours, or to your taste—the longer, the tangier. I leave it a total of 6 to 7 hours from the time it first goes into the oven. I treat the large and small jars the same, but you can transfer the small jar to the refrigerator as soon as it sets if you wish.
8. Cleanup is a breeze!
9. Refrigerate the yogurt several hours or overnight to fully set before digging in.
Tips for Improving your Yogurt:
- For the culture, start with a sparkling fresh sample of a yogurt you love. Avoid yogurt with added pectin, gelatin, or other ingredients, and make sure it states that it is made with live, active cultures.
- I’ve started my yogurt with a local Jersey cow’s milk yogurt and also with Straus organic whole milk yogurt, my favorite for culturing. I’ve sometimes stirred in a dollop of labne (yogurt-cheese) that has a sour cream like flavor profile I like and some different live active cultures than the yogurt.
- Once you get going, if you make yogurt regularly (every week or two) and store your culture for the next batch in a small jar that you don’t open until it’s time to make the next batch, you should be able to keep your yogurt going for many months, even years. (I set the small jar on a low shelf at the back of the refrigerator so it will not accidentally be consumed.) If you find you’re not liking it as much as you used to, or if it’s not setting up properly, just start again with a new container of seed yogurt.
- I prefer the larger 2 liter measuring cup for faster heating/cooling and easier handling.
- Whisking the milk slightly to create a foamy surface after it reaches around 120°F while heating will help to prevent a skin from forming on the surface. If a skin does form, just pull it off and enjoy or discard.
- To quickly cool the milk, I transfer the measuring cup to a sink filled to about the height of the milk with cold water, and also spray cold water from the faucet along the sides of the measuring cup, taking care not to splash water into the milk. It cools in about 10 minutes. For faster cooling, add ice to the water and stir the milk periodically with a spoon chilled under cold water.
- There are many other ways incubate your yogurt. Some people wrap the jar in heavy blankets and place them near a heater. Others put it in an oven with the pilot light on. If your house is warm, you can just leave it to set at room temperature, though it will take longer to set.
- I often pour boiling water into both my yogurt jar and the small culturing jar, pouring it out and shaking out any excess droplets before filling them, both to ensure that they are very clean and to start the yogurt in a warm environment.
- I like my yogurt best after about 7 hours of incubation, though I’ve accidentally left it in a closed oven (off) overnight for 12 hours or longer and it’s just fine the next day.
- The yogurt may throw off a bit of whey each time you open it, generally not more than a small spoonful. It’s full of protein and probiotics, so don’t discard it. You can stir it back in (which will thin the yogurt), sip it, add it to smoothies or soups, or use it as part of the liquid when baking bread or other baked goods.
Greek Yogurt and Labne
You can thicken yogurt to your preferred consistency by placing it in a sieve lined with cheesecloth or muslin set over a bowl. Cover and refrigerate until as much whey as you like has dripped out—the more whey, the thicker the yogurt. Labne is a creamy yogurt cheese with a sweet-tangy taste similar to sour cream that’s perfect for spreading. I love it on bagels in place of cream cheese, and it’s great in dips. Or spoon and spread the labne over a plate and drizzle with your best extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, scatter a few olives about, and use for dipping wedges of fresh, soft pita bread.
Don’t throw out the whey! (See above.)