Shikshantar, in Rajasthan. Every day at lunch we would gather for a home cooked meal. I took notes on the cooking procedures when I could: hand scratched notes of approximations as fragrant Indian spices, lentils, vegetables and herbs came together to form each delicious concoction. Spicy stuffed baby eggplants, tamarind sauce, cilantro chutney, flattened rice snack, palak paneer (spinach and cheese), homemade yogurt, spiced tea.
This blog is Part 1 of my India blog. There is just so much to write about: creamy sauces, breads, chutneys, rice dishes, desserts... Today I started with yogurt. I found two yogurt recipes in my journal that brought back a wave of memories: plain homemade yogurt and a lovely, creamy strained yogurt. The first, plain yogurt, was ubiquitous: homemade yogurt was always setting on the counter of homes I visited, all over India. This kind of plain yogurt, or curd is served with most (every?) meals. It helped me (a weakling for spiciness) temper the chilies in the food. The second, strained yogurt, I learned to make on the same trip to India, but during a visit south to a host family in Karnataka, India that I met in 1999 while on field study.
Saint Benoit, from Marin county. He makes organic cream-top French-style artisan yogurt crafted in small batches. I met owner Benoit at the airport in San Francisco on our way to Slow Food International's Terra Madre Conference. His yogurt is the best I've ever tasted. He is an extremely kind and thoughtful individual. And his yogurt-making process is also very thoughtful. He gets raw, organic milk a few miles from his home, processes it to the minimally required temperatures and uses local ingredients for all of the flavored varieties (honey, strawberry, Meyer lemon, plum, blueberry, boysenberry). The yogurt is packaged in two sizes of returnable jars.
With my memories of yogurt in India, the recipes I found in my journal, help from Pushpesh Pant's India: The Cookbook, and a jar of Benoit's in the fridge, I was happy to spend my afternoon devoted to yogurt experiments.
Homemade yogurt is made out to be more mysterious than it really is. A lot of recipes for homemade yogurt that I found online call for using yogurt makers. This is because a yogurt maker regulates the temperature while setting the yogurt so you don't have to think about it. I never once saw someone in India use a yogurt maker. Or a thermometer. I really don't think you need a yogurt maker. A thermometer is useful, especially for starting out. I used one today. Once I get the hang of making yogurt, maybe I'll go by feel. But for now I'm using a thermometer: nothing fancy... mine is a cheap candy thermometer I got at an overstock store for $2.99. A digital thermometer that registers quickly would surely make things easier. To maintain a low-temperature (about 110 degrees) while the yogurt in fermenting, I use my oven on very low (warm), and check the temperature with an oven thermometer (also a $2.99 purchase). What I'm saying is this: You can make yogurt at home without a lot of bells and whistles. Yes, you can.
What you need: 1 quart milk, 2 Tablespoons yogurt, pan for heating milk, container for yogurt (Ball Jar, single ramekins, glass bowl, etc.)
Starting with good, local, organic milk is what I recommend as the first step. Strauss Family Creamery is up in Marin and I love their cream-on-top whole milk. You could opt for low- or non-fat milk.
|Heating the milk.|
Once the milk reaches about 110 degrees (between 108 and 115), stir in your yogurt. To one quart of milk, I added 2 heaping Tablespoons of Benoit's lovely, organic, whole-milk, plain yogurt. I recommend you use a whole milk, plain yogurt. You don't need a special yogurt starter. You don't need thickening agents (I've seen gelatin, arrowroot, agar, milk powder listed in yogurt recipes). Your yogurt may (but may not!) have more whey (the liquid) than you are used to in commercial yogurt, but it will still be delicious and you can always strain it briefly (see below).
Place the milk/yogurt mixture in a the container(s) you want to keep your yogurt in. I use a big Ball Jar. Cover with a cloth and put in a warm place. As mentioned above, I put mine in the oven on a very low setting. If the temperature is lower, it will just take longer to ferment (no biggy). If it's hotter, it could kill the fermentation process (this is a problem). Leave this to sit, undisturbed for about 8 hours. What's happening? Bacterial fermentation. The bacteria (those good ones that we hear so many good things about: Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus and Streptococcus salivarius subsp. thermophilus and perhaps Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus bifidus) are consuming naturally-occurring sugars (lactose) in the milk and releasing lactic acid in the process. This causes the milk proteins to curdle and solidify. As the acid level in the yogurt increases, the environment is no longer conducive to other, harmful bacteria.
After 8 or so hours your yogurt should be formed. There may be some liquid that you can either strain off now or wait to see if it's still there after your yogurt is chilled. I've found that it solidifies more in the cooling process. Eat it cold, strain it for a thicker delicacy, use it in cooking, or on the side of a spicy Indian meal. Just remember to save a few Tablespoons for your next batch!
What you need: yogurt, cheese cloth, toppings (see last section for ideas).
Once you have your yogurt, straining it is easy. Line a colander with two layers of cheese cloth. Pour in yogurt (about 1.5 cups per person). Gather up cheese cloth and tie so the yogurt can't come out and so you can hang it easily.
|yogurt straining inside Ball Jar|
|liquid straining from yogurt as it hangs|
|newly strained yogurt|
|Strained yogurt with honey, lemon zest, toasted walnuts|