A blog of hopeful, inspired living: cooking & baking & growing & harvesting & preserving & gleaning & eating & sharing food... while bringing positive change to my kitchen and our food system.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


I have a pile of cookbooks, journals, food magazines and recipe-related newspaper articles piled high on the coffee table right now.  With a day off I had a chance to go through them.  I didn't make it far.  For my birthday last month I got Pushpesh Pant's, India: The Cookbook.  I ended up reading this one cookbook my entire day off.  This is one incredible, 816 page encyclopedia of 1000 Indian recipes from all over the 1,269,219 square mile country.

I spent hours of pouring over everything from Kamala Phoolkopi (Cauliflower with Oranges) to Tulasi Sherbet (Sweet Basil Seed Sherbet) to Karipatta Chutney (Curry Leaf Chutney).  Inspired, I took a break and went down to my storage shed.  I rifled around for a while until I found a personal journal from the winter of 2001/02 that I spent in India.  I worked for a fabulous organization, 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.

In addition to all these memories, I have a new-found fondness for yogurt.  I've long appreciated its healthful properties.  But lately I have discovered a soft spot in my heart for a local yogurt and yogurt maker: 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. 

Making yogurt:
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.
Heat the milk, but don't let it boil.  It should reach between 185 and 200 degrees.  Stir it for about 10 minutes at this temperature.  This kills bacteria you don't want and breaks down the structure of the milk protein, a process called denaturation. Turn off the heat and let the milk cool to 115 degrees.  I've read directions that say to cool the milk rapidly by placing the milk in the fridge or in a cold-water bath.  I didn't do this.  I'll do this next time and get back to you about the difference.

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!   

Straining yogurt:
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
I hung mine inside a large Ball Jar (I love these -- they come in handy for all sorts of projects), using a rubber band.  I've also used my sink faucet -- hanging the cheese cloth above the drain using a rubber band.  Don't leave it in the colander -- it needs to actually hang to get the liquid to squeeze and drip out of it (see photo).  Let the yogurt strain for about 30 minutes for a creamy yogurt or longer for a thicker yogurt.

newly strained yogurt
Open up the cheese cloth and put the yogurt into a container that you'll later seal and put in the fridge.  At this point you can add a little honey or other sweetener.  It's easier to mix this in before it's chilled.  Chill for a couple hours before putting into small serving bowls and topping with other yummy things.  In this version I used a local black-sage honey, a bit of lemon zest and still-warm, toasted walnuts.  In Pushpesh's India: The Cookbook, he has a recipe for Shrikhand (Creamy Chilled Yoghurt) that uses saffron soaked in warm milk, superfine sugar, crushed cardamom and pistachios. With my host family in Karnataka I enjoyed it with a pinch of crushed cardamom and sugar.
Strained yogurt with honey, lemon zest, toasted walnuts


  1. I do love making yogurt. You mentioned cream-on-top whole milk, but how do you make the cream on top yogurt? From my yogurt making I can't imagine how that cream top forms...

  2. I did get a little cream on top of my yogurt. Because the mouth of the jar was wide, the cream was spread thin, though. I've read that you can add extra cream just for this purpose, but I have not tried it.