Discovering dairy at home: Homemade yogurt

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Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a series on making dairy products at home.

If you’re not a vegan or strictly lactose intolerant, then dairy could be a big part of your everyday life. Think about all of the permutations of milk that you enjoy: yogurt, sour cream, butter, soft cheese, hard cheese, white cheese, bleu cheese, buttermilk, heavy cream, whipping cream, cream cheese, yogurt cheese, kefir, cottage cheese, goat’s cheese and sheep’s cheese — all from milk, one ingredient in one color of soft ivory whiteness.

Thankfully for me and other lactose intolerant dairy-lovers, many of these dairy products, like cheese and yogurt, are significantly more easily digested, as much of the lactose drains into the whey as the fatty curds separate to make cheese. In addition, bacterial cultures found in yogurt and cheese help out by feasting on belly-aching lactose sugars, while promoting healthy bacterial activity in the colon.

In my recent quest for learning traditional and artisan food crafts, cheesemaking rose to the top of the list. Making cheese is quite foreign to the everyday consumer, but it can be extremely accessible with some time and the proper ingredients. To learn how to make my own artisan dairy products, I found the Institute of Urban Homesteading, a school for learning traditional food crafts and self-sufficiency skills, including all kinds of gardening, bee keeping, buterching, animal husbandry, mushroom cultivation, fermenting, aquaponics, pickling and brewing galore. This school is conveniently located in various residencies and community gardens scattered around Oakland and the East Bay and provides affordable classes in a small, comfortable setting.

At the intensive two-day cheesemaking course, I found myself sitting in a semicircle in a small living room, with a colorful mixture of old and young cheese enthusiasts waiting with their packets of recipes in hand. Ruby Bloom, the founder of the school, sat beside me in a floral apron, hair tousled up into a wise bun. We moved into her quaint yet spacious kitchen, circling around her central cutting board island, the center of our cheesemaking exploration. We began the day with yogurt, then moved to ricotta, queso fresco, mozzarella, and prepped for yogurt cheese and yogurt cream for the next day. The next day, we finished with fresh butter and began a brie-like cheese, learning about molds and how to approach then in a home environment.

We ended our weekend with a feast. A colorful spread of marinated vegetables, polenta pizza with fresh made mozzarella, toasted nuts, ginger beer, and of course, a spread of our very own cheese creations. I was amazed with my own ability to make these dairy products, and soon felt empowered to make my own food crafts at home. Its easy, delicious and extremely rewarding.

Yogurt is as good as any place to start this series because it is an extremely easy dairy product to make. The process only involves heating up milk, adding cultures and then incubating for a few hours. Yogurt, with its live and active cultures, works as a vehicle for essential bacteria necessary for cheesemaking, and can be used for further recipes, including cheese, butter and yogurt cheese.

You can use any type of milk for the yogurt. However, whole milk worked best for a creamy, delectable yogurt. Try to use good quality milk and starter yogurt, preferably organic, like Straus or St. Benoit yogurt (found at the Berkeley Farmers Market, Berkeley Bowl and the Berkeley Student Food Collective). In addition to high-quality milk, you also might want to buy or find a frothing thermometer to precisely measure the milk, as temperatures are very important for bacterial activity.

When I make this yogurt, I place it in my oven, turned off. It needs to be in a warm place (90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit) to incubate for at least three hours, so it is essential to find a good spot for the yogurt to set. Bloom suggests using a cooler, and filling it with hot water to create a warm water bath that stays a good constant temperature for a while. Try out some of the flavor variations to find the ones that work for you.

Homemade Yogurt
From Ruby Bloom, Institute of Urban Homesteading

2 large pots
Thermometer (up to 220 degrees F)
Mason jars
Measuring cup
Spoon or Whisk
Small Plastic Cooler or gas oven with pilot light or electric blanket or foam cooler incubator

1 gallon milk
1 cup fresh plain cultured yogurt (like St. Benoit or Straus)

Thoroughly wash all equipment with soap and hot water before you begin. In one pot, heat milk on low to medium heat between 185 degrees and 195 degrees Fahrenheit. Be careful not to let it burn.

While the milk is heating, boil water and sterilize your mason jars (four 1 quart jars plus a 1 pint jar or nine 1 pint jars) by setting them in the boiling water for one to two minutes each. Pull the jars out with tongs and set them upright on a clean towel. Sterilize lids and rings as well.

Cool the milk to between 122 and 130 degrees. Gently mix one cup of the yogurt with a cup of the cooled milk. Add this mixture to the rest of the milk and stir to mix. Pour into mason jars and seal.

Incubate for three to four hours until gels. This can be done several ways. If you have a gas oven with a pilot light, it may work to set them there. You can also pour the water you sterilized the jars with into a camping or styrofoam cooler until the temperature is 130 degrees. Place the jars into the cooler and close.

Another method is to take a foam cooler or cardboard box, cut a hole in it, fit a 25 watt light bulb through and turn it upside down over your yogurt. For all methods monitor the temperature with a thermometer.

After the yogurt is incubated, remove it and place it in the refrigerator. After it cools, save one pint to start your next batch. You can do this for three or four times before the culture becomes contaminated or too weak to reuse. Once that happens, buy fresh yogurt from the store again. Yogurt will keep four to six weeks in sealed jars refrigerated.


  • Vanilla yogurt — Add 2 to 3 tbsp. vanilla extract to the milk while it’s around 130 degrees F. Or add a vanilla bean, halved, into the milk while you heat it.
  • Lemon yogurt — Add fresh lemon juice (1/3 to 1/2 cup) to the finished yogurt after cooled.
  • Berry yogurt — Boil fresh berries, like raspberries or blackberries, in water over medium heat until reduced. Add honey and/or lemon juice to the berry mixture. Mix in with finished yogurt.
  • Almond yogurt — Add 2 to 3 tbsp. almond extract to the milk while it’s around 130 degrees F.
  • Maple or honey yogurt — Add 1/2 to 1 cup real maple syrup or honey to finished yogurt, depending on desired sweetness.

Contact Christina Lubarsky at [email protected].