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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Yogurt Making: Avoiding Common Mistakes

Slightly Runny, Slightly Sour
For the first time in a LONG time, I did not have a batch of CrockPot Yogurt (recipe and method HERE) come out perfectly.  Considering how easy it is to make and, really, how foolproof the method is, to have even the slightest imperfection is a bit sad, really.  It's not ruined, though. . .just a little more tart and slightly more runny than I prefer.  Think this is going to go mostly into smoothies and go-gurts.

So these things can happen, even with a seasoned yogurt maker, and when they do, it's good to know why and how the mistake occurred so you can avoid a repeat performance in the future.  Here's some things to look out for:

  • Don't Use Too Much Starter! 
This was my mistake, though I didn't really mean to do it.  I was flying about trying to get things sorted for a short trip and noticed that we were nearly out of yogurt.  That SOOOOO would not be okay, so I quickly threw a gallon of milk in the crockpot.

After it got to temperature, I took it off the heat and waited for it to cool.  It was then that I had a little brain fade. . .for some reason, I looked at the temp when it hit 150 degrees and somehow thought that meant '115 degrees' (which is what it needs to cool back down to!), and began to temper my starter with a ladle full of milk that was too hot.

I then had a dilemma. . .I did not have enough starter to just throw that batch away and begin again, but I didn't know if I had killed the live cultures with my hot milk addition and was dooming my attempt to failure.

So, I added what starter culture I had left to that which I was already using and hoped for the best.

When I woke, I realized that I hadn't killed many, if any, of the original starter cultures because my yogurt had that decided 'too much starter' look. . .a little watery and a little more sour than I was hoping for.

Why?  Because more is NOT better in this case. . .if the living microbiotic cultures do not have enough food and room to grow, they will compete, starve, and die, which will result in a watery, thin, tartish kind of sad yogurt.

Remedy:  Never put more yogurt in a recipe than it calls for. . .if you have to, err on the 'too little' side of things.

  • Don't Make Yogurt Your Family Won't Eat!
Depending on your type and amount of starter, yogurt can set up in as little as four hours.  This 'fast set' will render a creamier texture and a sweeter taste.  However, a LOT of people recommend a 24 hour set (though it is a bit more tart) as that will reap the very most amount of benefits for people with intestinal issues of any kind.

And that can pose a problem:  If your goal is health, but have a house full of 'sweet tooths' and will not be able to get them to eat the more sour version, you're probably going to end up in a lot of wasted yogurt on your hands.

Why?  The shorter the incubation time, the sweeter and creamier the yogurt.   The longer the incubation time, the tarter the final product, though definitely the most beneficial in terms of positive and healthful microorganisms developed. 

Remedy:  So what are you to do?  Decide on your purpose for making homemade yogurt. . .is it the cost benefit?  Being able to control the ingredients?  Is it health?  Prepare your yogurt accordingly!  And don't be afraid to experiment and even alter over time.  If your family demands a sweeter natural yogurt now, try to slowly increase the incubation time to increase their intolerance for a more sour product.

  • Don't Use Old Milk!
Tempting though it may be to use up something on the verge of spoiling in your fridge, DON'T.  Use the very freshest milk you can lay your hands on to produce the freshest, best tasting and longest lasting yogurt possible.
Why?  Because adding some yogurt culture will NOT magically eat the bacteria that is making the milk go bad.  Your resulting yogurt will be grainy and bitter, if it sets at all.

Remedy:  Start again with fresh milk and fresh starter. 

  • Don't Use Old Starter! 
If you are heading out on vacation, or have some illness, injury, or life event that means you have to put a momentary pause on your yogurt making escapades, don't be tempted to pinch pennies and use some of your held back starter if it is over about 5 days old.  
Why?  Live cultures are, well, alive, and so they need food to survive. . .if they have eaten up all there is to eat in your yogurt, they will begin to die off or become unhealthy which will render you yogurt making a failure.

Remedy:  Either buy some fresh, plain, live-cultured yogurt as a starter for your next batch or, if you are the 'think ahead' type, as soon as you make a batch, place a portion of your fresh yogurt in a zipper baggie or other airtight container and pop it into the freezer for future use or emergencies.  

  • Don't Use Straight Cream!
We ALL love thick, creamy yogurt, but did you know that using straight (or nearly so) cream will actually result in the exact opposite?  

Why?  It's not the fat that makes yogurt creamy. . .it's the by-product of your busy little yogurt microbes eating the lactose up.  If all they have to eat is fat they will, well, die of starvation!

Remedy:  Whole milk (or 2%) is fine for making rich, thick, creamy yogurt.

  • Stir Gently!
Though it might be tempting to give your culture a jolly good whisk into your milk just to make sure that a perfectly even distribution of your starter is achieved.  But don't.

Why?  Probiotic microbes are living things that can be damaged by blunt force trauma inflicted by your forceful whisking.

Remedy:  Go gently, my good friend.  Stir thoroughly, but gently.  Those little microbes, and your finished product, will thank you!

  • Don't Skimp on Cleanliness!
Trusting your dishwasher or 12 year old son to properly clean your yogurt-making equipment is not a very good idea.  The least slip-up can effect the taste, texture, and even the safety of your finished project.

Why?  Anything from soap residue to a small missed piece of stuck-on food can introduce bacteria of substances that can affect, alter, or damage your yogurt cultures.

Remedy:  Do the cleaning yourself.  Check everything from your thermometer through to your crock pot to your spoons for spotlessness.  Also, NEVER double dip a spoon into your culture if you have touched it to anything that might contaminate it (mouth, unclean counter, etc.).  Just get a clean spoon and keep going!

  • Don't Jiggle and Wiggle!
Tempting as it may be to keep taking the lid off of your pot or jiggle the container to see where you're at in terms of consistency. . .just follow the steps and walk away.
Why?  Two reasons. . .one is that disturbing the yogurt while it's forming can affect the finished texture.  The other, and more important issue, is that every time you poke, prod, hover around, unwrap, or remove the lid, you are bringing the temperature down, which will affect everything from texture to taste to whether the yogurt will even set at all.

Remedy:  Just walk away, my friends.  Walk the heck away!

  • Don't Guess at Temperatures:
The most necessary tool in the whole process, as far as I'm concerned, is a good thermometer.  Without one, your results will be unpredictable and, possibly even dangerous.

Why?  The first step of the process is to get the milk to a temperature that, effectively, kills off all the kinds of bacteria you don't want.  If you don't quite get up to that point, you are risking leaving some of the bad guys alive and possibly ruining your batch.  The second step is cooling your milk down to the temperature that is perfect for your yogurt cultures to thrive in.  Too hot and they will be killed.  Too cool and you have a pretty big problem:

Making yogurt is kind of like a race. . .the bacteria in the milk isn't good and you want to get rid of as much as possible through the first heating.  But if you cool the milk down too much, your yogurt cultures can't function well and multiply.  So, with  the temp below what your yogurt needs, but well above what is in the fridge, any remaining milk bacteria will be able to thrive.   This will render your soldiers severely handicapped while you've just handed the enemy all of your weapons.

Remedy:  Buy and use a good thermometer and don't fudge on temperatures.


  1. I can concur on the advice to NOT use older milk. I now make it a habit to use the milk in the bottle that has NOT been opened yet. I think the few failed yogurt attempts were when I used older milk and/or older starter. Oh-- and that one time that I completely forgot to add starter at all. Oops. I was, er... tired. Very tired, apparently.

    1. LOL. . .I haven't made that particular mistake, but I did, once, about 15 years ago, mistakenly put sour cream in instead (it was in a similar container to my yogurt starter and I was SOOOO tired (two very young kids!) that I didn't pay attention. It didn't make the best yogurt! :)

  2. Hi. I love all your info! Very helpful to a newbie like me. I am on my third batch, EVER, of making yogurt. Unfortunately this time I forgot to add my starter to my milk! Can I reboil it and start from there? Or should I just toss it and start again? I'm going to do your recipe for the crock pot next! Thanks for your help! Martha

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