Making yogurt at home

“It’s time to start realizing that yogurt takes just as beautifully to salt as it does to sugar, and a drizzle of olive oil is just as exciting over yogurt as a drizzle of honey.”

Cheryl Sternman Rule, author of ‘Yogurt Culture.’ (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Cheryl Sternman Rule, author of ‘Yogurt Culture.’
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
The author of Yogurt Culture, Cheryl Sternman Rule, is fascinated by how yogurt is used in different culinary cultures – from Eritrea, where she first made yogurt when she was in the Peace Corps, to Greece to India.
At Rule’s recent talk at Melissa’s Produce in Los Angeles, we sampled a refreshing pineapple lassi from her book. She sweetens the Indian yogurt beverage and flavors it with saffron.
Yet her message was that yogurt does not have to be sweet.
“We all know that yogurt pairs beautifully with fruit, with honey and with granola,” she said. “It’s time to start realizing that yogurt takes just as beautifully to salt as it does to sugar, and a drizzle of olive oil is just as exciting over yogurt as a drizzle of honey.”
Of course, the people of the Middle East know this; they have been fond of savory yogurt for a long time. In fact, one of the dishes that Rule presented, Greek yogurt with lemon vinaigrette, was inspired by a breakfast dish she enjoyed in Israel. (See recipe.)
Making yogurt regularly at home is part of many culinary traditions; it’s easy, enjoyable and economical. “It’s a four-step process,” said Rule. “Heat your milk; cool your milk; inoculate the milk with your starter culture; keep it warm.” (See recipe.)
You heat the milk to 82°C (180°F), she said, to “denature the proteins, which produces a thicker yogurt.” Once the milk has cooled, you add the starter – any supermarket yogurt with live and active cultures. You keep the mixture warm so “the cultures have the chance to thicken your yogurt, drop the pH, make it sour, and make it look like yogurt,” she said.
“People ask, how do I know if my yogurt is done? The answer is, you look at it, and it looks like yogurt,” she declared.
After making yogurt, she strains half of it to make Greek yogurt, which she likes for breakfast with fruit or as a filling for fruit tarts. Do not discard the whey that drips out, she advised, because, like yogurt, it has beneficial probiotics.
Rule refrigerates the whey in a glass jar to use in pancake batter and in smoothies. She uses loose, or unstrained, yogurt in beverages and in baking – “things for which I don’t need the more expensive and labor-intensive Greek yogurt.”
Serbian-born Svetlana Popovic, author of the website, who taught Rule about Balkan yogurt and who was in the audience, told us that in her homeland an unsweetened yogurt drink is served with boreks (burekas) for breakfast, and yogurt often accompanies cooked vegetables such as stuffed zucchini.
To make labaneh, Rule salts her Greek yogurt and strains it further so that it becomes cheeselike. She uses dollops of labaneh to enhance her mushroom and kale frittata. (See recipe.) For her filling for sweet peppers, she mixes labaneh with feta cheese and pistachios. (See recipe.)
Rule is also fond of labaneh balls. To make them, she scoops labaneh into balls with a melon baller, puts them on a paper towel-lined tray and covers them with another paper towel, which absorbs the extra whey. She refrigerates the balls for two days until they are quite firm, adds them to a jar and covers them with olive oil. In the refrigerator, “those little balls will last months and months,” she said. For parties, she serves them sprinkled with sumac or za’atar.
When making yogurt, save a little to use as the starter for your next batch. Some people prize the flavor of their particular starter. My Turkish cooking teacher, Ayse Demirkan, who makes yogurt every few days, brought Turkish yogurt culture on the plane from Turkey to California.
At Curry Leaf, a Sri Lankan restaurant in Los Angeles, the cook makes yogurt every day in special clay pots and serves it drizzled with palm treacle as dessert. The restaurant’s yogurt starter, the cook told us, is from Sri Lanka, and gives the yogurt its authentic flavor.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.
Heating the milk and keeping it at the desired temperature for five minutes “creates naturally thicker yogurt without the need for milk powders or thickeners,” writes Cheryl Sternman Rule in Yogurt Culture.
Use a candy thermometer or instant-read thermometer to check the temperature. For the starter, use yogurt that has not been open for more than a few days.
Homemade yogurt keeps for seven to 10 days and becomes tangier over time.
Makes about 7 cups
■ 1.9 liters (½ gallon) milk, preferably whole and organic (not ultrapasteurized)
■ 2 Tbsp. plain store-bought yogurt with live, active cultures, at room temperature
Rub an ice cube along the entire inside of a large heavy stainless-steel pot (to help prevent the milk from adhering to the pot).
Pour in the milk. If using a candy thermometer, affix it to side of pot. Turn heat to medium-high. Slowly heat milk to 82°C (180°F), without stirring. When milk reaches that temperature, turn heat way down and maintain the same temperature (or a few degrees higher) for 5 full minutes.
Remove from heat. With a ladle, lift off any skin that formed on milk.
Allow milk to cool to 46°C (115°F), stirring gently to release steam. To accelerate cooling, fill sink partway with lots of ice and some cold water and set pot carefully in sink. Stir occasionally and check temperature frequently; if milk dips more than a few degrees below the desired temperature, you’ll have to rewarm it.
When milk has cooled enough, place the plain yogurt (the starter) in a medium bowl or glass measuring cup. Ladle in roughly 1 cup of the warm milk and whisk to combine. Scrape mixture back into the pot.
Remove candy thermometer and cover the pot.
The mixture must be kept warm (ideally between 38°C and 44°C (100°F and 112°F). You can put it in the oven with the heat turned off but the oven light on, and drape a towel over the pot. (Don’t let the towel touch the light.) Alternatively, you can wrap the lidded pot with a thick towel and put it in a warm spot in your home. The yogurt should be ready in 6 to 12 hours but may take a bit longer. The longer you incubate the yogurt, the tarter it will be.
Yogurt is ready when it’s set and wobbles only slightly when you jiggle the pot. Remove ¼ cup yogurt to use as the starter for your next batch. Refrigerate starter, covered and dated, up to 1 week or freeze up to 3 months; thaw in refrigerator before using.
Transfer remaining yogurt to a large container or ladle into liter- (quart-) size glass jars with the aid of a wide-mouth funnel. Cover and refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight before eating or using in recipes.
Note: To make Greek (strained) yogurt, spoon yogurt into a strainer lined with 2 or 3 layers of damp cheesecloth and set over a bowl, and refrigerate until yogurt thickens to your taste.
Rule was inspired to make this by a dish she had for breakfast at an inn called Pausa in the Galilee. You can make it with Greek yogurt or with labaneh.
Makes 2 ¼ cups dip
■ 2 cups plain Greek yogurt, preferably whole-milk
■ ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
■ 2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
■ Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
■ 1 Tbsp. pine nuts, or more to taste, lightly toasted in a dry skillet
■ ¼ tsp. dried za’atar blend or a few leaves fresh parsley, chopped
■ Warm whole-wheat pita triangles, for serving
In a large bowl, beat yogurt until light and smooth.
Scrape it into a shallow, wide serving bowl and smooth with back of a spoon to create a wide indentation.
In a small bowl or liquid measuring cup, whisk oil and lemon juice until emulsified; season well with salt and pepper. Pour dressing over the yogurt to flood the indentation. Sprinkle with pine nuts and za’atar.
Taste, adding a bit more salt, if desired. Serve with warm pita.
Rule recommends serving these peppers warm or at room temperature. They “make a vivid addition to any meze platter, with olives, stuffed grape leaves and plenty of pita.” You can use long, sweet peppers or sweet mini peppers.
Serves 4 as part of a larger meze platter
■ ½ cup labaneh
■ ¼ cup crumbled feta cheese
■ 2 Tbsp. finely chopped unsalted pistachios, plus 1 Tbsp. pistachios for garnish
■ 2 tsp. finely chopped fresh mint, plus a few fresh mint leaves for garnish
■ Coarse salt (optional) and freshly ground pepper
■ 225 gr. (½ lb.) Italian sweet peppers or other slim sweet peppers (4 large or 6 medium), any color you like
■ 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
■ Warm pita, for serving
In a medium bowl, blend labaneh, feta, chopped pistachios and chopped mint with a fork.
Taste, seasoning lightly with salt only if necessary (some feta is very salty) and plenty of pepper.
Slide a paring knife around stem of each pepper and discard. Using the knife, loosen and discard the seeds. (Or gently bang the peppers upside down on cutting board to dislodge them.) With your smallest spoon – a baby spoon, ideally – stuff each pepper with filling to the top.
In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat until very hot but not smoking. Add peppers, laying them on their sides. Partly cover skillet and pan-fry peppers on all sides, turning carefully, until filling oozes and skins char and begin to blister, about 6 minutes total.
Arrange peppers on a platter. Mince remaining Tbsp. pistachios and mint leaves together and sprinkle over peppers to garnish. Serve warm with pita.
Rule calls this “a big, crowd-pleasing brunch dish that can sit out and look pretty long after friends arrive.”
In it, “creamy pools of labneh, softened shallots and meaty shiitake mushrooms join the greens.” You can substitute white mushrooms for the shiitakes.
Instead of a cast-iron skillet, you can use a nonstick skillet with an oven-proof handle.
Makes 6 servings
■ 12 large eggs
■ ¼ cup plain whole-milk or low-fat Greek yogurt
■ Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
■ ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more (optional) for drizzling
■ 4 large shallots, sliced
■ 6 fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and halved (or coarsely chopped if very large)
■ 6 kale leaves, stems and central stalks removed, leaves chopped
■ ½ cup labaneh
■ 1 to 2 tsp. dried culinary lavender or snipped fresh chives
Preheat broiler. In a large bowl, whisk eggs and yogurt. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Season generously with salt and pepper.
Heat a 35.5-cm. (14-in.) cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add ¼ cup oil and the shallots. Cook, stirring frequently, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the shiitakes, cut side down, and the kale. Cook, undisturbed, for 5 minutes. Pour egg mixture around mushrooms and, using a small scoop or tablespoon, dollop labaneh on top in little mounds. Cook for 5 minutes longer, sliding a spatula under the frittata to let the liquid eggs flow underneath as large swaths begin to set. (If using a 30.5-cm. or 12-in. skillet, cook for a minute or two longer.)
Slip pan under broiler and broil until frittata is golden and set, 2 to 3 minutes, watching carefully. For best texture, do not overcook. Serve warm or at room temperature, garnished with lavender or chives and drizzled sparingly with additional olive oil, if desired.