I recently set out to learn how to make yogurt. In my initial information gathering, two things made an impression on me because they seemed at odds with each other. First, the practice of storing milk in a goat’s stomach is what most likely led to the discovery of yogurt. Second it seems that if I want to make yogurt in 2012, I need to purchase a plug-in appliance along with countless other products or I would be doomed to immediate failure. This was according to various voices of reason on the internet. I know I am not the first person to come away from a day of online research feeling like I knew less than when I started. It was as if I stepped into a never-ending information labyrinth. A goat’s stomach was the only thing that a yogurt-making website didn’t try to sell me. Luckily I had a goat, but she had her own needs for her stomach. How could something so simple like spontaneously fermented milk have gotten so complex?
I am after a simpler life. Getting by with the basics is part philosophy and part necessity as a homesteader. More research eventually led to a few sensible souls both online and in some good old fashioned books. After sifting through the lower-tech approaches, I looked around my kitchen and took stock of what I had that would work. At the time, I was living in a trailer and working on a dairy farm. It was about as bare bones of a kitchen as I have ever lived with, at least indoors; but because I outfitted my kitchen correctly I should have all necessary utensils to make yogurt.
Before I got bit by the homesteading bug, I worked as a professional chef, so I had a fairly well-equipped kitchen. I am going to share with you my simplified yogurt technique, but first let me suggest some guidelines to equip your homestead kitchen.
Things to keep in mind when purchasing kitchen equipment:
1. When buying things that will be used almost daily, buy the best that you can afford. This doesn’t mean you have to take out a loan, but the better quality you buy the longer it will last.
2. Good kitchen equipment will outlive you if properly cared for. The most functional tools tend require a higher level of skill and maintenance. As another article in this library, Easy as Pie by S. Dixon, has pointed out simple does not mean easy. Real knives need to be sharpened regularly. Cast iron needs to be properly handled to avoid ruining the seasoning or having it rust. Some of being a homesteader is trading convenience for the satisfaction of doing a task yourself. You could buy a never needs sharpening knife off the TV or cook on Teflon for the rest of your days, but does that really fit your lifestyle?
3. Seek out alternative sources when shopping for kitchen equipment. Being a homesteader, you should know mall stores are not the best place to get deals. I’ve found really good, and cheap, kitchen equipment at thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales. Of course this takes some level of dedication and not needing said item TODAY. Also, restaurant supply stores often sell to the general public and usually have higher quality equipment at cheaper prices than a big box retailer. If there is a foodservice cash-and-carry place near you, they tend to stock basic kitchen tools.
4. Apply the Permaculture design principle and stack kitchen equipment functions. If you can use a tool in more ways than one it is a good purchase. Obviously the converse is true. If something has only one function you might want to consider passing on it. For example, in order to have minced garlic you can buy a garlic press that has no other use, or use a knife that is already in your collection; a metal mixing bowl on top of any pot works just as good as a double boiler.
5. Our farming philosophy has been one of slow and deliberate growth. This also applies to buying kitchen equipment. My approach has been to acquire tools over my lifetime, buying them when the need arises. This works well if you have limited funds and don’t mind putting your kitchen together gradually. This will also help you stock your kitchen with tools that you will be using instead of just taking up space. You don’t need to buy a sausage stuffer, until you know you are going to stuff sausage.
Here are some essentials that you are going to need:
The knife is the most important, misunderstood, and abused kitchen tool. If you only buy one good knife make it a chef’s knife, because it is the most versatile. While some jobs might be easier with another kind of knife, all jobs are possible with a sharp chef’s knife. You can slice bread, break down a large cut of meat, carve a roast and mince herbs by using different parts of the blade. It does just about everything a food processor does with no electricity and much easier cleanup. When shopping for a knife, hold it and make sure it feels good in your hand. This is more important than brand name or style. Also, you want the biggest knife that is still comfortable. Think serial-killer size here.
Other knives that are good investments and make life easier include a paring knife for finer more detailed work, a serrated bread knife for slicing softer foods such as breads and tomatoes, a boning knife for removing bones and possibly a cleaver for hacking through larger bones. Knives can be purchased as a set or bought individually as needed.
Owning good knives require care to help keep them sharp. First, store them so they don’t get dulled or nicked up. This can be done by keeping them in a wooden knife block or on a magnetic strip attached to the wall. There are also inexpensive plastic sheaths, which work great if you are keeping them in a drawer.
Second, you need to hone and sharpen your knives. If you have bought a knife set, it probably came with a steel. This is the rod of metal with fine grooves that chefs pass their knives over at blinding speed. Contrary to popular misconception, this tool does not sharpen a knife. If used properly and frequently a steel will hone a knife by realigning the knife’s edge and maintaining sharpness. All knives will need to be sharpened eventually either by you or a professional. I recommend learning how to use a sharpening stone. There was a time when I sharpened mine daily especially when I was doing a lot of butchery; for most usual restaurant work I would do them once a week or so. At home, your knife will require sharpening about once a month.
While on the subject of knives let’s talk about cutting boards. I wouldn’t bother with anything except wood. Wood is easier on your knife to maintain sharpness. Plastic will dull the knife quicker and things like glass, ceramic and marble will do it almost instantly. Plastic is also less sanitary, where as wood has some natural anti-bacterial qualities and has the ability to self heal (when your knife cuts into the surface a wooden cutting board will—to an extent—close back up).
Pots, pans, and bakeware:
The major difference between professional and home cookware lies in the thickness of the metal. The thicker the bottom and sides the more even the heat distribution and the less chance of things scorching or burning. What to buy all depends on how many people you cook for and what type of cooking you do. If you can avoid anything with plastic on the handles or lid you’ve just increased the usage possibilities tremendously. The pans can now be used in an oven, on a wood stove, or a campfire. The material used and the finish is of somewhat less importance. There are advantages and disadvantages to copper, stainless steel, aluminum, enamel and whatever else you would buy.
I highly recommend cast iron. It fits all of the above requirements and I don’t think anything looks quite as good. Of course there is a little more thought and care that go into using cast iron, but it quickly becomes routine.
One thing that I consistently see missing in home kitchens is a good sheet tray. The cookie sheets that are widely available are generally pretty weak. They are often too small and too thin. You can buy commercial sheet trays in full and partial sizes to fit any oven for under ten bucks.
Mixing bowls: For mixing bowls I prefer stainless steel for two reasons. They are unbreakable unlike glass or ceramic and they can be put over a direct flame or in the oven. Of course a few nice crockery bowls are great for bread baking.
Various utensils: Spoons, spatulas (both the kind to flip pancakes and the kind to get the batter out of the bowl), whisks, tongs, peelers, can openers, etc. I prefer wooden spoons because they can be used on any finish and metal for most other utensils since it is durable. Unless you have non-stick cookware I would not bother with anything plastic. A good heat-resistant silicone spatula is a must and probably one of the only things in this article that grandma didn’t have. I would bet she would have, if they were available.
Rolling pins, measuring cups and spoons: All of these are good to have. Although, I have rolled out pie dough with a wine bottle and have gotten away with a broken plastic cup measurer for all wet and dry ingredients for more than half a year.
Strainers: A mesh strainer is good because you can drain liquids as well as sift flour and other baking ingredients but they are on the small size. I would suggest a metal colander as well.
Thermometer: Get a good instant read thermometer. A fancy digital thermometer is nice but not necessary. A simple dial one costs about five bucks and can be recalibrated. These are helpful with cooking meat, cheese-making and—as we’ll see—making yogurt.
I’m not going to recommend electrical appliances, as I tend to be a Luddite when it comes working with kitchen equipment. There seems to be a never-ending parade of appliances for the kitchen and, for my money, most are avoidable. A hand held electric mixer or a blender maybe more convenient than a whisk or food mill, but you can get by without them. This is also good if you do any or all of your cooking outside or if lower grid-dependence is one of your goals. The customizing of my yogurt technique was guided by my desire to avoid another gimmicky plug-in gadget with limited functionality.
This is what I use to make my yogurt:
- Instant read thermometer
- Liquid measuring cup
- Glass canning jars pint size (regular or wide mouth) with lids and rings
- Sheet tray
- Oven with a pilot light or an inside light
The formula for yogurt is basically: milk plus yogurt culture plus time and temperature. On the dairy, we would sometimes have milk we could not sell for one reason or another. We would feed this to the other animals on the farm. Sometimes this milk would sit in a bucket for a day or two and would thicken up and become yogurt. This observation led me to believe that there is a tremendous amount of leeway when making yogurt. I am assuming that you are like me and want a more reliable product than a bucket of thickened cultured milk. So lets break down that formula and look at the individual components.
Milk: Use whatever milk you tend to drink. I have never experimented with anything but cow’s milk but from what I understand goat or sheep’s milk can be substituted with a minimal amount of tweaking.
Yogurt Culture: This can be purchased in specific strains like Bulgarian or Greek. Some grocery or health food stores carry the culture either dried or liquid form, as do places that sell cheese-making supplies. Of course you can always purchase online. What I do is use the culture of a store bought yogurt that I like. It must have live and active cultures. After you make a batch then you can use your own yogurt as the starter.
Time and Temperature: The temperature needs to be kept somewhere around 90-110 degrees with 100 degrees being ideal. Keep the yogurt at this temperature for approximately eight hours. Too low a temperature and it will either take longer or another culture will establish itself. Too high of a temperature can kill the yogurt culture. What kind of culture you use determines the acceptable temperature range and how finicky it is. The main advantage of using an electrical yogurt maker is that it controls the temperature and time element for you, but with some diligence and patience it is easy to do this on your own. I have used either the pilot light or the oven’s light bulb. Other options include a brooder light in a box, warm spot in your house or a cooler with hot water in it. Whatever method you choose, test the temperature with an instant read thermometer and make sure it is fairly consistent within the temperature range. This may take some finagling. I sometimes have to prop my oven door open with a wooden spoon to get the temperature correct.
So, you have decided on a culture, have your milk on hand and you know where that warm spot is in your house. Now what? When using yogurt with active culture, add one tablespoon per pint of milk. If you are using a purchased culture just follow the directions on the package for amounts to use. Whisk these ingredients together and pour into the canning jars. Set the jars in the warm spot for at least eight hours. I find the best time to do this is overnight. The yogurt is done once it is noticeably thicker. Although the yogurt will continue to thicken as it cools, it will never quite be as thick as commercial yogurt. If you are looking for more of a Greek style thickness you can drain the yogurt using a cheesecloth and strainer.
Because this is an inexact science there is a bit of trial and error to be expected. As I was experimenting there was some advice that I either actively challenged or just plain ignored. I read that it is important to keep temperature constant throughout the process. I have had the yogurt go lower than 80 degrees and up to 115 with no noticeable negative effect. I’ve also read not to disturb it during production or the yogurt won’t set up properly. I have never purposely or excessively shaken jars to test this, but I have taken what I thought was finished yogurt out of the oven, put it in the refrigerator, not liked the thickness, put it back in the oven and had it turn out fine. I had one batch of yogurt that did not make. I determined that the problem was either the culture or my temperature was too hot in the oven. I bought a new jar of yogurt and recalibrated my thermometer and everything was back to normal. I have had very little complications with making yogurt since. Once you get into a rhythm, it becomes second nature. In our house it is similar to making our own bread. I’m sure it is easier to go to the store and buy a loaf of bread or a jar of yogurt, but I derive satisfaction from a homemade item and I enjoy this little bit more control over my food supply.