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Culture Bash

Making yogurt at home is easier than you think

Michelle Gienow

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 4/1/2009

You may already know this, but most yogurt sucks. I'm not even talking about those Technicolor kiddie yogurts that pack as many grams of sugar as a Coke. Nope, I'm pointing the finger at your fancy organic no-artificial-anything yogurts. These products command a premium price, but you may not realize you're getting way more than the two ingredients--milk and cultures--used in traditional yogurt-making.

Yogurt is one of the earliest known prepared foods, dating back more than 4,500 years. It's remained a staple for millennia because its living probiotic cultures are beneficial to humans, and also because these active cultures consume milk sugars, aka lactose, to render yogurt digestible even by the estimated 30-50 million Americans who are lactose intolerant. In the past several decades, however, the food industry has sought to improve this venerable food by mucking around with stabilizers, thickeners, and other novel ingredients. Some of these questionable additions, such as Butterfinger bits in Breyers YoCrunch yogurt, are blatantly obvious; others are much more insidious and even potentially harmful.

There's not much harm in adding citrus peel derivatives, i.e. pectin, to yogurt. Such thickeners are an extremely common addition, compensating for the creaminess and texture lost when a whole-fat food is rendered low-fat or non-fat. Typically, the lower the fat content, the higher the industrial ingredients content.

The worst label-ingredient léger de main, though, involves milk--yes, milk. These days, many manufacturers of dairy products routinely bulk up their wares with nonfat dried milk, which works to add that coveted creaminess and rich mouth feel to reduced-fat foods. It's also increasingly used as a supplementary ingredient even in whole-fat dairy products because dried milk is shelf stable and, when reconstituted, cheaper than fresh milk.

Big deal, milk is milk, right? Well, yes and no. The FDA thinks so, and thus it allows manufacturers to gloss over their use of nonfat dried milk on nutritional labels; some spell it out, but the majority just call it "milk." The reason this matters is that the process of drying milk oxidizes the milk's cholesterol molecules, and oxidized cholesterol is bad news for your arteries. Studies demonstrating this abound. One 2005 government-funded study published in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research concluded, "When rabbits were fed oxidized fatty acids or oxidized cholesterol, the fatty streak lesions in the aorta were increased by 100 percent. Moreover, dietary oxidized cholesterol significantly increased aortic lesions. . . . A typical Western diet is rich in oxidized fats and therefore could contribute to the increased arterial atherosclerosis in our population."

In other words, consuming nonfat dried milk (also powdered eggs, another extremely common yet often unlabeled food additive) very likely increases your risk of coronary heart disease by contributing to arterial plaque. Angry nutritionists go ahead and write those letters to the editor, but the studies are many and conclusive. I was already tired of spending big bucks on organic yogurt--my favorite brand costs more than $4 a quart. And when I found out about the whole oxidized cholesterol thing I decided to fight back--not merely by boycotting brands like Horizon, which at least has the decency to state the use of nonfat dried milk in its labeling, but by making my own.

I am a fairly fearless cook, but I had always viewed yogurt making as a delicate and temperamental undertaking akin to splitting neutrons. Also, I have low tolerance for failure, and so I simply never tried it. Then my friend Johanna turned me on to Fankhauser's Cheese Page (biology.clc.uc.edu/Fankhauser/..

I was leery at first; Johanna is an uber-DIY gal--she even makes her own fricking laundry detergent--and so, of course, she would find it easy; also the web site's hands-on instructions for activities like butchering your own venison were a tad extreme. But David Fankhauser, a professor of biology and chemistry at U.C. Clermont College in Ohio, has developed a nearly fool-proof recipe for making yogurt in 16 obsessively detailed and painstakingly photo-illustrated steps. That makes the process sound harder than it was, which turned out to be dead easy. Basically, I heated a gallon of milk, cooled it back down, stirred in some yogurt I already had, poured the mix into sterilized jars and sat them in warm water inside a Playmate cooler. Three hours later, I had thick, creamy, luscious yogurt.

The biology behind the magic is pretty simple; when you heat the milk to 185 or so degrees Fahrenheit, it kills any existing bacteria and leaves a blank slate for the lactobacilli to do their thing. Cooling the milk back down, but not too far down, is essential, because acidophilus and other cultures would also be killed by temperatures above 130 degrees while failing to thrive at less than 98 degrees. Mixing in a little already cultured yogurt introduces the living bacilli, and the warm water bath keeps the milk at a medium temperature the probiotic bugs like while they proliferate, devour the lactose, and create lactic acid, thereby thickening the milk proteins to create yummy yogurt.

I used unpasteurized organic whole milk, but any milk will do so long as the label does not read "ultrapasteurized" (a high-heat process that alters the milk proteins and, you guessed it, oxidizes the cholesterol). Basically, the investment of the price of a gallon of milk, a thermometer, and 30 minutes of hands-on time buys four quarts of homemade yogurt.

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Welcome Home, Big Beef (4/28/2010)
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