Homemade yogurt: Another great use for a slow cooker

Doesn't that look satisfying for just 10 minutes of work?
Doesn’t that look satisfying for just 10 minutes of work?

I’m not sure whether it’s because of the busy schedules,  getting dark early, or the slight nip in the air, but the beginning of fall reminds me to bust out my slow cooker.  (They are actually a great way to cook in the summer, too, because they don’t heat the kitchen too much, but we tend to crave the fresher taste of quick cooking on the grill or stovetop in summer.   When fall rolls around again, I want to return to the slow cooking taste of stews and other hearty dishes that have been gently cooking all day.

But this is not one of those recipes.  No, this is yogurt.  And it’s so simple you won’t believe it.  The only tricky part is finding a day you are home long enough to attend to it periodically.  It requires only a few minutes here and there (shown below in parentheses), but the timing matters.  Let me break it down with an example:

– 3:30 pm dump milk in slow cooker, set to low (1 min)
– 6 pm shut slow cooker off (10 seconds)
– 9 pm mix yogurt in with milk, wrap slow cooker in towel, leave overnight (5 min)
– 7 am the next day (or up to several hours later) pour yogurt into containers and refrigerate.  Done!  (5 min)

See how easy that was?  Now that I’ve hopefully sold you on trying this at least once, I’ll give you step-by-step instructions (with pictures) for following this method.  The recipe is for 1 quart, but it can be multiplied to fit your appetite and slow cooker.  I made a gallon.

An aside about texture….

This recipe results in a home-style yogurt which is on the softer side, compared to commercial yogurts.  It’s great for smoothies, or even as is, once chilled.  However, if you prefer a stiffer texture there are several ways of thickening it.  I’ll describe two that I use.

One method is to strain the yogurt upon completion.  Simply line a mesh colander with a heavy duty paper towel and let the liquid drain out until the desired consistency is reached.  This is how Greek yogurt is made (and eventually yogurt cheese if you leave it long enough). The liquid that drains off is whey.  Protein powders are routinely made of whey, so you know it is packed with nutrition.  Personally, I don’t use this method unless I’m prepared to use the whey.  I don’t like to waste it.  I have added it to homemade baby food, used it in place of some water in cooking rice and added it to the blender when juicing.  I imagine it doesn’t keep very long, so if I don’t have one of these other preparations in mind in the next few days, I skip this method.  (I also don’t like that straining the yogurt results in less yogurt.  For a few delicious servings of Greek-style yogurt enjoyed with just a bit of honey, that is fine.  But for everyday smoothies, baking and pancake topping, I prefer a less “wasteful” option.)

My go-to method is to add powdered milk to the basic recipe.  This results in a thicker yogurt and a bit more (not less) protein.  The texture is really a matter of taste, so consider trying whichever appeals to you.  Either way, it’s nice to be familiar with both options, in case you can’t use one for some reason.

One last note.  initially you’ll need to use commercial yogurt to make your own.  Basically, you’re growing a large batch of cultures from the ones that exist in the store-bought stuff.  You MUST use plain yogurt for this, not sweetened.  Fat content is up to you.  Low fat and whole milk both work.  Be sure to save some of your homemade yogurt, and you can use it to make your next batch, no store-bought yogurt required.  You can do this several times before you need to start with a fresh set of cultures from commercial yogurt.  And now, finally, to the recipe…

Recipe
Time: 10 minutes hands on, 17 1/2 hours total time
Yield: ~1 quart

Ingredients
1 quart milk (whole or low fat)
1/4c yogurt (plain, unsweetened)
1T powdered milk (optional)

Directions
1.  Pour milk into the slow cooker, cover and turn on low.  Set a timer for 2 1/2 hours.

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2.  When timer goes off, shut off (and unplug) the slow cooker.  Set a timer for 3 hours.

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3.   When the second timer goes off,  insert a cooking thermometer and check that the temperature has fallen to approximately 115 degrees.  If not, let the milk cool longer and check again.  When the correct temperature is achieved, remove any skin that has formed on the surface of the warmed milk.

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4.  Remove 1c of milk from the slow cooker and place in a bowl or blender bottle.  Add yogurt and powdered milk (if using).  Whisk (or shake) to combine very well.

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5.  Pour the yogurt-milk mixture back into the slow cooker and whisk into the milk.  Combine very well.

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6.  Place the cover back on the slow cooker and wrap in heavy towels.  Do not disturb the mixture or move the pot for 8-12 hours.  (The yogurt cultures will not form properly if jostled, resulting in runny yogurt.)  The longer you leave it incubating, the firmer the texture will be.

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7.  After 8-12 hours, transfer the yogurt to containers and place in the fridge.  I like to use quart-size canning jars with a ladle and a wide-mouth funnel to fill them.  Refrigerate for several hours before eating.  The yogurt will firm up further as it cools.  The yogurt lasts 1-2 weeks in the fridge.  (And don’t forget to save some for your next batch!)

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 Note: If you get a pool of whey that accumulates after you begin to scoop the yogurt out of the slow cooker, as I did here, you can either stir it back into the yogurt, or remove it and discard or save for another use.  My 1-gallon batch made just under 4 quarts of yogurt and 1/4c whey (without straining).

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Favorite uses:  Fruit & yogurt smoothies; fruit, yogurt & granola parfaits; spread on muffins instead of butter; poured over pancakes along with syrup; baked into muffins and oat cakes; dolloped on tacos or chili as a sour cream substitute; stirred into soups; made into a dip/sauce with lime and garlic salt

Preventing waste:  If you don’t think you’re going to eat it before it goes bad, freeze it in 1/2c to 1c portions for use later in baking and smoothies.

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