yogurt: the water bath method

Let’s talk yogurt!

berry preserves, leftover from the diner

I have been testing, and retesting, my methods, trying and trying and trying to nail down a yogurt making process that a) sets up decently firm even though my milk doesn’t have much cream, b) does not taste too sour, and c) doesn’t leach out whey. 

This last one was surprisingly tricky. I’d been making my yogurt in the dehydrator, using an ambient thermometer to keep tabs on the temp, and after just 3-4 hours at 110 degrees, as per the instructions (though they said it should take 6-8 hours), my yogurt had set up firm, but with several inches of whey on top. I’d pour off the whey and, while the yogurt tasted fine, having only a partial jar just didn’t seem right. Plus, it looked gross.

I had the same problem with the yogurt maker.

So I tried things, like incubating at slightly lower temps, or experimenting with boiling my milk to evaporate off some of the water — maybe less water would equal less whey? — but nope. I still got the same separation. 

And then sometimes I wouldn’t.

I never knew how it would turn out, and the inconsistency was making me mad. 

Oh, also: a friend recommended not stirring the yogurt culture into the milk — just put the starter in the bottom of the jar and then pour in the milk — so I tried that. But my yogurt didn’t set up as well that way: the yogurt in the bottom of the jar was always substantially thicker than the yogurt at the top. (I think this no-whisk method was supposed to eliminate the stringiness that supposedly comes with whisking in the starter, but I’m not sure. So far, I think I’ve been spared the stringy problem, but maybe that’ll come later?)

So then I started to wonder if the incubation temp was simply too high and too fast. Maybe a lower temp and more relaxed incubation time would yield a more consistent product? Many of my friends make their yogurt by wrapping it in an insulated sleeping bag, or sticking it in the oven with the pilot light on, or putting it in a crockpot or cooler filled with warm water. And lots of them let their yogurt incubate over night. The way I was doing my yogurt, if I let it go overnight, the final product would’ve been pucker-tart.

Having heard about my quandary, one of my friends sent me a photo of her yogurt. Set solid — in the photo she was holding the jar upside down (just to taunt me, I’m sure) — and with an enviably gorgeous cap of cream, it was just the type of yogurt I was lusting after. She told me her methods — heat to 160-180 degrees, cool to 115, stir in some culture, pour into jars, and then incubate in a cooler with 95 degree water. 

95 degree water? Hmm…

So I tried it. I followed her method to a T, thermometers and all.

After about 7 hours: yogurt without whey!

Granted, my yogurt didn’t have a cap of cream, and if I’d held it upside down, the yogurt wouldn’ve glugged right out (dang Holstein) (sorry, Daisy — we love you), but it was definitely set all the way through and it tasted deliciously sweet to boot. Woot!

And THEN, I started experimenting. One of my friends had told me that when her kids were little they weren’t crazy about yogurt so she added a tablespoon of sugar and some vanilla to each quart and they gobbled it right up. And then I wondered about using honey instead of sugar….

Now, after lots of tests and quite of few gallons of yogurt, I’m consistently making (sometimes, upon request, for local friends) three different kinds of yogurt: plain, honey, and vanilla. The plain is, well, plain. The honey has about a tablespoon of honey per quart — the honey’s floral notes shine through, making me think yogurt might be an excellent way to showcase different varieties of honey — and the vanilla has a little sugar and a bunch of vanilla.

Last time my writing group met at my house, I served them honey and/or plain yogurt and granola. One of the guys who claims he doesn’t like yogurt — not store-bought, not flavored, not homemade, not in a box, not with a fox — had three (four?) servings of the honey yogurt and then put in an order for a quart next time we meet.

I understand his enthusiasm. I am not a big yogurt (pudding, jello, custard) person either, but I can not — I repeat, can NOT — get enough of this yogurt. I eat it for breakfast, snacks, dessert, and before bed. The other day when I went writing, I packed some for a late breakfast and, partway through the morning, I slipped out to the car to get my yogurt fix. 

I love looking in my fridge and seeing all the cute little jars filled with yogurt. But they kind of bug me, too, because I want to eat them all, right now, but I can’t. Or shouldn’t, at least. 

If we don’t eat through the yogurt fast enough to suit me, I make smoothies for dessert/snack/breakfast: a pint or two of yogurt, fruit, preserves, frozen bananas, coconut cream for sweet, if we need it. Like so, we can eat through boatloads of yogurt and fast

Still, my favorite way to eat it is with granola.

This granola, to be exact, and the vanilla yogurt. Berries, too, if I have them. 

PS. Last night, I was telling our dinner guests about my yogurt making ventures and, lo and behold, one of them, turns out, despises yogurt of any sort. It makes her gag, she says. Something about the acid taste. The thickness, too, maybe. She has to spit it out. So I asked her if she’d like to try mine? Why, yes, she said bravely, she would. And she liked it! It’s not acidic at all, she said, and it’s so gentle and light, almost like cream. Which is funny because there is almost no cream in our milk.

Yogurt: The Water Bath Method
Adapted from my friend Kris’s instructions.

Roughly 1-2 tablespoons of plain yogurt per quart of milk

Heat milk to 180 degrees, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and cool to 115 degrees: to make this go faster, I pour the milk into a bowl and then set the bowl in a tray that I’ve filled with ice and water, changing out and refreshing the water as needed, and giving the milk a stir every 5 minutes or so.

While the milk is cooling, fill a cooler half full of 95 degree water. The water should come at least three-fourths of the way up the jars and/or, making sure the lids are screwed on tightly, cover them completely. 

Place the starter culture — the plain yogurt — in a small bowl. If scaling up the quantities, slightly reduce the amount of starter. Label the jars with tape on which you’ve scrawled the date and/or type of yogurt. (Why, yes, I do work in a restaurant!)

Once the milk has cooled to 115 degrees, whisk about a cup of milk into the starter to thin it and then add it back into the big bowl of warm milk. Give it a good whisk. Pour into the jars, cap tightly, and place in the cooler of tepid water, along with the thermometer. Check the temp every 3 hours or so, adding more hot water as needed. The yogurt should be set in 6-9 hours — to check, unscrew one of the jars and dip in a spoon. If it’s firm — scoopable/semi-sliceable — it’s done. 

Transfer the jars to the fridge and chill thoroughly before serving. Don’t forget to reserve some plain yogurt to start your next batch.

Honey Yogurt: prior to adding the starter, whisk 1 tablespoon of honey (per quart of milk) into the milk.
Vanilla Yogurt: prior to adding the starter, whisk 1 tablespoon of white sugar and 2 teaspoons of vanilla (per quart of milk) into the milk.  

This same time, years previous: hill of the martyrs, in the kitchen, injera and beef wat, a trusty skirt, the quotidian (7.28.14), rest and play, the boy and the bike ride, a quick pop-in.


  • Amy in Oregon

    Have you tired a honey vanilla flavor..?? there is a store bought greek honey vanilla my kids go crazy for!! my hubby has always been skeptical about me experimenting with cultured dairy..!

    • Jennifer Jo

      Yes! That was actually what I started with — sugar and vanilla; honey and vanilla — but the honey flavor was so pronounced that I couldn’t really detect the vanilla, so I decided to let the honey be its stand-alone feature. I wonder about doing a maple syrup version. And what about strawberry, using this strawberry syrup recipe?

      • Becky R.

        Maple syrup version, YES! I love making maple syrup yogurt since the bought kind got me hooked. I think it is fabulous with granola or all on it’s own. And I love it with any kind of fruit. I make a hot compote in cooler weather for it, and it’s so good.

  • Heidi Saddler

    My method is crazy easy and works every time. After preparing everything in your usual way, place it in the oven with no heat, light on overnight. Perfect yogurt ready in the morning. The light keeps the oven at the perfect temp. 🙂

  • Thrift at Home

    Fascinating. I adore this kind of kitchen science and making converts. (I’m in the no-stir and put in a yogurt incubator for 2-3 hours camp). I’m going to try making vanilla and honey next time!

  • Eric Miller

    Yep! Grace will be proud of you. That’s how we did it although I think the incubation water temp was around 105°. Isn’t the vanilla fantastic?

    • Eric Miller

      I forgot to add; the fact that your cow isn’t getting any fermented feed will make the flavor of the yogurt different. Probably some of the reason why you made the yogurt converts. I think the yogurt has a more nutty, smoother flavor when the cow is only getting grass and hay. I’ve never tasted yogurt as good as Grace’s homemade. Just wait until you culture pure cream…!

  • Kris Shank Zehr

    Well now. Sounds like you’re having lots of fun! You have (naturally) modified and adapted my instructions to your needs, which is perfectly fine. I think my actual method is slightly simpler (in my opinion): I just measure a couple tablespoons of yogurt culture into each quart jar and stir in the heated & cooled milk. And I don’t check the water temp during the incubation, or add more hot water. I just start it at 95 and make sure the water comes at least to the lids, and then close the cooler and let it sit for at least 8 hours.

    • Kris Shank Zehr

      I want to give credit to the person who told ME about the water bath method: Martha Ann Miller, from whose dairy we got milk regularly for years before they moved.

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