Years ago, when I was a pastry chef, my family and friends called me the dairy queen because I never met a dairy product I didn't like. Cream, buttermilk, sour cream, fresh cheese, créme fraÎche—you name it, and I turned it into dessert. The only exception was yogurt, essentially milk that has been thickened by acid-producing bacteria. Like a lot of people, I thought of yogurt only as something to enjoy at breakfast time.
But one night at dinner, I dabbed too much harissa, a fiery Tunisian chili paste, into an eggplant tagine. Remembering its reputation for cooling spicy cuisine, I stirred a spoonful of plain yogurt into the vegetables on my plate. The yogurt instantly tamed the fire, and it did something else too—it rounded out the flavors, making everything taste better. The cooling, soothing effect on spicy foods, scientists believe, is due to casein, a protein in dairy products that binds with capsaicin, the compound that makes chilies hot.
Nutritionally speaking, yogurt has all the benefits of milk. It's rich in calcium, B-complex vitamins, vitamin D, and protein, among other nutrients, and it offers the benefit of live cultures, like acidophilus, which are often touted as aiding digestion and boosting immune function. And some adults who are lactose intolerant find that they are able to eat yogurt, since the bacteria that turns the milk to yogurt produces some of the enzymes required to digest the lactose.
"Yogurt is considered one of those magical ingredients," says Ruta Kahate, a cooking teacher and the author of 5 Spices, 50 Dishes. "It's an all-around tonic, capable of curing many ills, and generally considered to be an effective agent of balance for a person's digestive system. Most Indians eat plain, homemade yogurt with every meal, and if not, then at least once a day is a must. In Maharashtra, where I'm from, the yogurt is thick and naturally sweet, and we eat a bowlful as a snack with maybe a spoonful of sugar stirred in." Yogurt is also mentioned throughout Hindu texts like the Brahma Samhita, which compares the deities Shiva and Vishnu to yogurt and milk, respectively, in an effort to explain their relationship as different forms of God.
Today, the supermarket dairy aisle boasts a stunning variety of yogurt. But the idea of making fresh yogurt appealed greatly to my old pastry-chef side. I was ready to try making my own.
I already had almost everything I needed: a heavy-bottomed stainless steel pot, some clean jam jars with lids for storing the yogurt, and a kitchen thermometer. On my shopping list were whole organic milk and a container of plain yogurt with live active cultures to serve as a starter.
An Internet search yielded detailed instructions involving complicated setups with double boilers and heating pads, but I went with the simplest instructions I could glean from a few cookbooks.
I gently brought a quart of milk to a boil, stirring it frequently to prevent scorching, until it reached a temperature of 185 degrees (just below a simmer) and held it there for 30 minutes. Temperatures higher than 110 degrees or so kill live cultures, so I allowed the milk to cool down to lukewarm before adding my starter. I stirred in a quarter cup of plain yogurt, poured the mixture into clean jars, and placed them inside the oven, which stays a little warm all the time because of the pilot light. Then I left the jars to "sleep" undisturbed overnight.
In the morning, I opened up my oven and gently shook one of the jars. The white stuff inside looked firm, so I cautiously dipped a spoon in. When I pulled it out, the spoon was coated with smooth, creamy yogurt that tasted unlike any I'd ever had, with a surprisingly mild, sweet flavor. The next batch I allowed to ferment a few hours longer before putting it in the fridge, which made for a slightly thicker yogurt with a stronger, though still pleasantly mild, flavor.
It didn't take long to master the technique of producing yogurt. A small batch every other day was enough to keep my household of three supplied for our usual breakfast—yogurt layered with homemade granola and a handful of berries in busy mornings, we tried layering yogurt over an improvised muesli of rolled oats, nuts, a handful of toasted pumpkin seeds, and chopped dried fruit.
But I didn't relegate yogurt to breakfast. I also made a delicious dip for grilled flatbread by stirring yogurt into soft-roasted eggplant with a generous amount of cumin and sea salt. A simple raita was delicious with a spicy red lentil soup. I experimented with draining the whey overnight in a coffee filter and produced a soft fresh cheese, which I mixed with chopped herbs and spread on crackers.
Besides the texture, which was creamier and more delicate, the biggest difference between my homemade yogurt and the yogurt I was used to buying in the grocery store was the complete absence of that sour quality. Without this aggressive taste, my yogurt worked especially nicely in summer desserts. I sweetened one of my early batches with honey and vanilla and used it as a sauce for broiled fresh peaches.
I also developed a taste for lassi, a refreshing icy drink that Kahate says is consumed almost compulsively in India during the hot summer months. In its simplest form, the drink is yogurt and water, to which ice and a bit of salt can be added. I made another traditional version by blending the drink with the pulp of a ripe mango, making a thick, sweet shake. By far my favorite discovery came when I gently mixed a little agave nectar and some puréed ripe blackberries into
yogurt, spooned the mixture into pop molds, and placed them in the freezer overnight. When I
removed the frozen pops from the molds, I had a perfectly balanced treat.
Charity Ferreira is senior associate editor at Yoga Journal.