Hello, locavores. This month’s installment in your DIY handbook on how to eat as from-scratch and as locally as possible is on DIY dairy. In particular, we are going to make our own yogurt, yogurt cheese, and kefir! What better way to keep our diets local in the winter than to utilize our bountiful dairy harvest to make probiotic treats for our tummies?

Why DIY?
Doing it yourself (DIY) makes a lot of sense for Co-op Owners because it allows us the opportunity to support as many local purveyors as possible while keeping our food costs down to a minimum. It is relatively easy to source ingredients locally, but often every step in the processing of foods between field and plate requires another set of hands, and another set of transactions and more transportation. All of these things drive up the costs of high quality foods, at times to the extent that they are rendered prohibitively expensive for some of us.

We at the Willy Street Co-op would like to explicitly state that the local food movement is a grassroots movement for everyone. It is great that these discourses have become so commonplace that they have been assimilated into the lifestyles of the middle class. We can all enjoy high quality, fresh, local cuisine.

The only difference is that what you save in money you must invest in time. This is easier and more desirable for some of us than others. I admit, when I first got into canning, freezing, and other DIY from-scratch home food preservation, I thought of it as a chore; a necessary evil I must endure until summer was over so that I could continue to eat the foods I wanted well into the winter time. Though it is a significant time investment, it lowers the cost of my food bill so much while simultaneously raising the quality of foods that I eat.

But over the span of the last decade, I have come to realize that I’ve inadvertently grown to love the act of preparing my food from scratch. Yes, over time, I came to crave the shucking of three bushels of corn, not just because there is gratification to be found in hard work, but also because it became one of the most community-strengthening parts of my life. Pre-ordering those bushels of corn strengthened my relationship with the Produce department here at the Co-op, before I even was a member of that team as an employee. It strengthened my relationship to George, the farmer at West Star Farm who I get my corn from every year, with whom I am now on a first-name basis. And it strengthened my relationship with my friends and neighbors because I would need many hands to help me process that quantity of corn. It created and reinforced interdependence among people who could instead go quietly about the business of their daily lives, conducting transactions completely devoid of human interaction or support.

Though the making of yogurt, yogurt cheese and kefir are not such large tasks that you’ll need to lasso the rest of the family to help you, it might be fun to wrangle a pal into adventuring into DIY dairy with you.

How to make your own yogurt
Ingredients and Tools:

  • 1 quart cow’s, goat’s, or soy milk (I prefer whole, but you can use 2% or skim, just not Ultra-High Pasteurized, or UHP, milk)
  • 2 Tbs. of plain yogurt, your favorite brand (this will give your yogurt the same qualities you already like in a yogurt)
  • Optional: 1/4 to 1/2 cup nonfat dry milk (if you like thick yogurt)
  • Thermometer
  • Useful but not necessary: double boiler

Instructions:

  1. Set out your starter (the 2 Tbs. of yogurt) to allow it to get to room temperature.
  2. Heat the milk to 185˚F. You either need to do this in a double boiler, or fashion one yourself by just placing a mason jar full of milk into a pot of water. I used a Mason jar in a pot of water, and found that it worked great. If you don’t have a Mason jar or a double boiler, you’ll need to be extremely attentive and stir the milk constantly until it reaches the correct temperature.
  3. Cool the milk down to at least 110˚F but no cooler than 90º. Do this by placing the Mason jar in a bath of cool water, stirring the milk occasionally. Make sure that it does not get too hot, or it will kill the active cultures that you’re trying to create and multiply.
  4. If you prefer thick yogurt, now is the time to add optional nonfat dry milk. If you use skim milk you might want to do this since skim milk yogurt is super thin compared to store bought yogurt. I got used to it over time, but you might want to experiment to see what you prefer.
  5. Add the starter (your 2 Tbs. of yogurt). Stir it in.
  6. Close the Mason jar with a lid or some other cover.
  7. Let it rest and become yogurt. You want to keep the yogurt warm enough for the bacteria to multiply, but not so hot that it kills them—100˚ is ideal. When I conducted all of my yogurt experiments this summer to research this article, I used my kitchen counter top near a sunny window where the counter was warm to the touch. That was perfect. (Note: don’t place your jar in direct sun, as the light will kill nutrients.) However, this article will be printed in the winter months, so you’re going to need to use something as a heating source. Some people use a warming pad, like what we use in the bulk aisle to keep the honey pourable in its dispenser. Others place the jar in a sink full of warm water. I have even seen someone wrap his yogurt in a heating pad on the counter on the low setting. Be creative, but don’t burn your house down.
  8. Wait between seven hours and several days. When you first crack the jar open, you’ll notice a change in color, texture, and there will be a thin watery liquid floating on the surface. This is good. I suggest smelling and tasting the yogurt often, like once or twice a day, starting at the seven-hour mark. The longer the yogurt incubates (that’s the formal term for this process) the thicker and tangier it will become. Personal preference is the only way to determine how long to continue. I was intimidated at first, but don’t be afraid of it! Just try a little taste. When you like what you taste, proceed to the next step.
  9. Place the yogurt in the freezer for about 10 minutes, then move it to the fridge, where it will keep for up to two weeks. Cooling the yogurt rapidly will diminish the amount of lumps in your yogurt, but the lumps aren’t really a big deal, so the freezer step isn’t really necessary. You can just stir them in before serving. Also, note that there will be a bit of liquid floating on top, which is just whey. You can stir that in or pour it off.
  10. If you care to make more yogurt using this batch as your starter, do so within a week. That’s when the cultures will be the strongest for reproducing.
  11. Serve! This is the most fun and exciting part. You can opt to sweeten it or leave it plain, but if you are used to store bought yogurt, you will be in for a surprise! It is not sweet and is relatively thin. And it is delicious. I now prefer my yogurt not too sweet and thin. You’ll get used to it, promise.

If you care to sweeten your yogurt, you have some great local options available to you. I alternate using maple syrup and honey. Once in a while I like to add some strawberry freezer jam that I made in the summer months. In fact, any canned or frozen fruit that you’ve preserved from the summer harvest is pretty tasty in your yogurt. I have even used rhubarb sauce. It was deliciously sour and made my taste buds sing.
You can also use your yogurt to make cheese! There will technically be curds and whey, but this is a soft, spreadable cheese. Do not expect it to turn out like a block of cheddar. But do expect it to be soft and dreamy and great mixed with a variety of herbs and spices. Don’t even get me started on how I feel about this stuff with capers. (I know capers aren’t local!)

How to make simple, spreadable yogurt cheese
(If you want to make cheese out of your yogurt, I suggest using whole milk. You can also use soy milk, if you like.)

Ingredients and Tools:

  • 1 quart plain yogurt
  • 15 in. square piece of cheesecloth
  • String
  • Bowl
  • Colander
  • Herbs, spices

Instructions:

  1. Cut cheesecloth into 15-inch square.
  2. Pour yogurt into center of cheesecloth, and tie the corners together, tightly.
  3. Now, this is where you make a choice based on your ideas of food safety. Traditionally, this cheese is made by stringing up the yogurt bag over a sink or bowl and allowing the liquid to drip out over the course of a couple of days. Many modern DIY cheese enthusiasts advocate performing this process in the refrigerator to avoid unwanted bacteria. My personal belief is that the whole point of yogurt is the bacteria, because the bacteria (a.k.a. the “live active cultures”) benefit us. However, you may, if you prefer, place the cheesecloth bag in a colander and place the colander in the bowl. Set this in the fridge and allow it to drip for a couple of days, emptying the liquid (whey) periodically.
  4. Once your cheese has reached the desired texture/firmness, remove the cheese from the cheesecloth and place it in a bowl to store it. You have made cheese curds! Celebrate!
  5. Season them with your choice of herbs and spices. I like to add garlic and dried herbs from the garden (so that they’re still local even though it’s winter) and spread on crostini or a bagel. And yes, I love this stuff with capers. Or pickled hot peppers from the garden. The possibilities are endless!

Kefir
Kefir and yogurt are very similar in the sense that they are both cultured dairy products that contain bacteria that is beneficial to our body’s ecology. However, when compared side-by-side, kefir emerges as the victor of the most-nutritious award. Though they both contain beneficial bacteria, they contain different types and kefir just contains more. Yogurt has bacteria that act as food for the beneficial bacteria that already reside in our digestive tract. But kefir, on the other hand, can repopulate our digestive tract with the critical bacteria we need.

Also, kefir contains some strains of yeast. Yeast in the body has a negative connotation due to yeast infections and candida, but the truth is our bodies need yeast in order to maintain a balanced internal ecology. The varieties of yeast found in kefir help the body to rid itself of other, toxic varieties that create infection and keep our mucous membranes vulnerable to pathogens.

Finally, kefir is fermented, which lengthens its shelf life while also discouraging the growth of harmful molds and bacteria.

So, in order to make your own kefir from scratch, you’re going to need to access some kefir starter, a.k.a. kefir grains. These grains are little clusters of the microorganisms I described above. You’ll need to access some of them in order to embark on this DIY food adventure. Kind of like with a SCOBY (a kombucha starter), you can spread the word in your community to trade a friend for one. Otherwise you can order the grains off of the internet. While it’s an initial upfront cost, in the long run you will be able to save money by making the kefir yourself. The bonus is that you will be able to do so with local milk or half and half, from whichever Wisconsin farm you prefer.

Ingredients and Tools:

  • 2 Mason jars, wide-mouth pints are best
  • A pint or a quart of milk or half and half (milk makes very drinkable kefir, while half and half makes kefir that is far more like yogurt in consistency)
  • 1 tsp. kefir grains
  • Piece of cheesecloth with hole approximately 1/8 of an in diameter
  • Rubber band

Instructions:

  1. Pour a pint of milk or half and half into one of the Mason jars.
  2. Add kefir grains. Close lid, and leave jar at room temperature. Shake gently once or twice daily.
  3. Taste daily. Depending on the temperature in your home, the milk will take between one and three days to sour and become kefir.
  4. Once the kefir tastes about as sour as you like it, strain out the grains and reserve for later use. (This is where you’ll need the second jar. Secure the cheesecloth over the mouth of the second jar using the rubber band, but don’t pull the cloth completely taut. Pour the kefir from jar 1 into jar 2, pushing it through the cloth. As the grains become exposed, set them aside until jar 1 is empty and jar 2 is full.)
  5. Voila! You are a kefir-maker. I always kind of suspected that you were, but now I have proof! Pop the kefir in the fridge, and consume it in the next two weeks.

If you like, you can flavor your kefir. Try honey, maple syrup, fruit, frozen berries from last summer’s harvest, or whatever inspires you. I have a friend who swears that his kefir is delicious with basil and mint. I have yet to try it, but think it could be great!