This one is for Kristi, and she'll get another one soon too! ;-)
This is how I go about making yogurt, and it works ridiculously well. The neat thing is that I've become aware of a number of different ways to do it, so I guess you just have to figure out what works best for you.
I have a Euro Cuisine yogurt incubator that comes with 7 individual-size glass jars. When I first got it, I also ordered an extra set of jars and am glad I did. The maker also comes with specific step-by-step instructions for how to make the yogurt and a variety of recipes.
I use local cream-top milk for my yogurt. I'm not afraid of naturally occurring fat in my food. I happen to actually be quite fond of it. If I don't have any cream-top on hand, I use whole milk (organic, of course). I don't know what it would taste like using low-fat milk, and frankly, I don't have any interest in finding out!
I measure out 44 or so ounces and pour it into a medium-to-big pot. I bring the milk up to a boil (it'll start to climb up the side of the pot), stirring regularly, and let it simmer for several minutes. Almost all instructions will tell you to take it up to a specific temperature using a thermometer. I don't. Instead, I just wing it. Then I leave it alone to cool down to lukewarm. Again, almost all instructions will tell you to let it cool down to a specific temperature using a thermometer. And again, instead, I just wing it. I test it with my finger, and that's that. As it cools, a skin forms on the top, and I use a big metal spoon to gently but swiftly in a circling motion gather it up and scoop it out.
Then I use a soup ladle to put a little bit of the lukewarm milk in a bowl, and I stir in the starter. The starter refers to the "good bugs" (i.e. beneficial bacteria) you want to have in the finished product. You can buy starter in powder form, use a high quality plain commercial yogurt, or use some homemade yogurt from the previous batch. I usually use the middle option, and again I pass by the low-fat varieties in favor of the cream-top or at least whole milk ones. After that's nicely mixed together, it gets put back into the pot, where it's stirred gently into the rest of the lukewarm milk.
I use the soup ladle to fill up my little yogurt jars, I put them in the incubator, and I turn it on. Easy! I used to follow the pretty standard 8-10 hour incubation period, but ever since I first got so sick, I've been incubating for up to 24 hours. It's yummy, and now I can't imagine not super-incubating. When the yogurt is done incubating, the jars go into the refrigerator so the yogurt can set. I used to like adding local, homemade jam to the yogurt right before eating it, but again ever since I got so sick, I only add a teaspoon of local honeycomb (that I'm able to find at our greenmarket).
So that's the step-by-step process from beginning to end. But. . . I found that understanding the "whys" behind the process is very helpful in making better yogurt. It also increased my appreciation for it.
There may be living "things" in the milk. Because we want the very particular "good bacteria" in our finished yogurt, we need to make sure we start with a clean, pure medium. Bringing the milk up to a boil kills any organisms that may be living in it. Once I understood that, I didn't worry any more about not having an appropriate thermometer to use for taking its temperature. Bring it up to a boil, and you know you're good. Let it cool to lukewarm. Why? Because if you add the good bacteria when the milk is too hot, it'll kill them just like it killed everything else. I don't worry about bringing it down to a particular temperature, probably because I've made bread approximately one zillion times in my life, so I feel comfortable with being able to tell by touch when it's ready. If it's just a little warm to the touch, it's fine. So now you've got a bunch of good bacteria introduced into a clean, pure medium - a medium that contains lactose, a.k.a. sugar, which happens to be a perfect food for those little bugs to dine on. But they do like to be warm and cozy as well, and hence the need to incubate in order for them to multiple. I don't worry about this temperature either because I have the special incubator that worries about it for me. These bugs are fickle and don't like to be disturbed. Therefore, it's important to put the incubating yogurt someplace it won't get jostled.
One of the benefits of super-incubating the yogurt is that the bugs keep multiplying and multiplying and multiplying. There ends up being more of them, and they end up devouring nearly all of the lactose. That's a beautiful thing in particular for folks who are lactose-intolerant, whose bodies won't need to worry about breaking down the lactose. The job has already been taken care of. I've ready that historically all yogurts were super-incubated and that today's commercial yogurts are only incubated for a few hours and hence cannot be considered "true" yogurt. Who knows? That's just what I've read.
So there you have it. That's how I make my homemade yogurt.
Now, a few other things I've heard about people's doing in place of using a special yogurt incubator.
- Pouring it in a big container, wrapping it up in a blanket, and putting it overnight in a closet. (An acquaintance does this and she swears it's perfect every time.)
- Putting it in the oven with the regular oven light bulb temporarily replaced with a 60 watt bulb. Apparently, that keeps the oven at the perfect temperature. Just don't forget to change the bulb back afterward!
- Using an electric heating pad (though I can't remember at what setting, but I'm assuming it must be low).
- Using a crock pot filled with some water (again presumably with the crock pot set to low??).
I don't know. Maybe I'm spoiled, but the specially-designed incubator didn't cost that much, especially considering how much use it gets, that I can't really imagine using one of the other methods. It's true, though, that yogurt is pretty much an ancient food, so people have been using an array of incubation methods successfully for a long, long time. (And hey, they did fine without that thermometer too!!)
I would love to hear about what yogurt-making methods others use if anyone is so inclined to share!