28 January, 2010

Bacterially yours.

Yogurt is one of those things you generally consume without too much forethought. At least that's how it used to be in my house. The consumption involved was of an organic sort, but all those single-serving plastic, glass or paper containers added up after a while. In my recycling bins, it came down to wine bottles, milk and juice bottles--and yogurt containers.

Until I figured out just how easy it is to make your own. At its unadulterated best, yogurt is an excellent balance of easily assimilated proteins, carbs, and healthy fatty acids, such as CLA, only obtainable from dairy products, which can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, fight inflammation, increase resistance, your basic nutritional superhero stuff. Of course yogurt is also rich in the B vitamins, phosphorus, potassium...and its acidity helps to better assimilate the large amounts of calcium it contains.

The homemade sort has no unexpected thickeners, such as (lower-cost) pork-derived gelatin (yes, vegetarians, it is often so, certainly in the US) or pectin, no preservatives, artificial flavors or sweeteners. It does, however, have superior flavor and superb, creamy texture (similar to French-style yogurt), and is above all loaded with live yogurt cultures--the essential, good bacteria you need to maintain intestinal health and support your immune system. All this for a fraction of what you would pay for in a store.

I'll admit I was unable to pass up a deal (under 10 euros!) that coincided with my then-fresh ambition, so I got a yogurt maker. But a friend of mine simply puts baby food jars or other containers into a larger container, fills the larger container with boiling water just up to the lids, and slides this container into her oven. She then simply turns on the pilot light, and leaves the milk to gently cool and ferment overnight. That's it. And hers is delicious. My weak defense for a yogurt maker is that the 150 ml jars are better sized with nice sturdy lids, while baby food jars are usually just too small--and well, there was that deal. (Sigh. I try to reduce and simplify...)
At any rate, you can find as many recipes out there as there are opinions. The recipe I've developed is sort of a hybrid of Western techniques and Vietnamese yogurt, or sữa chua. Pronounced “su-aw chu-ah,” it means sour milk, but the Vietnamese also "vietnamized" the French colonizers' word for yogurt, yaourt, into da ua, pronounced “yah u-ah.” What differentiates Vietnamese yogurt from the Western sort with which we are generally more familiar, is that condensed milk is an essential component.

On my shortlist of must-have pantry ingredients, condensed milk always has a place. It is an unctuous, exceedingly accomodating cooking aid that among other things, adds depth to cakes, hot chocolate, and ice cream. And of course it is what becomes dulce de leche, or milk caramel, after a couple of hours on the stove. When flying through the supermarket, please be sure not to confuse this little can with similarly canned evaporated, un-sweetened milk, which while also useful is not interchangeable.

For the probiotic cultures either use a fresh-as-possible single serving of live-culture yogurt (check the label, they will proudly state its presence) or two 8 gram packets of freeze-dried, powdered culture. I get my packets at the organic supermarket; they are a blend of Streptococcus thermophilus and Lacto bacillus bulgaricus. You may well find the packets in the refrigerated section of a well-stocked supermarket that carries a mix or organic and conventional goods. The advantage with the packets is that they take little space and can be kept quite a while. Whatever you go with, the cultures contained will affect the end result. Try different cultures. The more types of probiotic bacteria involved, the faster the yogurt will set. Some ferment faster than others (and the earlier fermenting-ones often also produce an innocent, yellowish liquidy whey, which you just stir back into the yogurt. So depending on the approach and cultures, it will take anywhere from four to eight hours waiting for your yogurt to set. If you leave it a really long time, say because you forgot it, it will alter from tangy, to sometimes unacceptably sour.

Because I use UHT (Ultra High Temperature) flash-pasteurized milk, there is no need to heat/sterilize the milk beforehand, which is good for maintaining the the optimum vitamin content. And it means one step less.

Dare to experiment: if you prefer a thicker, Greek style yogurt (nearly a cream cheese), you can try either adding 5 tablespoons of dried, powdered milk when you are blending in the yogurt or powdered culture, or you can drain the fully set yogurt through a very fine strainer or coffee filter. Please note that if you want plain, unsweetened yogurt, simply add the 5 tablespoons of dried milk, organic if possible when adding the cultures, and omit the condensed milk and vanilla.

I can assure you that despite the long-winded preliminary explanation you have just endured, cooking an egg is more complicated than this particular yogurt recipe; after all, in all its variations it has successfully been made around the world, far less scientifically, for thousands of years.

Yaourt Vanillé Gourmand & Santé Maison/Healthy Homemade Vanilla Yogurt

Makes 7 150-ml servings, which can be kept technically about two weeks, though I've never managed to keep them that long.

2 eight gram packets of refrigerated, powdered live cultures
OR 1 serving of plain yogurt with live cultures (bifidus)
4 tablespoons condensed milk
1 tablespoon pure double-strength vanilla extract (I swear by Penzeys)
1 liter organic UHT milk (whole or half-fat, cow, goat or sheep)

Make sure all implements and the glass containers are well-cleaned and dried.

Thoroughly combine the powdered culture OR yogurt with the condensed milk and vanilla extract with a whisk. Add a few tablespoons of milk, thoroughly combine until uniform. Mix in the rest of the milk. Pour into glass containers. Leave to ferment 4-8 hours, in a yogurt maker or in a (boiling) hot bain-marie in the oven (leaving only the pilot light on).

Enjoy as is, or with additions of fruit or granola, at any time of the day. As you might guess from the dimly lit image below, it also makes for a delicious midnight treat.


  1. the vietnamese yogurt is so distinctive...i remember them sold in little pastic bags in VN..you're pronunciation guide is spot on...great recipe and tips!!

  2. Thanks RC, I also adore Vietnamese yogurt--and it's so easy to make as well!

  3. My youngest aunt makes her own yogurt too and I asked her to tell me to come over when she makes it so I can get her recipe. But she says it's inconsistent. Although, I've liked every version she's given me. I gotta remember to get her recipe so I can blog it.

  4. WC, I don't think inconsistency is such a bad thing: it's what leads to progress. Vietnamese yogurt wins on three points: cheap, easy and tasty. Then of course you can start playing around with your own versions, as I did...

  5. Just because of time, it is faster for me to buy already made yogurt. I love Greek yogurt (much thicker than regular yogurt). It is delicious with honey. I would love to try Vietnamese yogurt. I will inquire about it.

  6. Oh, Nadege, you're in for a treat. But remember Vietnamese yogurt is different (much lighter) than Greek-style (but also not like conventional American). If you ever get to "Little Saigon" in Orange County, you'll be spoiled for choice!


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