Homemade Yogurt as Survival Food – Part 1, by N.C.

Yogurt isn’t something most of us think about. I love my classic “Back to Basics” book, it’s chock full of things that I say “oh yeah I should try that”, from carpentry to basket weaving to tinsmithing to blacksmithing. I love that book. But the section on making your own yogurt I looked at and said “yeah…no. Why would I ever do that?” Fast forward 5 years and I’ve lost count of how many batches of yogurt I’ve made.

Some advantages of yogurt:

  • Yogurt can get around lactose intolerance for some people,
  • It is a form of milk preservation,
  • It is economical.

There were two things that changed my attitude: The first was an episode of Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” about yogurt and the second was my children trying a mango lassi at a restaurant. The Good Eats episode noted that some people who are lactose intolerant can tolerate yogurt, the pre-digestion by the bacteria in yogurt can make it acceptable to their systems. That’s some real survival value, that would allow milk from livestock or dehydrated milk to be available to people who normally wouldn’t benefit from it. My children’s enjoyment of the lassi drink led me to look into that and it is incredibly easy to make lassi. That means that people who don’t like eating yogurt can have it available as a drink as well.

The real kicker is that it doesn’t require refrigeration the same way liquid milk does. That’s why yogurt was a staple food pre-refrigeration in hot climates like India. Likewise, it was a common food among nomadic peoples in the middle east and turkey. You could have milk in the morning, have the yogurt ferment during the day’s travel, and use the yogurt as a base for the evening meal. It will go bad. I had a batch go bad on me but that was after 3+ weeks in the fridge. The bacterial cultures that turn milk into yogurt keep other bacteria from spoiling the food for a significant period of time. How long? It’ll depend on what your weather is like but it will last longer than the milk would have in the same conditions, especially compared to raw unpasteurized milk. Which is what we will have if the balloon goes up.

The economical consideration is also significant. In my neck of the woods, a gallon of milk and a quart of yogurt cost about the same. This means that yogurt is actually about 4x more expensive. Now that’s not the whole story. It takes energy for you to cook it and a gallon of milk doesn’t quite yield a gallon of yogurt. Even allowing for those hidden costs to take a bite, you still come out ahead. This economy makes it a good food in an economic depression. Using it to make smoothies and frozen yogurt (more on those later) means you can give your family an economical treat as well as economical nutrition when money is tight.

Yogurt extends the life of milk that is expiring.

Another benefit I have found is that you can rescue milk with it. I accidentally forgot the milk in the backseat this summer and my food safety-conscious wife would not use it at all. I was okay drinking it that day, it would have been bad within two days and I did not want to drink a gallon of milk in that short a period. Instead of it going bad I turned it into yogurt and had time to eat through it and avoid waste. True, I could have turned it into pudding but my family and I really don’t need to eat that much pudding. That much pudding wouldn’t be a good thing for our health and that is also an important aspect of prepping. Yogurt is the better solution. A week later a storm knocked out power for 24 hours. 12 hours in I turned the quart of milk into yogurt and preserved it.

I also have made yogurt with soured milk, it was too sour for me to drink but the yogurt came out fine. By cooking the sour milk, any harmful bacteria were killed and so I had no worries about eating the resulting yogurt and it was fine. The upshot of this is that I can buy sale milk (which will go bad shortly) with impunity.

Yogurt cheese and dehydrated milk

Yogurt can also be used as a pathway to cheese which is even more shelf stable. There are ways to make cheese out of milk, yogurt, and lemon juice. I’ve done in once, it tasted like a bland ricotta, not bad, but not something I’ve felt strongly enough to repeat. Certainly not worth buying heavy cream and yogurt specifically to make. If I were to tread the path of cheese I would do what Alton Brown calls yogurt cheese, and I’ve heard called labneh, it’s very similar to greek yogurt. All it is, is regular yogurt slowly pressed in the fridge through cheesecloth to drain whey out of it. It creates something in between off the shelf greek yogurt and cream cheese. It can be flavored and spread on bread/crackers or as a base for a dip. The drained off whey can be used as a starter to ferment sour drinks (instead of yeast) and you can then make homemade soda or fizzy lemonade.

Rotating Stored Dry Milk

Another consideration is in rotating your stores. Some recipe variants include dehydrated (powdered) milk. In general, this is optional rather than required but if you are looking for a way to use your dehyrdated milk this is a good application. Dehydrated milk tends be something included in preparations but is also not a prized food. As a result, this is a store that generally gets neglected during pantry rotation. Being able to reconstitute milk will important later but that doesn’t mean we want to drink rehydrated milk now. But if you like the yogurt it would be a way to slowly use up old powdered milk and thus practice good rotation of your stores.

Homemade yogurt versus Storebought

As all home cooks know, there’s a taste difference between homemade and storebought. I love homemade applesauce and avoid storebought. There’s a difference between the tomato sauces my wife makes and what you get off a store shelf. Sometimes it takes some getting used to but I generally find that after a little acclimation I prefer the homemade.

Homemade yogurt has a couple major differences: it is more difficult to flavor and it is more fragile. Industry yogurt has stabilizers and gums that let them mix their flavorings uniformly throughout the yogurt. Homemade yogurt when stirred will separate the whey from the gel. At the same time flavoring during the fermentation while the gel is setting is questionable because anything you add to the milk that may have its own passengers (mold spores or bacteria). This wouldn’t matter if you just ate it but in order to turn milk into yogurt you will create a microbe-friendly environment so these normally benign passengers may grow and give you odd tasting, and potentially even unsafe, cultures in your yogurt.

You can add honey and sugar before incubation so I would be comfortable adding some jam that I just opened to it but I would not add fruit or even jam that was just sitting in my fridge for a while. I only want to add things that I know have been through an effective killstep like properly canned jam and have not had time to add new sources of microbes.

The upshot of all this is that you can do some flavorings but you’re off the map so to speak and it will never taste like store-bought. There are no guarantees I know of or that turned up in my research. In general you just add flavorful ingredients afterward. You’re firmly in experimentation territory if you want to mess with flavorings. I’ve done some experiments with flavored oils and extracts (a half teaspoon per quart) and here are my results.

The lemon oil was odd. It came out incredibly bitter, not inedible, but certainly not good. Then about a week into me eating through it (I have some Scottish heritage) the bitterness went away and it was quite good. I don’t know if that is normal and I haven’t played with it since then. I did read that sweet Lassi’s go bitter in a couple of hours so you need to drink them quickly. That makes me think it might just be normal that bitter flavors can develop. The mango-flavored oil on the other hand came out very nicely. It was not bitter or overpowering, it was just a nice flavor addition.

Vanilla and almond extracts seem to work well. The starter, I used for my first batch was from storebought vanilla flavored yogurt with live cultures. I was really surprised to taste vanilla in the resulting batch. It lasted for 2 batches and just decreased until it disappeared. I experimented using almond extract and it added a lovely subtle flavor that went very well with granola.

Making yogurt

I follow the “yogurt made simple” recipe from the Washington State University Extension office. I highly recommend saving the PDF or printing it out for your future reference. Initially, I followed Alton Brown’s recipe and found that it was very thin. I didn’t like the end product but it did start me on the journey. The main difference is the length of cook time and that made a big difference in the end product. “Yogurt Made Simple” is worth the (free) download.

The key takeaways: Simmer your milk on a double boiler at 180 F (82.2 C) for 20 min, this yields thick yogurt. Let cool to 108-112 F (42.2-44.4 C) before adding in your starter. The starter required is in ratio of live yogurt to milk: 1 cup to 1 gallon. So a quarter of a gallon of milk (one quart) you use 1/4 cup of yogurt. The starter is live yogurt either from a previous batch or a commercial yogurt that says on the package that it has live cultures. Keep the mixture at 108-112F for 3-12 hours (generally I do 6 hours). It is immediately ready for use, store in the refrigerator after incubation to help it last longer.

My setup: no specialized equipment

I try to keep things simple. I use: A large pot, my largest metal bowl, and an analog food thermometer for cooking. I use wide-mouth quart mason jar(s) as the fermentation vessels and my worst cooler for the incubation chamber. That’s it. There is no electrical requirement here or much tech at all. The most high-tech thing you need is the thermometer to make sure you don’t kill your microbes by adding the yogurt starter to milk while it’s too hot. With experience and necessity, you could even do without the thermometer.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 1.)