We are so enjoying all the friends and family who are heading north to stay with us in our new home on the island of South Ronaldsay in Orkney. Breakfast, such an individual meal when it comes to likes and dislikes, can be a challenge but we tend to keep the offer to either porridge, made with the delicious flaked oats from Barony Mill (which is also the producer of the unique Orkney beremeal) or homemade granola and yogurt. Then, of course, there’s Nick’s lovely homemade bread, creamy yellow Orkney butter and my homemade marmalade. It is the yogurt, however, that is the subject of most conversation and so I thought I’d share some hints and tips for making yogurt at home.
In 2018 I took part in a Plastic-Less Lent which was a revelation - in our house the greatest amount of plastic waste is from milk containers. Many island communities are trying to encourage their local dairy back to glass bottles. It is said that the bottles must be used at least 8 times to be more environmentally friendly than plastic - I’m sure it’s a debate that will run and run up here but, of course, the best ingredient to start with for yogurt, however it is packaged, is good local milk; preferably blue top or whole milk and as fresh as possible.
In the first instance you also need some commercial live yogurt - I always seek out the green label whole milk variety from my friends at Yeo Valley. You need 3 tbsp of that in the base of a 1 litre bowl. I use a beautiful china pudding basin from Highgrove - but I think the recipe works in other containers!
Warm 1 litre of milk over a moderate heat to at least 87C - I have found that the hotter the milk gets the thicker the yogurt and often let it get to 89C or even 94C under a watchful eye. A good digital thermometer is pretty essential equipment for yogurt making. Once heated up - yes, you have to cool it down again, placing the pan in a sink of cold water until it reaches 47C. This is the critical temperature - that temperature is necessary for the yogurt to ‘ferment’ so keep an eye and if the temperature drops too far, do reheat to 47C or the yogurt may not thicken.
I set my china bowl with the yogurt starter in it in the middle of a fluffy hand towel. Pour the 47C milk into the bowl and stir to combine with the yogurt. Cover with cling film, wrap the towel around the bowl and quickly place it somewhere warm for 5 hours. We use our airing cupboard now but used to set the bowl on the back of the Aga when we had one. You can leave it for longer and up to 2-3 hours does not seem detrimental for us but how warm your ‘incubator’ is may dictate the total time without storage. Unwrap and allow the container to cool, then chill the yogurt for at least 3 hours and preferably overnight for the best texture.
From then on, just keep 3tbsp from the end of the current batch to start your next lot of yogurt. I find that works for about 5 or 6 batches then a new Yeo Valley starter is required. You should aim to eat the yogurt in about 5 days. After the glorious moment of breaking into a new bowl of yogurt it does often split with some whey separating out. That can easily be poured off and is good for baking but use it that day. It can also be stirred back in. If the yogurt splits badly it can be strained through a scalded nylon sieve which will give a much thicker curd, a little like a homemade Greek-style yogurt.
When we had an Aga we didn’t have an airing cupboard - although I understand that there are some households that have both! So when we turned our Aga off in the summer we had to be resourceful to continue making yogurt. At this stage the electric seed propagator was called into play. I forsook my Highgrove bowl for an enamelled pie dish for maximum possible heat transference, and put the towel over the top of the dish on the propogator. It worked well but sometimes took a little longer than 5 hours.
The flavour of homemade natural yogurt is much milder than many commercial offerings and is completely different from the acidically bitter taste, rather like gloss paint (not that I eat gloss paint - you know I mean, the smell/imagined taste) of natural yogurt when it first arrived on our supermarket shelves in the 1970’s. So be prepared for if you start making yogurt yourself, you and your family will probably want homemade for ever!