bad culture

I have been making my own yogurt on a regular basis for about two months, with only a couple of breaks.

Today, though, was the first time I had a batch turn out badly. It was sort of curdled, runny, and just had the faintest off smell, and I ended up dumping it rather than eating it.

I don’t know exactly what happened. I was using the second half of a half-gallon of milk. It was still before the sell-by date, and the milk didn’t smell bad, but it had been sitting in the fridge a few days since I’d opened it and used the first half. It had been longer than normal since the last batch of yogurt (which I made with the first half of that milk). My starter culture might also just have gotten weak, which is not uncommon.

I’ll make a new batch in another day or two, and start afresh with an envelope of freeze-dried starter culture and some milk straight from the store.

Today’s mishap aside, I really do like making my own yogurt. It tastes good, it’s less expensive than buying yogurt, and it doesn’t have artificial thickeners or stabilizers.

getting me some culture

Ivy Hogan was entertaining me on Facebook a few weeks ago with her adventures in homemade yogurt. Ivy uses a multi-cooker, one of those programmable jobs that performs a variety of different functions – rice cooker, slow cooker and in some cases pressure cooker. Her multi-cooker has a setting for incubating yogurt.

At the time I had my original conversation with Ivy on Facebook, I told her that Alton Brown has a method that uses an electric blanket to hold the proper 110-degree temperature while the yogurt incubates. I thought about borrowing an electric blanket and trying that method, but I’ve been busy with the play and haven’t had much time for culinary experimentation.

I got a couple different Amazon gift cards for my birthday, and I was trying to think of a fun way to use one of them. I happened to think of a multi-cooker, thinking I could replace my current rice cooker. But the multi-cookers, if you use them to make rice, make a lot more than I would eat by myself! And the price range is so broad that I was suspicious the cheapest units – the ones I could afford with my gift card – might be sub-par. (The cheaper multi-cookers do not have the pressure-cooker function, either. Someday I’ll get one of the nice multi-cookers which does include a pressure-cooker function.)

So I did something that TV chef Alton Brown would deplore and looked at a “unitasker” – a dedicated yogurt-maker. And I found several low-priced models. Most were the type that allow you to make individual jars or plastic cups of yogurt, six or seven at a time. But I liked this one, which lets you make a quart in bulk and then parcel it out however you like.

I know, it’s a gadget. But I’ve actually had good success with kitchen gadgets. And Alton Brown doesn’t have to know about it.

To make the yogurt, you heat milk on the stove, then let it cool down slightly and add some sort of culture – you can buy freeze-dried culture online, but the simplest thing to do is to use a little bit of plain yogurt (provided it’s the kind with live and active cultures) as a starter. Then you put the inoculated milk into the yogurt maker (or a multi-cooker, or a bucket lined with an electric blanket, or whatever) and hold it at 110 degrees for a period of 4-8 hours or more. Shorter times result in milder, looser yogurt; longer times result in tangier, thicker yogurt. If you like something with the even-thicker consistency of Greek yogurt, you wait until after it’s fully cultured and you put it in cheesecloth in a colander (in the fridge) to let some of the whey drain out. You can let it drain even longer to produce yogurt cheese, a good cream cheese substitute. (Try draining your favorite full-fat store-bought yogurt this way some time. Low-fat or non-fat varieties may not work as well because of the artificial thickeners.)

I am very anxious to try this and see how it works. The machine should arrive by the end of the week. Next weekend will be another busy one, but maybe I’ll have time to try a batch next Sunday.

Dippin’ time

I love creamy dips – ranch, onion, and so on – but they’re horrible for you, and I have lousy self-control when I start noshing and dip is available. Fortunately, I have had good success in recent years preparing dips using Greek yogurt instead of sour cream. No, it’s not exactly the same, but it’s quite good on its own terms, and light years better for you.

Greek-Yogurt-DipsI’ve used various commercially-available dip mixes this way, just substituting yogurt for sour cream in the instructions, but today I bought something different. Hidden Valley Ranch now has a special version of its ranch dip mix specially-formulated for use with Greek yogurt.

Well, I’m assuming it’s specially-formulated. The cynic in me has long held that the envelope of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix and the envelope of Hidden Valley Ranch dip mix are the exact same product in a different wrapper. But I really do think in this case, they have adjusted the seasoning and consistency to work with nonfat Greek yogurt. It makes a tasty dip, and yet one I can indulge in without guilt.

The company also makes a salad dressing mix for use with Greek yogurt.

The one question I have – and I’ve never been able to get an answer for this – is whether the salt in savory dips kills the live yogurt culture.

Yogurt ranch chicken

For Sunday dinner today, I came home with a tub of Greek yogurt and a packet of ranch salad dressing mix. I made ranch dip by combining the two. I then took a little of the ranch drip  and slathered it on two chicken thighs from the fridge, then dipping them in breadcrumbs and baking them in the oven. They turned out pretty well.

The only trouble is that I munched out on Triscuits and the remaining ranch dip while I was waiting for them to bake, and I wasn’t that hungry by the time they were ready.