Monday, September 5, 2011

Easy Yogurt and Yogurt Cheese

I used to think that cheese making was some esoteric art that only the brave would attempt at home; but in the days before refrigeration, cheese making was a common household task. Soft cheeses are incredibly easy, delicious and versatile. The first cheese I ever made was a Middle Eastern yogurt cheese that a Jordanian friend told me how to make.

Here is all you do:

Take a quart of plain yogurt, add salt to taste if desired, place in a muslin cloth (a white cotton woven dish towel will do), tie it up into a bag, and hang it on the faucet in the kitchen sink over night to drain. The result is a soft spreadable cheese. Serve it plain or herbed with pita bread or crackers. Try it on graham crackers with a bit of jam for an instant cheese cake. Use it in recipes for a low fat alternative to cream cheese.

Store bought yogurt will do as long as you make sure that it doesn’t contain gelatin. Yogurts often contain gelatin as a thickening agent. The whey will not drain out of the yogurt if there is gelatin in it.

If you don’t want to waste the mineral rich whey, drain the yogurt into a bowl. Whey is delicious used in place of the liquid in breads and quick breads. I have used it successfully in place of buttermilk for pancakes and soda breads. Whey is acidic like buttermilk so it reacts with baking soda to leaven the bread for similar light and delicious results.

Do you want to start right at the beginning and make your own yogurt? That is almost as easy.

To make yogurt:

Heat the milk to 180°. This heating will help the yogurt to thicken properly. Cool the milk to 110°. Add live yogurt culture. You can use plain store bought yogurt for this if it says on the package that it contains live culture. Or you can buy culture packets for an initial batch and then use your own yogurt to culture future batches. Use ¼ cup of yogurt per quart of milk.

Let the milk stand undisturbed in a warm place or place in a thermos to hold the temperature. Most recipes say to let it stand around 8 hours, but I have had better results leaving it longer, between 16 and 24.

Homemade yogurt does not contain and thickeners or emulsifiers. Your homemade yogurt will likely be a bit thinner than store bought yogurt, especially if you are using goat milk.

The most important thing to keep in mind with yogurt or any cultured cheese is that you are working with living organisms that need certain conditions to grow.  The culture used to make yogurt needs a warm temperature to thrive. If the temperature is too cool the culture will not grow and you will end up with sour milk instead of yogurt. But too hot of a temperature will kill the culture. The ideal is to keep the milk between 90° and 110°. Cultures like this are called thermophilic or heat loving.

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