I have a great deal of appreciation for yogurt. Many of my childhood memories involve bewilderingly shaped Yoplait containers filled to the brim with sickly sweet fruit-flavored dairy solids. As a child, I was constantly tricked into enjoying the yogurt gimmick du jour – drinkable yogurt, yogurt from a plastic tube-shaped sleeve, and cups of yogurt with lids full of crushed cookies and candies. But I didn’t truly acquire the taste for real yogurt until Fage, the original Greek yogurt, began appearing in my household refrigerator.
This new yogurt was drier, thicker, milder, and more substantive than the more common European-style yogurts I was used to eating. Greek yogurt omits nearly all of the flavorings and additives found in supermarket brands, like the gelatin added to some Yoplait yogurts for texture and consistency or the ambiguous “natural flavor” at the end of nearly all yogurt ingredient lists. The idea behind Greek yogurt is simple: Plain yogurt is placed in a fine strainer and then a significant portion of the excess liquid (or whey) is allowed to drain. Traditional Greek yogurt contains goat’s milk, but most American brands use cow’s milk.
After I crossed over to eating the good stuff, I spent a few years enjoying Greek yogurt in ignorant bliss. Seduced by the light-colored, friendly packaging and the implied healthiness of dry, bitter foods, I’d load up a bowl of 2% Fage with granola, honey, chocolate chips, and fruit and call it a snack. It wasn’t until I started noticing gimmicky products like Mixed Berry Greek Yogurt Protein Bars and Greek Yogurt Strawberry Granola Bites that I began to question my devotion to the luxury dairy product. The solid bar with streaks of what is marketed as Greek yogurt is nothing more than an upgrade from last decade’s version draped in normal yogurt. And the granola bites appear to have a similar shell of the same “Greek yogurt” substance. These are just a few products trying to cash in on the Greek yogurt trend.
Look back, if you will, at the magic formula for turning yogurt into Greek yogurt. Consider also that in order to make a solid yogurt coating, the aforementioned yogurt must be dry enough for packaging, handling, and safe consumption. Are we expected to believe that these companies have taken their normal, dry, candy-style yogurt shells and somehow strained them to create “Greek-style” versions of the same products? Perhaps they have, but it seems much more likely that study groups convinced marketing teams that while people associate yogurt with sugar and fat, those same people associate Greek yogurt with extra protein and a hip, healthy, probiotic lifestyle.
In America, yogurt is a nearly eight-billion-dollar market, with almost half of that made up of Greek-style yogurts. Fage was the first big name on the scene, entering the United States market in 2001. Then in 2007, Chobani launched their line of Greek yogurts and quickly rose to the top, grabbing nearly three-quarters of the U.S. Greek yogurt market share in just two years. Clearly trying to play catch-up, Dannon introduced their Oikos brand in 2011 and acquired nearly one-third of the market in the years since. Fage, despite being the only nationally recognized Greek yogurt brand based in Greece, commands less than ten percent of the market.
Greek yogurt is truly a turn-of-the-century revolution for the United States, with very little supermarket presence until the 2000s. Perhaps the lack of cultural history can help explain why Greek yogurt has evolved so rapidly. In just a few years, it has gone from being a more traditional whole fat, plain style to the modern day convenience store Greek yogurt pumped full of the very same artificial fruit and sugar that made pop yogurts of the 90s so detestable.
Any yogurt salesman will tell you, however, that Greek yogurt is the healthier option because of the increased protein content and lower amounts of fat. There is hardly any counterargument to this – unless you decide not to believe the implied claim that both the protein in yogurt is healthy, and the fat in yogurt is unhealthy. Lactose intolerance aside, the general idea of dairy being healthy stems from the fact that mammals – humans included – rely solely on the nutrition provided by milk for an important portion of their early developmental stages. Historically, yogurt has provided us with the means to prolong the life of easily-spoiled milk without removing any of the milk’s key components.
These historical yogurt-making methods are mostly ignored in modern, large-scale yogurt manufacturing. Food safety concerns, combined with lower-quality milk from industrial dairy farms have led modern companies to basically reinvent yogurt as a cooked and pasteurized product. Some say that this process of heating and sterilizing destroys most or all of the beneficial nutrients in mass-produced supermarket yogurt, but they lack the immense advertising budgets that drive consumer health awareness these days.
Even if you choose to ignore corporate yogurt conspiracies, it is hard to agree that Vanilla Chocolate Chunk Chobani Yogurt should be considered a health food. Still need more convincing? Chobani actually launched a line of Greek-style tube yogurts just this year, with flavors like “Flyin’ Dragon Fruit” and “Swirlin’ Strawberry Banana.” There are five flavors and yes, every one involves an “ing” being shortened to “in”-apostrophe.
By now, you’re probably wondering, “Perhaps I’ve been led astray by American consumerism. How can I experience true yogurt?”
Well, I’m glad you asked. The easiest way is to make it yourself. Here’s the basic rundown – start with fresh, cold whole milk, then heat the milk in a clean pot to around 180 degrees Fahrenheit to kill any unwanted bacteria. Next, mix in a little starter yogurt to acquire the essential yogurt generating bacteria and wait for the milk to magically transform into yogurt. At this point, you’ve essentially started a microscopic bacteria farm, and as the bacteria continue to grow and multiply, they begin breaking down lactose (milk sugar) into glucose, galactose, and lactic acid. More of a scientific transformation than a magical one, but impressive nonetheless. In about twelve hours, your bacteria will have produced a fresh batch of delicious yogurt. Don’t worry – it’s easier than it sounds.
When it comes time to sample your results, keep in mind that the sweetness and creaminess of your yogurt will depend on your choice of milk, the environment in which the yogurt developed, and how long you let the yogurt rest. Your yogurt, while still unflavored, will have a creamier, softer consistency and sour bite more consistent with a plain European-style yogurt.
To transform your homemade yogurt into oh-so-cool Greek yogurt, you’ll need to take a few more steps. Line a colander with a few layers of cheesecloth, place the colander over a bowl, and strain the yogurt for a few hours. You’ll be left with a denser Greek-style yogurt and some sour whey (for added fun, trick people into drinking the whey by saying it’s healthy or good for their scalp or something, get creative). Worried about food safety? Buy yogurt from the store, but if you do, stick to plain yogurts and then add your own fresh fruit, honey, or granola.
Speaking of buying yogurt from the store, let’s backtrack to the “tricky” step in the process – making yogurt from yogurt. As with other bacteria-driven foods such as sourdough bread, beer, and vinegar, the easiest way to make sure you are dealing with the correct bacteria is to acquire them from a known source. There are ways of promoting bacterial growth without having to buy yogurt, but room-temperature milk is such an appealing home for bacteria that it can be difficult to keep the bad strains away while promoting the helpful ones.
If you have a favorite plain yogurt, you may find that using that as a starter will yield a similar tasting final product. Personally, I used Fage during the process and found the acidity and tartness to be surprisingly and pleasantly recognizable, although it was far from tasting like a perfect clone. If you’re worried about your yogurt not being “homemade enough”, here’s what you do: borrow two tablespoons of yogurt from your neighbor (you can return them later with interest), and use those to make a batch of semi-homemade yogurt. Discard the first batch, reserving two tablespoons, then make a second batch. Each successive repetition of this process will reduce the percentage of store-bought yogurt exponentially. Just don’t forget to bring your neighbor a cup of yogurt as repayment.
Unlike more ambitious and labor intensive dairy recipes such as cheese or hand churned butter, homemade yogurt is simple enough to be granted a spot among your go-to do-it-yourself recipes. It’s not going to save you any time or money to make your own yogurt – you’ll have to buy starter yogurt and extra milk anyway – but if you’re looking for a healthy and thoughtful food to serve at a special breakfast or brunch, it’s hard to beat yogurt. Arrange it in an over-sized parfait or with an array of self-serve toppings. Nobody needs to know that your hand-crafted, artisanal yogurt required little more than some advanced planning and 30 minutes at the stove-top.
Homemade Plain Yogurt
4 cups high quality milk (fat content will determine creaminess)
2-3 tablespoons high quality fresh plain yogurt (such as Fage)
Large bowl of ice water
Place the milk in a pot with the thermometer over medium heat. Stir gently until the thermometer reads 185°F. Then, stop stirring and reduce heat.
Hold between 180°F and 185°F without stirring for 20-30 minutes. A longer cooking time will result in a thicker yogurt.
Remove pot from heat and place it in the ice bath to cool. Once the thermometer reads 110°F, remove from ice bath and stir in the yogurt. Transfer mixture to a clean jar (3-4 cup capacity). Seal jar and place in a warm place to rest (i.e. oven with pilot light or heat vent).
Wait around 12 hours. A longer rest will yield a sharper flavored yogurt.
Chill and eat the yogurt.
Recipe Adapted from Bon Appetit
Feature and recipe photos by Rachel Wisniewski