Making Homemade Yogurt in a Styrofoam Cooler

Homemade yogurt made from raw milk is preferable to store-bought non-organic yogurt. Even yogurt made with regular, store-bought milk is preferable, as it will not have the usual thickeners of commercial yogurt. It is also about half the price.

Sadly, I see that the new Joy of Cooking cookbook does not include directions for making yogurt, as its earlier editions did. Thank goodness a 1967 edition of the Joy guided me as I became a cook in my younger years. Back then, I knew a lot of people who made yogurt, baked bread, put up fruit preserves, canned fruit, churned ice cream, all guided by Joy of Cooking. Today’s young cooks don’t have the encouragement to make these recipes if they follow their new Joy. No, I don’t want my youth back today, if it means I would mature into my cooking skills without knowing how to bake, preserve, churn and culture.

But I digress. Back to making yogurt.

First, you need a way to keep the cultured milk at a temperature range between 106 and 110 degrees F. (41-43 degrees C.). The easiest method is to buy a yogurt maker, a heating device with six or seven glass cups. I don’t have one, and have found it easy to improvise by using a small styrofoam cooler and a heating pad. A thermometer is necessary if you use this method. I use recycled plastic yogurt containers to make two quarts at a time. Here are all the accoutrements for making yogurt in a cooler.

Included in the photo is a container of Activia, a Dannon product, for the lactobacillus culture needed to innoculate milk (any yogurt that contains live culture will work), and also a timer to turn the heating pad off and on. Using a heated metal skewer, I made a hole in one of the lids for the thermometer, so that I can track the temperature of the milk while it is “yoging”.

To make yogurt, regardless of your heating method, slowly bring two quarts of raw or other fresh milk to 180 F./82 C. over low heat. Cover the pan to prevent a skin from forming. This temperature pasteurizes the milk and kills anything live that would interfere with the yogurt culture.

When it reaches 180 F./82 C., turn off the heat, cover with a lid (again, to prevent a skin from forming) and walk away and do something else while it cools to 110 F./43 C. This may take a while, but you can hasten this by stirring if you want it to cool more quickly. When the milk is at 110 F./43 C. degrees, stir in two teaspoons of live yogurt, mixing well. Pour into scrupulously clean containers, turn on the heating device of your choice, and allow eight to twenty-four hours to culture.

The containers are sitting on the lower part of the heating pad, with the rest of the pad fitted along the inside. The thermometer is placed in a corner for easy viewing. Of course, while it is culturing, the cooler lid is in place. You will need to monitor it the first time to see how to adjust your timer. The pad should be set on the lowest setting.

The longer yogurt cultures, the more sour it becomes. This is because the lactose (milk sugar) turns into lactic acid. The more time, the more lactic acid, the more sour the taste. This works well for my lactose-intolerant husband, who can eat this yogurt without any problems. And for me, as I prefer yogurt with a tart flavor. If you like tart yogurt also, with a minimum of lactose, culture it for 24 hours. For a milder tasting yogurt, 8-10 hours is sufficient.

When finished, refrigerate the yogurt. Save a small amount, uncontaminated, to culture your next batch.


About every three or four batches of yogurt, you will need to buy fresh starter in the form of a small container of yogurt. Flavored yogurt is OK to use, as long as the culture is live.

To make “car yogurt”: place the containers of milk in a closed car on a summer’s day. The interior heat will be warm enough to make yogurt, though you may want to use a thermometer to monitor the temperature. Wrap the containers in towels if you use glass bottles, as milk should not be exposed to sunlight.


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About Cooking in Mexico

I'm a gringa living in Mexico, writing about classic Mexican recipes, New World ingredients and food events in my part of the world.
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