Get Cultured: Making Fresh Yogurt and Sour Cream At Home

 

When it comes to DIY dairy, the easiest eats to make are cultured foods like yogurt, sour cream, and buttermilk. And once you try our techniques, you’ll wonder why you ever bothered to buy!

Yogurt

Yogurt is made by introducing a bacterial culture, most commonly Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, into warmed fresh milk; the milk is heated and cooled beforehand so that the proteins do not form cheese curds. These beneficial bacteria (or probiotics) eat the sugar in the milk to produce lactic acid, which makes the proteins in the milk curdle and thicken into tart, tangy yogurt! You can buy commercial bacterial cultures specifically made for making yogurt, or you can use any probiotic capsules from the grocery store that say they contain live, active cultures. But the easiest way to access those beneficial bugs is to simply mix whatever brand of plain yogurt you prefer into milk! Here’s how:

  • Pour one gallon of milk into a heavy dutch oven pot with a lid or a heavy three quart saucepan.
  • Heat the milk until the temperature gets near 200℉, but don’t let the milk boil. Remove from the burner and allow milk to cool to between 100-110℉. Some variance in temperature is fine, but it should be close to that range for the culture to work properly.
  • Stir in culture powder or one cup of plain yogurt.
  • Cover the pot and transfer to an unheated oven. Let it sit for 24 hours (up to 36 hours), or until set and thick. Cool to room temp and refrigerate.
  • You could also make in a slow cooker with a “warm” setting. Or, if it is super hot in your kitchen, you could even make this by simply leaving the pot out on the counter overnight!

 

Going Greek

Despite all the hype, there’s nothing fancy (or even specifically Greek) about Greek yogurt—it’s just regular yogurt that has been strained to remove excess liquid, resulting in a very thick yogurt that is chock full of protein. You can find strained yogurt all through Eastern Europe, Western Asia, and the Middle East, especially Turkey and Cyprus. To make your own:

  • Line a fine mesh sieve with cheesecloth or muslin. Make sure it has a tight weave so the yogurt does not seep through the fabric. Place the sieve on a bowl large enough to support the weight of the sieve+yogurt.
  • Pour in fresh yogurt, gather the fabric to cover, and let it drain in the fridge for two to four hours, or until it hits your desired level of thickness.
  • Transfer to a covered container and store in the refrigerator.
  • Don’t toss that whey—you can use the liquid leftover from the staining process as an add-in for smoothies, use it in place of other liquids when you’re baking to add extra flavor, or feed it to tomatoes and other plants that like a little extra calcium in their soil!

 

Sour Cream

Sour cream is just as easy to make as yogurt—maybe even easier, as there are a few different starters you can use. For cultured sour cream, the process is exactly the same—the only difference is that it is made with cream instead of milk. But almost any acid added to the cream produces a fantastic product; common starters are powdered sour cream starter, lemon juice, white vinegar, or apple cider vinegar. To make with an acid:

  • In a jar, mix one cup heavy cream with two teaspoons lemon juice or vinegar and ¼ cup whole milk.
  • Screw on the lid and shake vigorously until well mixed.
  • Remove the lid, cover the jar with fine cheesecloth or muslin; secure cloth in place with a rubber band.
  • Let the sour cream sit on the counter or in a warm place in your kitchen overnight, up to 24 hours.
  • When it is thickened to your preference, stir the cream, replace the lid, and refrigerate. This will keep in the fridge for at least two weeks.

 

It’s all About the Milk

For the best results, try to avoid using any milk or cream that has been processed using ultra-high-temp pasteurization. These products have been heated to a degree that the cream will not be an ideal environment for probiotics to grow. UHT milk is sometimes labeled as such; if it is not labeled, look for very long expiration dates or shelf stable packaging.

If you have access to a source of raw milk or are lucky enough to own your own cow, raw, unpasteurized milk is the type that works best and produces the thickest yogurt and sour cream. Unfortunately, raw milk is hard to find, if not outright illegal. Instead, look for low-temp pasteurized dairy products. Local dairies often use this gentle form of pasteurization (also called vat or batch pasteurization) to retain farm-fresh flavor; this method provides a better environment for nurturing bacterial cultures. These products generally have no labeling that indicates they use a low temp process, so the best way to know for sure is to ask your grocer or contact the dairy directly.