So I'm not making yogurt to actually serve to an albatross. Although, after seeing the movie Bag It at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, serving an albatross yogurt would be a hell of a lot better than its diet has been as of late, thanks to the enormous amounts of plastic garbage we throw away. This movie is about the amount of plastic garbage we use and throw out, and the impact it has on the rest of the world and our health. One particularly gruesome scene in the movie showed researchers dissecting dead albatross and pulling all manner of revolting plastic garbage out of their insides. Gag. I mean, ew. So disgusting.
And turns out my new hometown, Davis, CA, only takes #1 and #2 plastics, which does not include the plastic quart size containers that hold my yogurt. And there are only so many plastic yogurt containers I can take on before they start taking over and running the show. And even if Davis did take this kind of plastic, plastic recycling is still a nasty operation that we Americans are apparently too good for, so we ship our plastic to China where exploited Chinese workers get paid almost nothing to sort through our trash, pull out the recycle-able stuff, and melt it down into plastic (while inhaling all sorts of nasty shit because they don't have protective gear) that can get used maybe one more time before it becomes dinner for our friends the albatross and other cute and not so cute little marine animals.(All of this information was presented in Bag It.)
I also have a first hand experience with a feathered friend being waylayed by our plastic, though not nearly as traumatic as the albatross situation. One morning, I went outside to do something at the circuit breaker box, which was right next to our neighbor's lemon tree, and I was stopped by a bird dangling upside down from the tree, its leg caught up in a string of plastic that was knotted to a branch. The bird was flapping frantically and helplessly. I ran into the house and got a pair of scissors and snipped the plastic string, and the bird flew to freedom. I was really grateful to be able to free that bird, but I will never forget the image of it struggling helplessly upside down.
So after feeling awash in guilt over the amount of plastic we use (it only takes a few cute, furry critters wrapped up in plastic bags eating plastic particles they are mistaking for plankton), Leon and I decided to take action and make our own yogurt in re-usable quart sized mason jars. I should disclaim here that I realize our shift from buying yogurt in quart sized, plastic containers to making it ourselves is not going to make a huge change in the global amount of plastic thrown away, or even in the amount of it we throw away, but it was the first thing we realized that we could do right now. Plus, we do eat a lot of yogurt, meaning we do generate lots of plastic yogurt containers. Plus making your own stuff that other people buy makes you superior to them (Just kidding, sort of.) Plus, even though a half gallon of Strauss milk costs about $5, it's still cheaper to make yogurt than buying the brand of yogurt we had been eating before.
Of course, if the whole goal is to reduce our plastic consumption, we had to find milk that did not come in a plastic container, or a paper carton, because those can't be recycled in Davis either. So we bought a half gallon of Strauss milk to begin our yogurt making cottage industry. (For my many, many world and national readers who live outside the greater Bay Area of California, Strauss comes in glass bottles that actually get re-used, as in washed out and filled up with milk again. So quaint and old world. You pay a $1 or so deposit on them and you get it back when you bring it to the store.)
If you've never made yogurt, it may possibly sound complicated and technique heavy, but it is actually one of the easiest cultured foods to make (but if you do make yogurt and serve it to your friends, don't tell them that or they won't be impressed.) The only somewhat exacting part of the process is making sure you get the temperatures of your milk right - it needs to incubate at around 110, but I think there's some wiggle room here. However, you don't want to stray too much because if it's too hot or too cold, our finicky little lacto-baccilli will not get frisky and reproduce and thus won't generate the amount of lactic acid needed to turn the milk into yogurt. Think of the temperature as being a soft-core porn. Too tepid and the LBs won't get turned on. Too hot, and they'll get so worked up they'll just burn out early on.
In terms of ingredients and equipment, all you need is milk, a little bit of yogurt - about 1/4 cup per quart, a thermometer (I used a candy thermometer), quart sized jars (or pint sized), and a chamber in which to incubate your yogurt at a constant temperature. I tried to make that sound fancy, but the chamber I used is just a small cooler with some water I heated up, and one of my grandma's wool blankets on top of it. You can also use your oven with the light on, if it's a gas oven. Or you can use a food dehydrator, apparently, though I've never tried this. Or you can spend a lot of money on a yogurt maker but if you're planning on doing that, you are kind of missing the point of this article.
So, here's what I did:
First, I heated up a half gallon of milk (you can use whole, skim, low-fat, whatever) on the stove with a candy thermometer, until it reached 180 degrees. At that point I removed it from the heat and let it cool down to a few degrees higher than 110.
While that was happening (it takes a while), I boiled some water and put it in a small cooler (you don't want it to be too big because then it's harder to regulate the temperature.) Then I spooned about 1/4 cup each of plain yogurt into two quart-sized jars.
When the milk was cooling down, I added a mix of hot and cool tap water to my cooler so that it was a few degrees above 110. (The goal here is to get the cooler temperature to be around 110 degrees when you put the jars in them.)
When the milk was at about 115 degrees, I spooned out a quarter cup, put it in a glass measuring cup, poured that into one of the jars, screwed on the lid, and shook up the jars. I repeated that with the other jar. This is to get the yogurt to be around the same temperature as the milk. Then I transferred the rest of the milk into the two jars, leaving a little room at the top. I don't know if leaving room was necessary, but you never know what can happen inside a jar with some crazy lacto-bacilli and a whole bunch of milk.
Then I screwed the lids onto the jars really tightly, and then I submerged them into the 110 degree bath with the candy thermometer. Then I closed the lid, put grandma's wool blanket over the top and left it.
So we'll see what happens. Hopefully tomorrow brings delicious, creamy, plastic-free yogurt. Did I mention I also hemmed some curtains today? It's a DIY kinda weekend.