Yogurt, like many other fermented foods, comes with a long history. It dates back to around 5000 BCE, in the Neolithic period. It is believed to have originated in Central Asia, later making its way to Iran, Turkey and the Balkans, Afghanistan and south towards Pakistan and India. Travel to any of these places, and you will find that yogurt still plays an important role in their cuisine today. This history with the food also gives it a cultural importance. According to food writer Bee Wilson, there are several Iranian proverbs related to yogurt. To indicate fear you might say, “The yogurt went white,” implying something so scary that even yogurt will turn a paler shade.
In the United States, our own yogurt history is much more recent. While immigrants from yogurt-eating countries certainly made their own at home, the commercial version came late, thanks to Dannon who started making yogurt in the Bronx only in the 1940s. American yogurt history is also fraught with added ingredients and corporate interest, having us ride on a roller coaster of food trends that end up having very little to do with the actual food itself. Remember the thrill of TCBY in the 1980s and 90s? Think too of all the sweet promises of healthy cups of key lime cheesecake yogurt and other flavor combos that kept us on diets filled with sweeteners, additives and flavors, yet very little of the actual health benefits that usually come with yogurt.
“I think we have become so inoculated with sugar and salt and fat, that we forget what food actually tastes like,” says Karyna Hamilton, founder of Flora Yogurt Company in Spokane, Washington. Fortunately, thanks to people like Hamilton, as well as a general interest in fermented foods, yogurt is back on our radar. That’s a good thing, because with the real, undoctored version, as a fermented food, yogurt is full of nutritional benefits, particularly when it comes to gastrointestinal health. It’s also easier to consume than a lot of other dairy products, since the lactobacillus acidophilus bacteria digests lactose and turns it into lactic acid. Today, about 65 percent of the global population is lactose intolerant. This isn’t a new trend; our ancestors struggled with digesting dairy too, which could be a main reason that consumption of dairy products was largely limited to fermented foods through much of history.
Hamilton’s entrypoint for her business was when she realized how many additional stabilizers and additives were in most commercial yogurts. So she started to make her own. “I didn’t live anywhere in the world that celebrates a rich history of cultured milk. So I was trying to catch up,” says Hamilton. “The next thing I knew, a woman from the East Coast freeze dried her yogurt heirlooms and mailed them to me.”
All yogurt is made with a starter culture; when you make yogurt at home, that can be as easy as taking a couple of tablespoons of live-culture yogurt. Hamilton equates heirloom yogurt starter to “the difference between packaged yeast and a sourdough starter. One is far more difficult, but boasts far superior flavor and digestibility and nutritional value.”
Like with most things, the first batch of yogurt was probably by accident, a serendipitous convergence of microorganisms, the right amount of time and a warm temperature. Today we are a little more precise with our yogurt methods, but making yogurt at home is gaining new popularity. As we fall back in love with fermented foods, easing into yogurt is a natural step in the quest for at-home fermentation projects. The industry would have you believe that an electric yogurt maker is necessary for tackling this food at home, but remember that people have been making yogurt for centuries, long before pasteurized milk, thermometers and gadget devices that require the push of just a few simple buttons.
Yogurt does require an incubation method, to keep it at the perfect temperature for the bacteria to do its job and set the yogurt. Some people put it in their oven with only the oven light on, some people live in warm enough climates that all they need to do is swaddle it in a blanket. Other people use a cooler, a method outlined in Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. Janet Fletcher, the author of Yogurt: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner (an excellent resource if you are looking to become truly yogurt obsessed) recommends figuring out that method before you start making yogurt. She recommends filling a jar with water at 115°F and incubating it in your chosen method, then taking its temperature every hour or so to see if you are managing to keep that temperature.
For those of us who don’t come from cultures, or families, with yogurt-making traditions, Hamilton points out that the process can be very intimidating at first, but her suggestions for anyone starting out are quite simple. “If in doubt, leave it out. Give it time. Taste it. Smell it. Observe it,” says Hamilton.
Once you get past that initial intimidation factor, you quickly realize how natural the yogurt-making process is. “The first time I did it, I kept waiting for the hard part, going back and checking the instructions, and wondering where I’d missed it,” says Elly Blue, Marketing Director at Microcosm Publishing, a company that has published many books on healthy foods and fermentation. “The funny thing I quickly learned was that there really is no hard part, it’s a quite straightforward process, similar in complexity to making spaghetti.” Blue had started making yogurt at home for health reasons, but found that there were other benefits too. “The yogurt had a stronger taste than I was used to, but I grew to prefer it to store bought. And I also liked the reduction in plastic containers compared to buying the same amount in the store.”
Whether you’re buying store bought yogurt, or making your own at home, bringing that tangy, fermented flavor into your culinary repertoire comes with endless options. Yogurt can go sweet or savory, served with a bowl of granola for breakfast, or stirred into a soup for dinner. In my kitchen, I love straining it to turn it into yogurt cheese (or labneh). The result is a thick, spreadable consistency. I mix in a few herbs and some chopped garlic and use it as a base for pizza.
Like so many other fermented foods, in the end, it’s yogurt’s simplicity that makes it so incredible. “It is so fascinating scientifically in terms of it’s own creation, and then we start to think about the way in which it effects, sustains and heals our bodies,” says Hamilton. “Each week after I have started each jar, I take one glorious spoonful of each variety, and each week I am totally amazed that this magic happens. By warming up, and cooling down milk.”
Anna Brones is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, the founder of the print quarterly Comestible and runs Foodie Underground. Wherever she is in the world, she can often be found riding a bicycle in search of excellent coffee.