Tomatoes and mozzarella. Strawberry frozen yogurt. Peaches with cottage cheese. Even a cream cheese sandwich with jam — all of these combinations have a common theme: the love affair between fruit and dairy that’s been cultured or acidified. Most of us buy these products at the grocery, but when it comes to yogurt and ricotta (cottage cheese’s elegant sibling), you can easily make them at home.
You might want yogurt for health reasons. As a toddler with a lactose intolerance, my younger son preferred yogurt to lactose-free milk. While his digestive system has matured, he continues to rely on yogurt as an after-school or breakfast treat, a dessert, even as a coolant alongside dishes he deems too spicy. During the cooler months, I buy whole-milk Greek yogurt in tubs.
However, in the summer, I make it at home. (I’d like to make yogurt at home all year — I’m too cheap to buy a yogurt maker and too lazy to turn on my oven light. Yes, I am that lazy.) Here in Memphis, June’s warm days can be just right for the growth of the microbial cultures that turn yogurt into milk. In fact, lactobacilli and their buddies thrive at our body temperature. So I scan the forecast for a scorcher, and on a hot day I follow the process below. It’s detailed more thoroughly at the beautiful website of Team Yogurt (teamyogurt.com), an amazing resource for yogurt-makers (tips like how to keep scorched milk from sticking to the pot!) and yogurt-eaters (recipes for yogurt-enhanced everything, from shortcake to kebabs).
- Heat a half-gallon of whole milk, preferably not ultra-pasteurized, to 180°F.
- Cool milk to 115°F. (Use a candy or instant-read thermometer to monitor milk temperatures.)
- Inoculate with starter culture (remove a cup of warmed milk to a glass measuring cup and whisk in 2 tablespoons of plain yogurt; then stir this mix back into the larger amount).
- Decant the warm blend into clean glass jars, wrap them in towels, and put in a warm place to set for several (6-12) hours, until thick.
- I place them outside on my screen porch and go about my business.
By nightfall I have yogurt, already in containers, ready to go to the fridge. Cheryl Sternman Rule, Team Yogurt’s founder and experienced mother of two, advises caution. “Just make sure the kids don’t shake the jars or otherwise disturb them during incubation. If you/they jostle the milk as it cultures, the ‘gel’ may break.” For my family, that means no backyard soccer for the day.
Our whole family loves ricotta, both for making gnocchi and lasagna and as a mild-tasting alternative to yogurt with honey, nuts, and fruit for a snack. It’s heavenly on homemade pizza. Much to my surprise, you can prepare fresh ricotta at home even more quickly than yogurt, within a couple of hours. Lauren Fontenot, a home cheesemaker here in Memphis, recommends this simple method.
- Heat 3 cups of whole milk + 1 cup of cream or 1 quart whole milk and ¼ teaspoon salt to 190°F.
- Remove from heat, add 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, and stir.
- Leave undisturbed for 5-10 minutes, till curdled, then pour into a fine-mesh strainer lined with a few layers of cheesecloth (available at most grocery stores, though you may need to ask where it is) set over a large bowl. Let it drain for 1 hour (soft and spreadable) to 2 hours (more dry and crumbly).
You can also strain yogurt this way to make Greek yogurt. In both cases, it’s worthwhile to save the whey (the tangy, thin liquid that pools in the bowl) to use in everything from smoothies to biscuits.
Resist the temptation to use low-fat or skim milk.
Several recent studies have shown that kids who drink whole milk are actually less likely to become obese than skim-milk drinkers. One possible explanation is the presence of omega-3 fatty acids in full-fat milk, but I’m more persuaded by the explanation that whole milk products are more filling. Satisfied kids won’t crave a junky snack an hour after a rich bowl of yogurt or ricotta with slices of fresh plum or peach and a drizzle of honey. For that matter, neither will you.