The (pro) Biotic Woman

July 3, 2012

 The fermentation bug

Many moons again my friend M introduced me to the pleasures of making labneh – an incredibly easy thing to do.

But till now I only made labneh with shop-bought yoghurt – I  had never considered actually making my own yoghurt, assuming it would be a tricky process, involving special equipment, millisecond-accuracy with timing and temperatures and whatnot.

Then the lovely Fouad appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Good Living section a couple of weeks ago, evangelising about homemade yoghurt. His instructions seemed too good to be true – simply bringing full cream milk to a temperature of 83 degrees C, then cooling it to 46 degrees, stirring in a couple of spoonsful of (live culture) yoghurt and leaving it in a warm place overnight.

After chatting with him and the charming Lili from Pikelet & Pie about this on Twitter, I decided to give it a shot. Lili advised using a thermos to try to keep the temperature warm enough overnight, but as our crappy old thermos only holds about 500ml, I went for a split method. Half went into the warmed thermos and the other half into a Pyrex dish with a plastic lid, which I then sat on top of our gas heater for the evening. Once we went to bed and the heater was off, both batches just sat on the bench overnight.

Next morning, lo and behold – yoghurt! A little runny, I admit – but definitely yoghurt. There seemed to be no real discernible difference between the thermos and the dish batches either. I had a poke around online to see what folks had to say about thickening yoghurt and there are many methods, but the simplest to me seems to be just straining it through muslin a la labneh (but now just by lining a sieve with the muslin and leaving it over a bowl in the fridge). In fact Fouad, henceforth known as my Yoghurt Yogi, informs me that as soon as you strain yoghurt it’s called labneh. But whatever it’s called, with even just half an hour to an hour’s straining, my yoghurt / labneh was beautifully creamy, rich and utterly delicious.

That’s it, pictured above (drizzled with our beloved pomegranate honey, which I first learned about here at Kale for Sale via Nourish Me, and have been doing my own evangelising about ever since).

Now, that first batch was actually a little too delicious, in a way, for it tasted very much like clotted cream. I wanted more of the sourness and acidity that makes yoghurt yoghurt, which meant I needed to leave it sitting longer than just overnight. For my next batch, I left it a full 24 hours before straining and refrigerating and it was perfectly acidic. I was starting to get the hang of this!

Batch number three got me worried – through inattention I took the temperature too high and then completely forgot about it until a couple of hours later when it had cooled too much. Not sure how much this would affect things, I just started again, re-scalding the same milk and cooling to the right temp. And you know what? It was completely fine!

I so love a process that seems almost unstuffupable – and I’m hooked now. A friend asked me yesterday why I thought my yoghurt was better than good organic Greek-style from the shop. The answer is it’s not – or at least, not that I can taste. But it’s fun, for starters, and by playing around with the straining and setting times you can adjust the level of acidity and the thickness to get it exactly how you like it. I also love that there’s no packaging involved (though I guess there is the milk carton, so maybe that advantage cancels itself out…) and that at a few dollars for a litre of organic milk it’s less than half the price of the nicest organic yoghurt we buy regularly. My single litre of milk yields about half a litre of yoghurt, give or take a bit for straining.

I toyed briefly with the idea of buying a yoghurt maker, which would keep the temperature steady for the whole time – but then realised that another thing I love about this process is its simplicity. No gadgets, no special equipment other than what was already in the house. That said, I would really recommend a thermometer for this – although plenty of people do seem to judge the temperature just by touch (it’s ready when you can hold your finger in the hot milk ‘without it hurting’, according to one commenter here!). And methods vary a great deal – all kinds of warming / temperature regulation tips are to be found in online discussions, from leaving the yoghurt wrapped in blankets, in the oven with just the oven light on, on top of the fridge at the back near the motor, in a slow cooker … it’s endless! But so far so good for us just leaving it in the living room until we go to bed.

Next batch I’m even going to try thermos-free, and see what happens. As I said … I am the proBiotic Woman. I’m hooked!

What about you – any of you had the fermentation bug?

PS: By the way, lucky winner of the beautiful Fuchsia Dunlop book, judged by Senor, is hatarimouse by a hair’s breadth. Thanks for playing all …

PPS: This fermentation process is so easy it brings pleasure … unlike my repeated failures at wild yeast sourdough starter (another story)…


  1. So admiring. I’ve never fermented, but I love labneh and Greek yogurt, so maybe the gauntlet is thrown. Also, loved your Aunty post at the Hoopla today. My sentiments exactly, but you say it better.

    • Thanks Ailsa – and yes that muslin gauntlet is down, girl. Let me know how you go.

  2. I used to make all of our yoghurt, but used the commercial yoghurt cultures to do so. It came in flavours the kids liked, was natural and inexpensive so it worked for me! I still make it sometimes and use the 1 litre container and thermos that came in the $20 starter kit to set it – and it’s still a bargain.
    I’m so sorry to hear you are still struggling with the sourdough, though. It is very rewarding once you get that off the ground.

  3. I didn’t realize it was so easy from scratch. I was once given some live culture by my naturopath. She’d had the master batch going for years and it was handed over with great ceremony and the instruction to empty the yoghurt out every day then rinse the cultures (which looked like little cauliflower florets) and fill the jar again with milk. Within days I had so much yoghurt I didn’t know what to do with it all. But I kept religiously following the instructions because I had to keep these bloody things alive! It was like a sacred trust because they were so old. And I didn’t want to be a culture killer. Predictably, I went away for a week and forgot to have someone babysit the cultures. When I got home it was like an alien kitchen invasion. Massive, curdy looking things. Very stinky. Ugh.

  4. It’s been more than 15 years since I last had a yoghurt making phase. Perhaps it’s time for another. My aunt (an inspiring childless aunt who lived in Greece for a few years) used to make it in Duralex glasses, like you used to get in Greek cafes, with a layer of honey on top.

  5. I used to make my own yoghurt, but now I’m hooked on Kefir. Easier to make – no heating of the milk, can easily take it with you when you travel, etc – and wildly more probiotic and nutritious than yoghurt. I use it in the same way as yoghurt, plus in baking, on stir fries, instead of sour cream in soups, as a drink, etc etc. You can buy the starter grains on ebay, or get some from someone who has some extras. You can also strain it and use the whey as a starter for making cultured veggies such as sauerkraut.

    • THanks Beth – I am going to investigate!

  6. took your new book Love & Hunger with me to Bali last week. Absolutely wonderful and read it (in the shade I must admit!) – found it hard to put down. Congrats. My love of cooking was getting a little cold, but your book has renewed my enthusiasm and now will be buying a chicken and brining it tomorrow. Wonderful restaurants in Bali. We were all very spoilt!

  7. Charlotte, thanks so much for the brining recipe in your book. As posted the other day,I brined and roasted a chicken (in Weber) and it was absolutely superb. Everyone loved it and the way it just added to the chicken. Am quite hooked on brining now!

    • Wow, thanks Bertina – am thrilled it worked and that you liked the book so much. And you have reminded me about brining, which I haven’t done for a while but lots of people have told me how much they liked that method so I must do it again soon.

  8. Love & Hunger has rekindled my love for cooking thank you! I am eating I mean reading slowly, as you do with indulgences. I will now make labneh, something I have not made for quite a while, and cannot wait to drizzle it with pomegranate honey! Once again, thanks.

  9. Hi Charlotte, Just discovered your blog and I am in love with your adventures. Seems like we are kindred spirits. So refreshing to pick up on the love and passion that you put into your food instead of trying to turn others mastercheffy ( if you know what I mean). If you are looking for good yoghurt, kefir and vegetable cultures try http://www.greenlivingaustralia.com.au... They specialise in selling cultures to the home yoghurt maker and also fresh cheeses, preserving equipment and varied products. I use them all the time with great results.

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