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Yogurt in the microwave

Back in the early 1970s, when yogurt first started to become popular in the U.S. but wasn’t yet widely available in supermarkets, manufacturers like Salton started selling home yogurt machines that would run overnight with a temperature-controlled water bath and six or so individual-sized covered containers. Those machines are hard to find today but you don’t really need them to make your own yogurt.

You can make very good yogurt in the microwave without any special equipment, and it’s very easy. But although a few older, less fashionable shared recipe sources on the web still mention it, none of the current slow food mavens ever seem to go this route. I’m not sure why–microwaving works beautifully.

Traditional instructions have you heat up the milk to something under a boil and let it cool to just a little hotter than lukewarm–measured either by thermometer at about 118 degrees F, or by testing with a finger before you can stir in the yogurt. That takes a fair amount of time on the stove top, and you have to stand there and stir or risk scorching the bottom of the pan (which you have to scrub).  It’s probably a half hour of preparation just to get it going. Then you have to  insulate or keep it heating very slightly for 6-12 hours. The most common insulation schemes from the new-slow-food crowd involve all-night ovens kept at 100 degrees F, towels or blankets wrapped around the yogurt pot, hot water jugs surrounding multiple small yogurt pots in a beer chest, crockpots, and other hard-to-believe and hard-to-clean setups.

Just reading about it all–the jumble-sale setups, the 24-step “guides”, the incredible number of pots and things that need washing before, during and after–makes you want to run to the store and buy a tub of ready-made.

Microwaving is a much easier and dare I say better method. It requires a grand total of a microwave oven, a large pyrex bowl, a pyrex or ceramic pie or dinner plate, and a spoon. The milk heats in just a few minutes with no need for stirring and doesn’t scorch at all. Once you stir in the cultures, you let the yogurt sit covered in the microwave with the power off and the door shut. The oven’s a very good insulator, especially in combination with the pyrex bowl and lid. You already have it on your counter–no need to dig weird items out of closets or the garage. The yogurt stays warm for hours with no cockeyed, jury-rigged insulation schemes, and the washing up is, unsurprisingly, simple.

Unlike most microwaving, this is still a slow business–as in, overnight–because it’s the real thing. No matter how you set it up, it takes between 6 and 12 hours for a couple of quarts of warm-to-hot milk with a few spoonfuls of yogurt stirred in to sit and culture undisturbed in the microwave, minding their own business, before the new batch of yogurt is ready to eat.

So it’s not fast, per se, but it’s a perfect thing to set up after supper and revisit the next morning. When you open the microwave door at the end, you can jiggle the bowl gently and see that the milk has set as yogurt.

Yogurt in the Microwave (1/2 gal. or a bit less)

Equipment (improvise as desired):

  • microwave oven (mine’s 1150 W; adjust heating time for your oven power)
  • 2.5 qt. pyrex mixing bowl
  • pyrex pie plate or ceramic microwaveable dinner plate
  • spoon, fork or other stirring implement
  • finger(s plural, in case you scald the first one testing the milk temperature…)

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 gallon milk (I prefer skim, do what suits you best)
  • 2-3 T. plain nonfat milk-and-cultures-only commercial yogurt (or a bit of your own from the last homemade batch, if it seems good)
  • 1/4-1/2 c. nonfat powdered dry milk, optional, if you want it definitely thick and curdlike, but it’s not absolutely necessary

1. Put the powdered milk (if using) in the pyrex bowl and gradually stir in the 1/2 gallon of milk so there are no lumps. Cover with an inverted pyrex pie plate or microwaveable dinner plate and microwave for 5 minutes on HIGH, or until definitely hot with steam rising, but not boiling (if you have a candy thermometer, you want the milk about 185 degrees F). This helps kill competing bacteria for safety and establish the yogurt cultures. It also supposedly improves the final yogurt texture–helps the milk thicken well without so much whey separating out.
2. Let the milk cool to the right culturing temperature (about 115-120 degrees F)–the sides of the bowl will feel as warm as a pretty hot shower, and when you take a soup spoon of the milk to finger-test, you should be able to keep your fingertip in the milk for a count of ten before wincing. (Toss that spoonful of milk and wash the spoon before adding the yogurt.)
3. Stir the yogurt into the milk. Cover the bowl again, shut the microwave door, and leave it in there with the power off for the next 6-12 hours until the yogurt has thickened and set. Don’t keep opening the door to check on it. Leave it alone!
4. DO take it out the next day and refrigerate it…

Yogurt Cheese

After the yogurt is finished culturing, you can drain it through paper coffee filters or cheesecloth in a colander over a bowl to thicken it for yogurt cheese. Once you have it draining, wrap some plastic cling film over the top of the colander and put the whole thing in the fridge to stay cold as it drains–several hours or even overnight.

Then you can mix in herbs and garlic, a little olive oil, etc for a spread, or you can serve it like labaneh in a wide bowl, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with either za’atar or a couple of pinches of thyme, oregano, and purple sumac, to be scooped into with wedges of pita bread. It’s not bad, not bad at all, even though it isn’t quite the same as the real Druse labaneh, which is more like large round scoops of very soft creamy goat cheese–probably made with goats’ milk–stored in jars under olive oil.

Yogurt made with Nonfat Powdered Dry Milk

This week I took the basic idea a step farther by trying out something May Bsisu had described in The Arab Table (a great read, and I’m going to try out some of the recipes). Bsisu remembered making yogurt this way — I think she was living in Jordan at the time — using powdered milk rather than fresh, because that’s what was available. So I decided to check it out.

I took two packets of nonfat powdered dry milk (91 g each; enough for 2 quarts total), brought the powder up to about 1.5 – 2 quarts with filtered water, and put it in a pyrex mixing bowl with a pyrex pie plate inverted over it for a lid. I microwaved 3 minutes–not enough to boil, since it was already sterile in the packets, just to heat it past lukewarm–and gave it the 10-second test. It was just about right, so I added the last scraps of a container of commercial nonfat plain yogurt (milk and cultures only), about 3 heaping spoonfuls, stirred well, put the lid on, and stuck it back in the microwave for about 9 hours before checking on it.

After culturing, the milk was solidified like soft tofu on top and creamier–even a bit syrupy–on the bottom of the bowl. I drained it all slightly through some coffee filters in a colander before transferring it to a lidded container for the fridge because the whey was already separating out a bit. The taste was decent, though I prefer it a little tarter and more uniform in texture, the way fresh milk seems to culture. That might have worked out if I’d left it the full 12 hours–the longer you culture fresh milk, the thicker and tarter the yogurt. But it was definitely passable, and it tasted like yogurt, not like nonfat powdered dry milk.

I’m not to the point where I would make yogurt at home every week, or use homemade exclusively. For one thing, I’m not sure I’d trust the cultures to stay in balance from batch to batch in my kitchen for more than a few generations at a go. I’m also not convinced that nonfat powdered dry milk is more economical than fresh unless you can buy in bulk. But I might try culturing a batch of fresh-milk yogurt every week or so for a while to see if I can produce good enough yogurt to be worth making it a habit.

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