culturing yogurt

For years I’ve cultured yogurt, trying a variety of recipes and methods, in pursuit of rich, thick, Greek style yogurt. I’ve cultured yogurt in a machine, by the light of an oven, near a radiator, by a wood stove. I’ve tried endless combinations of starters. I’m ecstatic to finally have a method that achieved the thickest, the best, the most gorgeous yogurt.

I took out a pot of yogurt and a couple of pints of raw whole milk to come to room temperature on the counter, and then heated the milk slowly to 110 F. This is very quick, don’t go anywhere. While it was heating I filled a large jar with very hot water, and let it stand, closed. Three or four tablespoons of yogurt went into a cup, and a bit of warm milk ladled in and mixed. Then I poured out the hot water, poured in the milk, stirred in the cup of thinned, warmed yogurt, shut the jar, wrapped it in a towel, and put it somewhere warm. I reckoned that if the sourdough sponge liked the airing cupboard, the yogurt might like it too, so that’s where it spent the night. In the morning it was thick enough to wobble pleasantly. But not thick enough.


I happen to have a bit of cheesecloth sewn into a bag, so I used it, but you could use layers of cheesecloth in a colander just as well. I hung it up for a couple of hours to allow some of the whey to drain off into a jar.


When there was roughly half of the amount of liquid drained off the in the form of lovely chartreuse whey, I put the yogurt into its own jar. From two pints of milk and a few tablespoons of yogurt, I got just over a pint of whey and just under a pint of yogurt.


Gorgeous, thickest, best yogurt. It received the children’s highest rating (something involving many fingers and lots of waving) and disappeared immediately. The whey will be used in place of water in our next sourdough, or to soak oats overnight for porridge. I think we’d better get some milk to start it again. Oh yes, and next time save a ladleful to start the next batch.


Every day I care for a sourdough culture that I started a couple of weeks ago. I feed it half a cup of rye flour and water, sometimes pouring off some to make room. First it sat near the wood stove and I fed it twice a day, then it moved into the kitchen, to a cosy spot where I won’t forget it. Beside the kettle. It makes a resounding pop when I open the seal, the bubbles are tremendous, and it grows significantly each day. Seeing that it was more mature and hearty than a previous attempt, I thought I’d give it a crack at raising a few loaves.

I love that sourdough culture forms from wild yeasts, it is much easier on our digestion. We’re also sensitive to wheat, so this bread is made from spelt. I’ve been reading the Bread handbook by Daniel Stevens, which is an intense pleasure all by itself and very distracting. Flatbreads! Croissants!… oh yes, and Spelt Sourdough, hurrah. Before bed, as I was told to, I mixed up the sponge and put it near the stove for the night.

dough ingredients.jpg

In the morning it looked like bubbly soup, but when I measured in the flour and mixed that in, I was amazed to find it became a dough. Following some good advice, I left it to rest for 10 minutes before adding the salt, which I did. Scientific reasons, you see.


Flour, salt, a glug of olive oil, mixed about;


Turned out and kneaded. A lot, (or perhaps not) as spelt has lower gluten. I am so glad that I learned to knead at River Cottage! The Bread handbook has great illustrations of this technique. Mine are provided by my small child;


And by my tall child, made far taller by a handy stool. What a pleasure it is to knead the dough, I’m in love.


I formed the dough into a tight round and put it near the wood stove to proof for an hour, repeated this a few times; it got lighter and lighter; then finally made it into three boules, dusted with flour and put into linens. I later discovered that the bowls I had them in made them too humid; suddenly proofing baskets sound very good. From here I left them to double, which they sort of did.


Baking the sourdough was quite dramatic. I have tried a no-knead bread recipe, which has a wonderful technique of cooking in a good pot, but I just had to try this way, using a hot pan with a water bath below it. Only I had no roasting tin for the boiling water and used a ceramic piece, which promptly cracked in two. Oh dear! I had reserved two of the boules to rise a bit longer, and tried my muffin tin in its stead on those two; much better. We did try hard to wait for that first loaf to cool, before eating all of it. Gorgeous.


While I was at River Cottage this week I spotted a pair of bottles in the corner of the barn.


Steve Lamb tells me they are demijohns, fermenting apple juice, pressed from the farm’s orchard, into apple cider. They’re fitted with fermentation locks, and I think they’re gorgeous. I’m quite sure he said that the bottles are at two different stages of the fermenting process. I would love to try this kind of brew. I’ve tried making elderflower champagne. I aspire to make ginger beer, dandelion & burdock, and mead one day too. There are so many things I would like to do, but after such an exhilarating, dizzying week studying at River Cottage, I need a very quiet weekend.

wild sourdough culture

Naming your sourdough culture like a pet may a seem a little odd, but I’m hoping that it means we won’t forget to feed it. (I’ve set a reminder on the calendar just in case we neglect it anyway.) The children measured a cup of flour (we used whole spelt but will use rye in future, it works better) and a cup of warm water, into the jar, and stirred it. Take your time stirring in, as lots of air is a very good idea; the wild cultures are in the air around you. Tomorrow, and the next day, and possibly a dozen after that, we’ll feed the culture: we’ll toss out half (better yet, use it in baking, or pancakes!) and add half a cup of flour and the same or a little less in water.

wild sourdough culture

If brown liquid appears it isn’t such a good sign, but you can pour a little off or stir it in if it is dry, and plan to feed the culture more often for a bit. (A professional baker later told me you can feed it twice a day!) You want a scent like a fine beer brewing, rather than something going off, if you see what I mean.

When the culture starts to bubble, and is doubling in size, it is beginning to be ready, but could ideally use a couple of weeks of daily feeding. The best ritual is when you are removing half of it to bake with, and feeding the other half a little when you do, but for the home baker sometimes that isn’t possible. Better to culture and use a sourdough starter imperfectly than not at all, I say. After a couple of weeks, we’ll feed it every day if we are using it often; if not, it goes into the fridge to be fed once a week, and brought out and fed daily to get it back up to an energetic bubble again. Soon we can use it to start our first traditional slow sourdough. If we are really devoted, we can use this culture for our whole lives. The children named the wild sourdough culture Flower.


p>Read more about sourdough culture over here, as I get more experienced with it!