Making Yogurt: It’s All About Temperature!

Making yogurt in microwave
I grew up on homemade yogurt from my grandmother.  I love plain yogurt!  I am Armenian and we eat plain yogurt a lot – not just for breakfast or snacks.  In Armenian households, madzoon (maad – zoon), Armenian for yogurt, is a staple!  We put it on dolma (meat and rice stuffed cabbage or grape leaves).  A lot of people find it too sour.  Commercial plain yogurts can be sour.  With homemade yogurt, you can control the sourness. 
After I graduated from college, I wanted to learn to make my own.  I asked my grandmother and the directions were not clear at all, to say the least!  “Put your milk in a pan and bring it just to a boil” – how much milk, what kind, high heat?????  “However much you want to make.”  And “You know, just so it won’t burn“ were the answers.  “Then let it cool until you can just put your pinky finger into it without it burning”  Really!?  That is the explanation.  I kid you not.  And I have heard this method described by many others too.  Of course, this means burning your finger a couple of times before you get it right!
Needless to say, my yogurt was hit or miss back then.  At one point, I was able to calibrate my pinky and could make yogurt with the best of them! Yum!
I wanted to get back into making yogurt so I tried again about a year ago.  I could not calibrate my pinky to save my life!  I finally gave in and did some research to figure out exactly what temperature doesn’t burn your pinky  – turns out it’s about 115 – 118 Fahrenheit.   But still, no yogurt for me! 
A friend told me about this method and it is working beautifully!  It’s all about temperature!
ingredients for homemade yogurt


½ gallon of milk – I have only tried with pasteurized whole milk
4 TBSP plain yogurt with active and live cultures – you can buy this, or use your homemade yogurt
2  quart-size mason jars
Heat The Milk
1.  Take your starter yogurt out of the refrigerator and sit it on your counter to warm up.
Heating milk to make yogurt
2.  Pour 1 quart of milk into each mason jar (no lids) and place in microwave.
heating  milk to make yogurt
3.  Heat the milk until the temperature of the reaches 180.  Mine took about 15 minutes, but I started with 10 minutes, checked the temp. then put it in for more time.  The temperature needs to reach at least 180 to kill any other bacteria.  Higher is OK as long as the milk doesn’t burn.
Cool The Milk
cooling milk to proper temperature to make yogurt
4. Take the jars out and let them cool to 118 degrees.  I used an ice water bath and it took about 10 minutes.   TEMPERATURE IS KEY AT THIS POINT.  If you wait too long, the milk is too cold for the cultures to culture.  Too hot and they die.  There are loads of websites out there saying that this perfect temperature is anywhere from 100 – 118.  And that different temperatures affect the resulting yogurt’s taste or texture.  Could be.  But grandma used her finger and this feels closer to 118 to me so that’s what I do.
5.  While the milk is cooling, I warm up my oven.  This is where the jars will rest to culture into yogurt.  I turn my oven on the lowest setting (200) to heat it up a bit, then shut it off, and leave the light on.  
Add Active and Live Cultures
6.   Add a bit of the milk (about ¼ cup) to your yogurt starter to thin it out a bit and to warm it up.  You don’t want to shock it when you add it to the milk.
7.  Add half of the yogurt starter to each mason jar and stir gently.
Prep for Culturing
8.   Put the lids on and wrap the jars in a towel.  I used a hand towel, folded and wrapped around the mason jars, secured with rubber bands (thanks to my friend for this idea).
Keep milk warm to culture
9. Place the jars in the warm place you prepped in step 5.   The jars are then wrapped in a huge beach towel.  TEMPERATURE IS KEY HERE TOO! You want to keep the milk at about this temperature throughout the culturing process.  Some sites also recommend using a heating pad, pot of hot water or turning on the oven when needed to warm up.
Let The yogurt Making Begin!
10.  Let the jars sit for about 5 – 7 hours.  The longer you let it sit, the more sour the flavor.  Do not disturb the jars – bacteria like it calm!
11.  Hopefully – YOGURT.  If not, don’t give up.  Try again. 
12. Chill the yogurt completely before eating to improve the texture.
I like this method because it is simple!  Right, simple!  There are 12 long steps.  They really aren’t difficult; it’s that there are a lot of things that could go wrong so I tried to cover those common mistakes.
There is much less transferring of the milk and resulting yogurt than other methods and thus less chance of introducing “bad” bacteria.  I did not sterilize everything I used.  Probably should have, but again, with the jars going straight into the microwave, those get sterilized along with the milk.  The only other item I used was a spoon.

I love making my own yogurt for several reasons:

1) I feel connected to my grandmother and my Armenian heritage
2) It tastes soooo much better than store bought
3) I save money!  I pay roughly $3-4 for a gallon of milk which makes 4 quarts of yogurt.  I would pay $4 for a SINGLE quart of decent plain yogurt at the grocery store.

Next I want to try making yogurt in the slow cooker!

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15 Responses to Making Yogurt: It’s All About Temperature!

  1. Unknown November 12, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

    I’ve made yogurt with a yogurt-maker my dad gave me. Pretty much the same process, but it monitors and maintains the temp for the culturing process for you. Not necessary, but easy.

  2. Sarah @ made in usa challenge November 14, 2012 at 11:35 pm #

    I remember doing this in chemistry lab back in school! Any tips on the best way to add flavors?

  3. Tamara @ Silent Springs November 14, 2012 at 11:55 pm #

    playing with the temperatures can be so tricky! we’ve made cheeese a few times as a family. everything has to be just so…

  4. Kristina (The Greening Of Westford) November 20, 2012 at 7:30 pm #

    Unknown – I have always wondered about yogurt makers. Coming from people who make yogurt ALL the time with a pot and a towel, I was determined to figure it out! LOL But I can totally see the appeal. Especially all those times the yogurt didn’t work out.

  5. Kristina (The Greening Of Westford) November 20, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

    Sarah – That would have been a great chemistry class! I usually just make my yogurt plain because I like it plain. If I add anything to it, it’s usually granola, maybe some honey, or on occassion I’ve added jam or fruit for more flavor.

  6. Kristina (The Greening Of Westford) November 20, 2012 at 7:33 pm #

    Tamara – I’d love to try cheese sometime. Homemade Mozzarella looks sooo good!

  7. Dina-Marie @ Cultured Palate November 28, 2012 at 11:10 pm #

    I make a lot of yogurt and temp is very important!
    I would love to have you share this on Thursday at Tasty Traditions:

  8. Viola Palmer December 1, 2012 at 11:42 pm #

    I made yogurt for years. In the heat from my gas oven’s pilot light. I put the warmed up milk in a glass bowl with a lid. I put it in and then the next morning it was wonderful. Warm yogurt is a delight! Then we moved and I no longer had the pilot light. I tried my crock pot but it was too hot. Then I tried the incubator and it was just right! But most people do not have an incubator, I have heard a light bulb in an ice chest would work. I love my homemade yogurt with nuts and raisins.

    • Kristina (The Greening Of Westford) December 3, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

      I have wondered about the crock pot. I have 2, and the temperatures are quite different on each. So far this method is working out just fine, but there are times when I don’t want to tie up my oven all afternoon. Thanks for your comments.

  9. amanda December 3, 2012 at 12:25 am #

    I would have never thought of warming it up in the microwaive! Thanks for sharing on Natural Living Monday! I am excited to see what you have to share this week.

    • Kristina (The Greening Of Westford) December 3, 2012 at 7:11 pm #

      I wouldn’t have either! So glad my friend told me about this. You don’t have to stand there at the stove constantly stirring so the milk doesn’t burn!

  10. Misty November 19, 2013 at 3:07 am #

    So I want to try this, but I’m not sure about the final stage. Around what temperature does it need to stay around during the 5-7 hour culturing process and how do you go about keeping it that way? Are you constantly checking it?? My oven doesn’t have a little window or a light.

    • Kristina November 19, 2013 at 9:05 am #

      You want the mixture to stay as close to 120 F as possible. Obviously it will cool some. I DON’T check the temp during this final stage. I close up everything as I described and wait. Good luck Misty.

  11. Lori October 6, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

    My electric oven doesn’t have a light. I used an electric heating pad on the counter and set a cardboard box on top to hold the yogurt. I think towels would insulate as well as the box.

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