Yid.Dish: Homemade Yogurt and Buttermilk

By Lawrence Szenes-Strauss

Published June 19, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

“That’s disgusting.”

“But how can you be sure it’s safe”

“I guess I won’t be eating that from now on.”

I’ve received all of these reactions and more from friends when they’ve heard me explain that my wife and I make our own sourdough bread, yogurt and buttermilk. The products aren’t so distressing, but the processes, which are fundamentally the same, go against some deeply ingrained habits of thought: if germs are so bad, who in their right mind would deliberately cultivate germs and then eat the culturing medium?

It’s not so surprising that people feel this way. We are trained from early childhood to avoid microbes, instilled with the fear that they will make us sick-not entirely unreasonable, because some of them will. What our collective consciousness has lost, perhaps because so few of us are involved in food production these days, is that bacteria are responsible for the tastes and textures of many foods we love, while making many of them more easily digestible. Without careful application of bacterial cultures, we could never enjoy a salad with vinaigrette (we would have no vinegar), buttermilk pancakes (no buttermilk), numerous dairy-based South Asian curries and raitas (no yogurt), ripened cheeses, or pickled vegetables ranging from cucumber pickles to sauerkraut to jalape’os en escabeche.

Some time after toddlerhood we learn the word “fungus”, usually in association with mold that covers something lost in the refrigerator, or perhaps an infection such as athlete’s foot. We do our best to ignore the inclusion of edible mushrooms in this category. Those of us who bake bread may use packaged yeast, but tend not to know that it, too, is a fungus, and prefer not to think about it if we do know. We eat soy sauce and miso soup without considering the koji mold that gives the otherwise bland soybean such complex flavors, and those of us who drink alcoholic beverages rarely give a thought to the yeasts that make them possible. (Brewing sake involves two different fungi: koji to convert the rice starch to sugar and yeast to convert the sugar to alcohol.)

Our visceral reactions often betray a failure to recognize the complexity of an ecology too small to see with the naked eye. By producing acids, many of the bacteria used in food production actually inhibit the growth of pathogenic (illness-causing) bacteria and other harmful organisms. In sourdough, yeasts and bacteria form a stable and mutually beneficial culture that excludes other microbes from taking hold.

In a sense, fear of all microorganisms is a perfect form of paranoia: the very things that you can’t see are the ones that are out to get you! Why do we subject ourselves to this, rather than appreciate the wonderful effects these helpful creatures have on our health and our enjoyment of life? For that matter, why do we outsource to big companies a project that can be done at home with a minimal investment of time, effort and equipment? Making your own fermented foods offers a number of benefits over buying them: it is usually cheaper, it gives you complete control over the ingredients, and it knocks an item or two off your shopping list. It also provides an educational activity for children, who can learn from experience that the microbial world is a lot more complicated than they’ve been led to believe. Besides, doesn’t everything taste better when you make it yourself?


This method is a combination of two different approaches, one described by Poopa Dweck in Aromas of Aleppo, and the other by Neelam Batra in 1,000 Indian Recipes. It produces tart, fresh-tasting yogurt that matches or beats the stuff you’ll find in stores. Yogurt and buttermilk cultures both consist primarily of lactobacilli, which are bacteria that eat lactose and excrete lactic acid. The finished products have very little lactose, making them attractive choices for people who are lactose intolerant.

You will need:

1 quart milk, fat content of your choice.

1 cup dry milk solids, which may be sold under the names “dry skim milk” or “powdered milk.” (Optional. Use if you want yogurt with a texture similar to that of commercially produced yogurt. Yogurt without a thickening agent is much more watery, with a texture closer to that of buttermilk.)

1 cup yogurt with active cultures. (Begin with store-bought, then reserve some of the yogurt you make for the next batch.)

A glass or ceramic crock with a loose-fitting lid and at least a six cup capacity.

A probe thermometer.

Toweling or something else to serve as an insulating blanket around the crock.


  1. Combine the milk and the milk solids (if using) in a saucepan and heat to at least 180 F. This serves two purposes: it denatures the milk proteins so that they turn into smooth yogurt rather than curds when acidulated, and it eliminates competing bacteria to ensure that the yogurt culture dominates. (NB: I have tried several times to do this in the microwave, heating the mixture and stirring occasionally until the whole thing registers at 180 degrees. It never works right: the milk solids do not thicken the yogurt as they’re supposed to. Any readers out there want to tell me why?)

  2. If the crock is non-pyrex glass, warm it first with hot water from the sink to ensure that it doesn’t crack due to a sudden temperature change. Transfer the hot liquid to the crock and let it sit uncovered until the temperature drops to 120 F.

  3. Add the yogurt to the warm milk and whisk briefly to combine. Cover the crock and wrap it with a towel, leaving no surface exposed. (Alternately, if you have a warm place to put it that will hold it at just over 110 F, do that and don’t bother with the insulation.) Let it sit undisturbed for four to six hours, though a few hours more than that won’t hurt it.

  4. Check the yogurt for consistency; if it is done, refrigerate for several hours. There may be a watery layer floating on top; you may carefully pour this off, if you like, after the yogurt is chilled.


This method comes from Dr. David B. Frankhauser, a professor of biology and chemistry at University of Cincinnati Clermont College. In the American South, buttermilk is a traditional beverage. I’m a born and raised New York City boy who doesn’t really understand this, but I do cook with buttermilk quite a lot. It is absurdly easy to make. Some commercial buttermilks are thickened with concentrated milk or other products, so this may seem as if it’s on the thin side, but it is still good for any application.

You will need:

1 quart milk, fat content of your choice.

1 cup buttermilk with active cultures. (Begin with store-bought, then reserve some of the buttermilk you make for the next batch.)

1 jar or crock with a tightly fitting lid and a capacity of at least six cups. (A mason jar works well, but unlike the container used for the yogurt, this one need not be heat tolerant.)


Combine the milk and buttermilk in the jar.

Cover tightly and shake to mix thoroughly.

Leave the jar at room temperature for about 24 hours, but start checking it after about half that time, as higher ambient temperature or an unusually active culture can speed the process. The buttermilk is done when it is thick and aromatic. If after 36 hours it doesn’t seem to be finished yet, your culture may have died off. Start again with fresh buttermilk from the store.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.