I tried it–and I'm not convinced it's worth it. Here's why.
Cooking, at its core, is a value proposition.
If money is no object and you don’t enjoy the process, of course you’re going out to dinner, ordering delivery, or letting a significant other do the work. If money is an object, there’s definitely money to be saved by cooking at home.
But what if something is high-maintenance, requiring lots of hands-on time, and doesn’t save you money? That’s when it becomes a labor of love—or of a superior tasting product.
For example: ricotta. Ricotta is really pretty simple to make on your own, and it’s much cheaper than buying it in tiny tubs at the store. An even better example? Granola. It can be insanely expensive to buy those little bags, cute though they are. Making my own slightly savory rendition with olive oil and sea salt—it works!—is something I do on a weekly basis.
On the other side of the value proposition fence is candy. I still remember the Christmas day my 8-year-old niece greeted me by brandishing a candy-making chemistry kit. “You’re in charge of that,” her mother informed me, walking away, and vanishing from the premises. Making candy is no joke. You need a special thermometer, it involves terminology like “the soft-ball stage,” and you are likely staring down the barrel of an anxious child hoping this science experiment produces edible Peppermint Patties. (They were, but oof, were they ugly.)
Then there’s yogurt. This is a food I eat almost daily, with that granola I make. The yogurt I like varies based on my budget, but I tend to go for a cheaper, non-organic variety, around $2.99 to $3.29 per quart. (In my dreams, yummy brands like Stonyfield and Ronnybrook are on sale in every aisle.) Oddly enough, I do spring for organic 2% milk, which in New York City sets me back a humbling six bucks per half-gallon.
You see the value proposition we’re barreling towards, here: Those two quarts of milk are going to save me about 50 cents when I turn them into an equivalent amount of yogurt.
But for the sake of science and because I really like a top-notch, creamy yogurt, let’s talk about the homemade rendition. To investigate making your own is to find a lot of “20 minutes, plus chilling and resting” recipes. Spoiler alert for those who tend to skim: That chilling and resting takes in the neighborhood of 12 to 16 hours. Yogurt, my dears, is not for the faint of heart.
I do like the idea, though, of avoiding all the stovetop work and mess of swaddling the yogurt in a warm place and then chilling it. Because Melissa Clark’s Dinner in an Instant: 75 Modern Recipes for Your Pressure Cooker, Multicooker, and Instant Pot has become my pressure-cooker bible, I believed her that I could make really creamy yogurt at home. I liked the idea of knowing exactly what would be going into it, and honestly, I wanted to see if I could do it—and reap the accompanying bragging rights.
The Instant Pot ($100; amazon.com) doesn’t shave hours off of yogurt’s cooking time, but it does provide temperature stability. You’ll still need a meat or candy thermometer, plus a couple of tablespoons of actual yogurt–your starter yogurt to get the fermentation process going. (Clark suggests cream, but I skipped it.)
The first try
This is humbling to admit, but my first yogurt attempt was a complete disaster. I warmed up my milk, I cooled it down, and I made a dash to the bodega when I realized the yogurt didn’t have the “live and active cultures” stamp Clark suggested. I added two tablespoons of pre-made yogurt to my warm milk, swirled it all together, and steamed it in the Instant Pot for 8 hours before setting it in the fridge for another 24.
Days later, I had yogurt soup. There was almost no thickness to the stuff. I tossed it. Total fail.
What I learned
First, be sure to have both your pressure cooker manual and the internet close at hand when making this recipe. Clark’s directions are wonderfully precise, but for my Instant Pot model, I needed to hit “Adjust” after pressing the “Yogurt” button, which I wouldn’t have known without cross-referencing online recipes and my book.
Second, know that your recipe can utterly fail for reasons unrelated to your work. When I whined to Clark via email that my yogurt wasn’t setting, she wrote, “The starter was probably dead–or you didn't let it ferment long enough. Those are generally the two issues with yogurt not setting.”
So either my bodega-purchased nonfat yogurt—the only one I could find with the active cultures stamp Clark suggests you look for—hadn’t been stored properly, or I didn’t let the yogurt come together in the IP for long enough. Clark wrote that after the 8 hours her recipe calls for, “It should be visibly thickened/somewhat set. It will continue to thicken in the fridge.” Further, she wrote, “Sometimes it can take up to 24 hours (especially if using UHT [shelf-stable] milk or low-fat milk or starter) to set. If it doesn't set after the 8 hours called for in my recipe keep going! If it doesn't set after 24 hours the starter was definitely dead.”
I did wait the full 24 hours, but I’d also messed up by using nonfat yogurt starter. I can maybe blame my bodega or the yogurt brand, but I suggest you use higher-fat milk and yogurt.
The second try
For my second try I was taking no chances. I used whole-fat Horizon Organic milk and Ronnybrook whole-fat yogurt. I stuck my arm deep in the refrigerator at the grocery store and hustled the yogurt home in a rush, with all the drama of a jewel heist, putting it immediately in the fridge.
What I learned
Success. When my IP beeped “YOGT,” which is a satisfying thing to see, I opened the pot to see a noticeably thicker substance than I’d seen on first try. It looked like it could eventually become yogurt, so I popped it in the fridge. Thirteen hours later, I had yogurt! Creamy, the tiniest bit on the soupy side, and tart, it was real yogurt. I swirled in some maple syrup, added my own granola, and was pretty pleased with myself.
If you have the patience of a bread baker, and are OK with things failing that are outside of your control—this isn’t my strong suit as a cook or a human—homemade yogurt just might be for you. It’s quite nice having a volume of it in the fridge. When we lug home groceries, yogurt tends to take up a lot of room in a bag, and I find that we rip through it. If I was making yogurt again, I’d probably use the half-cup heavy cream for texture and richness of flavor; I believe Clark that it adds a lot.
But... I probably won’t make it again! Yogurt’s hands-on time is pretty minimal, but granola just might be a better move economically if you’re going to take a breakfast shortcut. At any rate, here’s the recipe, so you can give it a whirl on your own.
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Adapted from Dinner in an Instant. Copyright © 2017 by Melissa Clark. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.
Time: 9 hours, plus 8 hours chilling
Yield: 7 cups
2 quarts whole milk, preferably organic
¹⁄₂ cup heavy cream (optional)
2 Tbsp. plain yogurt (look for the words “active cultures” on the label)
Note: To make Greek yogurt, after you’ve let the yogurt chill for 8 hours or overnight (step 3), spoon it into a cheesecloth-lined colander set in a bowl, and let it drain until it reaches the consistency you like, anywhere from 1 hour to 4 hours. Save the whey that drains out and use the milky, tangy liquid in smoothies, soups, breads, and other recipes. It’s great as a substitute for water when making lemonade. Whey can be frozen for up to 3 months and is full of protein, B vitamins, and calcium.
Serve your yogurt over fruit and/or granola, use it to make savory yogurt sauces, or drizzle it with honey or maple syrup for a little added sweetness.
You can use low-fat milk here instead of whole milk if you like, but skim milk doesn’t work very well, tending to yield yogurt that’s quite thin. Sheep and goat milk will also work if you have a source for them, with sheep milk being extremely rich and sweet tasting, while goat milk is tangier and a little more earthy. And unless making a lower-fat yogurt is your goal, don’t omit the cream. It really adds richness in both flavor and texture.
1. Heat the milk: Pour the milk, and cream if using, into the pressure cooker and cover it (the steam valve should be turned to “pressure” or “sealing”). Select the yogurt function (in the Instant Pot, the screen will light up indicating “boil”; if you have a different machine, consult your manual), and heat the milk to 180° F, about 26 minutes (in the Instant Pot, “Yogt” will appear on the screen when the milk reaches that temperature). Uncover, being careful to avoid letting condensation on lid drip into the milk. Keep milk at 180º F for 5 minutes by turning the yogurt function on again, with the pot uncovered. This helps thicken it.
2. Cool the milk: Turn off or unplug your pressure cooker, remove the metal basin, and transfer it to a wire rack. Let it cool until the milk reaches 115º F, 35 to 40 minutes. You can speed up the process by placing the basin in an ice bath (I fill my sink with water and ice and set the basin in that). The milk will develop a thin top skin; just give it a stir once it has cooled.
3. Add the starter culture: In a medium bowl, stir together the active yogurt and ¹⁄₂ cup of the warm milk from the pressure cooker basin. Then stir the yogurt mixture into the rest of the milk, and place the basin back inside the pressure cooker. Cover, and set the steam valve to “venting.” Select the yogurt function, and then use the “+” button to add 8 hours. Once finished, the Instant Pot will read “Yogt.” Remove the lid and ladle the yogurt into containers. Seal the containers and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight, and up to 1 week.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.