Cultured dairy products — yogurt, soft cheeses,
buttermilk and kefir — taste great, and are easy and
fun to make at home by simply adding cultures of selected
strains of yeast or bacteria to start the process of
fermentation. The cultures add rich and tangy flavors to
the dairy products. These cultured foods boost your immune
system, provide calcium and aid your digestion. For those
with lactose intolerance, these foods are also a welcome
alternative. According to Steve Hertzler, assistant
professor of human nutrition at Ohio State University,
“The active cultures in these products convert
lactose, a carbohydrate found in milk, into a more easily
People have been making yogurt and other cultured dairy
products for thousands of years. Traces of fermented foods
have been found in Mesopotamia, which is considered the
birthplace of civilization, but experts suspect these foods
originated with nomadic tribes of western Asia and Eastern
Europe because fermentation made their dairy products
easier to transport and less prone to spoilage.
Cultured foods are surprisingly quick and simple to make at
home, and your homemade products can taste better than many
over-sugared grocery store brands. You can add your own
favorite toppings such as fruits, nuts and sweeteners, too.
If you’ve ever worked with yeast or sourdough starter
cultures for making bread, you’re already familiar
with making cultured dairy products depending upon what
you’re making, you can use store-bought yogurt or
buttermilk to develop your starter culture. Or to be
certain of a good, strong culture, you can purchase a
commercial starter. This is often a one-time purchase
because with a little care, you can keep your family of
friendly microbes hard at work for years to come.
They are not overly fussy about the fat content in milk, so
you can make yogurt from whole or skim milk. Use organic
milk whenever possible, and if you have access to milk from
grass-fed cows, the flavor and nutrition of your yogurt
will be much improved.
It’s true that humans derive many benefits from
eating “living” dairy products, but the
microbes that actually do the work have selfish motives.
These bacteria feed on the carbohydrates in milk —
namely lactose — for energy. This process creates
other more acidic byproducts that impart the tangy flavor
found in yogurt, buttermilk and kefir. Not all bacteria are
“friendly,” so the trick is controlling the
process to cultivate the types you want.
There’s no need to buy fancy machines to make yogurt
or other cultured dairy products — chances are you
already have everything you need right in your kitchen. The
most important factor to keep in mind is that everything
needs to be perfectly clean so you don’t invite any
unwanted bacteria into your mix. Here’s a list of
items you should gather before getting started:
- Heavy-bottomed stainless steel pot
- Plastic strainer
- Stainless steel or plastic spoon
- 2 to 3 quart jars (sterilized)
- Measuring cup
- Instant-read thermometer
- Picnic cooler (optional)
If you have access to good-quality commercial yogurt with
live cultures, use about 3 tablespoons as your starter
culture. Otherwise, purchase a commercial starter. Natural
food stores usually carry both items. Temperature
recommendations on packaged cultures may vary, so be sure
to read the instructions before you begin.
Heat 1 quart milk to about 185 degrees, or as directed by
the commercial product’s instructions. Then, allow it
to cool to between 105 and 115 degrees. Stir in the culture
and mix well. Pour the mixture into a quart jar and put on
the lid. While the culture is forming, the temperature of
the milk should remain at about 110 degrees. If you
don’t have a commercial yogurt maker to regulate the
temperature, try one of these ideas:
- Put the quart jar into a medium-sized picnic cooler
with a couple jars of hot water, then close the cooler.
- Put the quart jar of yogurt mixture into a gas oven
with a pilot light.
- Put the mixture into a thermos bottle.
- Wrap the jar of yogurt in a blanket.
Check the yogurt in four to six hours. When the curd is
well formed, place the yogurt in the refrigerator. A little
whey may form around the edges — simply pour it off
or stir it in when you’re ready to dig in. Enjoy the
yogurt plain or flavor it with honey, maple syrup or fresh
Tangier than yogurt but sweeter than buttermilk, kefir
(pronounced ka-FEER) is thought to have originated in the
Caucasian Mountains in Russia, where it’s still a
daily food staple. You can buy packaged kefir culture, but
true aficionados use kefir grains — little white
kernels about the size of tapioca that swell and initiate
fermentation. A good kefir involves many different types of
friendly bacteria as well as some yeasts, and it packs one
of the strongest health punches of all the cultured dairy
Like most good cultures, kefir grains become more reactive
the more they’re used. To get your culture started,
place 4 tablespoons of grains into a jar and add a cup of
milk. Stir gently, then allow the mixture to sit for 12 to
24 hours at room temperature. When the culture is ready,
the mixture will have thickened and some whey may have
separated. Strain the kefir through a sieve, gently
stirring the grains (never pressing!) as the liquid drains
into another container.
Place the grains into a clean container, add another cup of
milk and repeat the process. To make larger batches, allow
the culture to complete its process, then add twice as much
milk and allow it to ferment until thickened double the
quantity of milk until you reach the desired amount.
As you continue to make kefir, the number of your grains
will grow. You can share some of them with friends, or dry
and store them in a plastic storage bag for eight to 10
months. (Allow a few extra days to get them started when
you’re ready to reactivate the grains.)
Marilyn Jarzembski, a kefir enthusiast who sells grains by
mail suggests moving the process to your refrigerator. The
cooler temperatures will slow down the kefir process, and
the grains will survive as long as two weeks without any
Natural carbonation makes kefir fizzy and perfect for
smoothies, popular among kefir fans. Simply pour the liquid
into a blender and mix with fresh fruit such as
strawberries, blueberries or mangos.
Chevre (Soft Cheese)
Chevre is a fresh, usually soft, goat cheese. The word
“chevre” comes from France, where various
chevres are popular.
Here in the United States, we’re most familiar with
the smooth, creamy version. Following is a simple cheese
for beginners, and a mild-flavored introduction for those
who may not be familiar with the distinctive tanginess of
goat cheeses. Here’s the recipe:
Heat 1 gallon of goat’s milk (cow’s milk can be
substituted, but the cheese’s flavor will be more
akin to cream cheese) in a large pot until it reaches 160
degrees and hold it there for 30 minutes. Then, cool the
milk to about 72 degrees.
Pour the mixture into a bowl and add one package of
commercial chevre culture. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap
and allow it to sit at room temperature until the curds and
whey separate (18 to 24 hours).
Pour the curds into a strainer lined with cheesecloth, then
tie them into a bundle and allow them to drain overnight at
room temperature. In the morning, salt the curds to taste.
Eat the curds plain or press them into decorative molds. Roll
the formed cheese in fresh herbs such as chives, dill or
thyme, and store your chevre in a jar covered with olive
oil and herbs.
What are Cultured Dairy “Probiotics”?
Probiotic means “for life,” and
“probiotics” in cultured dairy products —
yogurt, buttermilk and many soft cheeses — are
nothing more than types of beneficial bacteria typically
found in such foods. Traditionally, these fermented foods
tend to have a smooth and tangy, yet light flavor. They
help boost your immune system and are easier on the stomach
than other dairy foods because the bacteria added to milk
break down the natural lactose in the milk.
There are two specific strains of bacteria that are most
commonly referred to as probiotics: Bifidobacterium and
Lactobacillus acidophilus. These “friendly”
bacteria exist naturally among the hundred or so types
already present in our gastrointestinal system, but they
are under constant siege by human indulgences such as when
we drink coffee or alcohol, eat lots of onions and garlic,
or take antibiotics. Making and eating your own cultured
dairy products can ensure your body’s well-stocked
with these health-enhancing “probiotic”
Cultured Dairy Sources
- Stonyfield Farm Organic yogurts
- Nancy’s Kefir, organic yogurts
- Horizon Organic yogurts
- Brown Cow All-natural yogurts