Reader Question: How Much Starter Do You Really Need To Make Yogurt?

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Can you make yogurt with 1/4 teaspoon of starter or do you need many times more?

One of my favorite pastimes in life is questioning why we do things the way we do. If the reason doesn’t make sense to me, I look for a faster, cheaper, better, or more efficient way to do it.

The following question from a reader caused me to wonder if tradition or perhaps a cook’s insecurity (if some is needed, add more for good measure) might be the reason there is so much discrepancy across the web regarding the amount of starter needed to make yogurt.

“I have a question about the quantity of “starter” in my homemade Greek yogurt.  I use 8-9 cups of milk and was told to bring it all to the proper temperature on the stove, then cool down to the proper temperature then…..and, this is my confusion – you suggest 2-3 teaspoons of yogurt (starter)  - when my initial recipe says to add 8 ounces – 1 cup of unflavored Greek yogurt – as my “starter”.  Which is the proper amount of starter to add?  Is it the 2-3 teaspoons or 8 ounces?  Have I been adding far too much?”

I was inspired to experiment.

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I staged an experiment to see how much yogurt I really needed to make yogurt.

In the first trial, I added different amounts of starter ranging from 1/4 teaspoon to 1/2 cup for a pint and a half of milk (3 cups). As you can see from the picture above, they all made yogurt–even the 1/4 teaspoon. Notice all the whey sitting on top of the yogurt in the green plate row where I added larger amounts compared to the bottom row.

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Left: Large amount of starter from top left sample
Right: Small amount of starter from bottom middle sample

When I dumped the contents of each sample onto a flat plate, the contrast was dramatic!  Look how much smoother and creamier the yogurt looks on the right where only a small amount of starter was added to the milk.

I combined the top row of yogurt samples containing a lot of starter and the bottom row containing much less to make Greek yogurt, my favorite. After straining and whipping, you can see the result below. WOW! Which one looks more appetizing to you? Surprisingly, the yogurt on the left is still quite edible and tasted just fine even if the texture was not so smooth and creamy.

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Left: Strained and whipped yogurt using a large amount of starter
Right: Strained and whipped yogurt using less than a tablespoon of starter

Then it occurred to me that time of incubation could also make a difference, so I tried again. This time I used 1 quart of non-fat milk for each sample and my own yogurt as a starter with amounts ranging from 1/4 teaspoon to 1/4 cup. I didn’t even try the reader’s suggestion of 1 cup to 8-9 cups as I could already see that was overkill after my first experiment.

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After 4 hours (This yogurt sat here for a few minutes so you can see the whey beginning to separate.)

At four hours, they all made yogurt except for the 1/4 teaspoon. It is obviously a little too thin, especially if you want to strain it for Greek yogurt.  It’s not obvious in the picture but the 4 tablespoon sample is already not as creamy. I put them all back in the oven to incubate longer.

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After 6 hours

At 6 hours, there is not much change except for the 1/4 teaspoon sample which is now nearly as thick as the others.

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After 8 hours

After 8 hours of incubation, the 1/4 teaspoon sample is just as thick as the 1 teaspoon sample and the creamiest. I tasted them all for tanginess and really couldn’t tell much difference.

Many yogurt instructions will tell you the longer you incubate, the thicker your yogurt. I’m not so sure. Except for the 1/4-teaspoon sample, they were all thick at 4 hours and didn’t get any thicker, even when incubated an additional 4 hours.  There are other more important factors when it comes to thickness, which I hope to address in a future post.

Conclusion? For 1 quart of milk, 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of healthy starter is plenty. If you are going to be incubating for a long time because you are doing it overnight or for a special diet, choose the smaller amount. If incubating for a shorter time,  use a little more starter, but not over a tablespoon per half-gallon of milk.

In case you’re wondering, I always use fresh non-fat milk from Braums. It makes the best yogurt EVER because they concentrate the solids of 1-1/2 gallon non-fat milk into 1 gallon (or something like that — a process I don’t quite understand). I used a previous batch of my own homemade yogurt as the starter (1 week old) which was flavored with vanilla bean paste but contained no other additives.

PLEASE NOTE: Using a different kind of milk, starter, or additives such as powdered milk or gelatin will most likely yield different results in regard to texture, thickness, and taste. Making yogurt is simple, but the results from using various techniques and ingredients can be complicated to predict. Have fun experimenting!

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

RCW July 13, 2013 at 9:42 am

If you get the crumbly texture, put the mess in cheesecloth to drain at room temp for a day (or two), add a small amount of salt, and then refrigerate. You have delicious, very inexpensive creme fraish.

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Paula July 13, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Interesting. I must try it although I’m not in the habit of making crumbly yogurt. Only to make a point. :-)

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ben July 13, 2013 at 10:48 am

I use a Progurt machine and 2 tbsp of regular store bought yogurt (plain and sweetened) and it always makes a perfect creamy batch of yogurt overnight.. however..

Whenever I freeze a portion to use as the starter for the next batch (perhaps a bit more than 2 tbsps) , the ‘yogurt’ comes out watery and not at all creamy, despite 12 hours of incubation!

Not sure if it’s the freezing of the bugs or the bit larger amount of starter.

Last time, I tried using the frozen sample, plus a couple tablespoons of fresh store bought yogurt, but surprisingly, I still got watery kefir like yogurt.

Sheesh!

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Paula July 13, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Ben,
Are you freezing store-bought yogurt? I wonder if there might be some additive in there that doesn’t react well to freezing. Have you tried freezing a small amount of your own yogurt to use as starter? Mine always works great.

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Adrienne July 15, 2013 at 10:23 am

(i make my yogurt in the crockpot) I tried freezing like 3/4 cups of my first batch of homemade greek yogurt. when i used it as a starter it didn’t work at all. i think, due to the hot summer, i might have killed off the cultures while it thawed. after about 9 hours it looked a little thick but ran right through my bouillon strainer. i have made a few since then, without freezing my starter, and they have turned out well. i do not measure the starter but i use like a heaping tablespoon. great experiment! very informative. i will now cut down on my starter. my last batch of yogurt was super super thick! i didn’t whip it at the end like your youtube video says because i use my yogurt for smoothies. since its going in the blender no need to whip. thanks for such great post!

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Paula July 15, 2013 at 11:29 am

Hi Adrienne,
Sorry about your frozen starter. It works great for me and is a wonderful trick to keep in your back pocket when you go on vacation or take a break for making yogurt for awhile.

About the whipping, I agree that if you are using it in smoothies, you probably don’t want to whip or drain. Sounds delicious and nutritious.

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Adrienne July 15, 2013 at 10:44 pm

Thanks so such a quick reply! I think I will try freezing again and just thaw in the fridge for a while. We have a little heat wave going and I think it messed up my last batch. I think I will wait til Michigan cools down before I make more. I’ve only made a few batches and I’m enjoying the learning process. Thanks so much for the help!

Christopher July 23, 2013 at 10:11 pm

read my post, if you would please. Might help you.

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Adrienne July 24, 2013 at 9:29 am

Thank you Christopher!

Vicki W. July 13, 2013 at 10:54 am

Wow, Paula! This is a great post with a lot of helpful information!

I made a batch of yogurt a while back to see if I could make it in my new thermal cooker. Thanks to your previous posts, it was a success. A thermal cooker is a little like crock pot cooking, but you don’t keep it plugged in. It slow cooks for up to 8 hours and is completely portable. On my first batch of yogurt I tried just four hours in the thermal cooker and it worked. What is nice about the unit is that you can choose either to put your milk mixture in mason jars (the size of the jar does not matter), or you can simply put the whole mixture in the inner cooking pot, leave it in there for the desired amount of time, and then strain the whole batch before putting it in smaller containers. Since the thermal cooker is insulated, it keeps the yogurt at the ideal temperature range for incubation.

Thermal cooking is very popular in Europe and Australia. It is just now really getting started in the US market. I purchased mine because it is ideal for emergency use because all you have to do is bring your food up to a boil (from a camping stove or rocket stove) and then it continues to cook for up to 8 hours without additional power. But even when there is not an emergency, the thermal cooker can be used every day and you just use your regular kitchen stove (gas or electric). It’s great because you don’t have to heat your kitchen up in the summer, you can cook while you’re not at home and nothing is left plugged in (like a crock pot), and it is completely portable. You can take it on the road with you and it will cook while you drive. You can take it camping, hunting, tailgating, etc. and have a meal ready to serve piping hot hours later.

And it is IDEAL for making yogurt! I love when I find products with multiple uses and various applications.

Thanks, Paula, for experimenting for us! It seemed that 4 hours was enough time, but since I am new to making yogurt (and actually have never eaten it), I wasn’t sure I was doing it right! I now have more confidence to keep going.

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Vicki W. July 13, 2013 at 11:02 am

I just looked on Amazon to see what people are paying for yogurt machines. They are mostly in the range of $50.00 – $100.00. And most of them just make yogurt. A few do ice cream. For about $100.00, one could get a thermal cooker (I recommend Saratoga Jacks) and have an ideal yogurt maker, a slow cooker, and even a cooler (the insulating properties keeps cold food cold). AND it is ideal to use for emergency use when your home loses power.

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Lisa July 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm

So this explains a lot as I’m a ‘if a little bit works a lot will work better’ type of person. So if I understand this correctly this would explain why I have so much whey when I drain my yogurt for greek yogurt? I do mine in a container and micro like you, and then wrap it in a beach towel and place back in the warm micro overnight and there *is* whey sitting on top every time. After I strain it I feel I have almost as much whey as I do yogurt but didn’t know why! Thank you for all of this very scientific and hard work to explain this!!!

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Paula July 13, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Lisa,
Yes, too much starter could be the problem. However, there are other variables as well. The kind and brand of milk you use has a lot to do with it as well as the time of incubation. But try less starter and see if that doesn’t help. Mine never has whey sitting on top before I disturb it, however I can still strain a lot of whey and yes, there may be just as much whey as yogurt. That’s one reason why Greek yogurt is more expensive in the store. It takes more milk for the same amount of finished product.

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Lorraine July 13, 2013 at 4:10 pm

GREAT post, Paula! You put in a lot of time and effort to make this all so clear. I just checked to find a location near me for the milk you use and there are none close by. My yogurt comes out a little thinner than I prefer and the quantity after draining off the liquid for Greek yogurt is much less than I would hope for. Lately, I have been buying yogurt from Aldi.

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Adrienne July 15, 2013 at 10:28 am

I’m with you Lorraine. I wish the half gallon of milk made more greek yogurt. That type of milk is not sold in Michigan. I’m going to search for something similar because I just use regular milk.

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sis July 13, 2013 at 7:31 pm

Interesting, even though I buy my yogurt at the grocery store.

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Dana July 14, 2013 at 8:48 am

This was a truly fantastic post. Thanks so much for writing it. I’ve tried and failed to make yogurt in the past….I think I’ll give it another go. Thanks again.

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Paula July 15, 2013 at 9:04 am

You’re welcome Dana. Hope it works for you next time. I was not thrilled with my first attempts but as I experimented with different starters, milk, and incubation techniques, it got better and better. Happy yogurt making!

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bonnie July 14, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Just starting to make my own yoghurt– this is so helpful, Paula!

Thanks also to others for mentioning slow cookers, which sound useful and practical.

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Paula July 15, 2013 at 9:03 am

Join the club Bonnie. But be warned it can be addicting. :-)

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miriam July 16, 2013 at 2:53 am

It sure is addicting! Sometimes i purposely finish my starter so that i can rest!!! But making yogurt is fun really, there i go again……..

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miriam July 16, 2013 at 3:01 am

By the way u did a great job there thanks. Please can i get a link to your bread recipes. That is another thing one can get addicted to. And cakes maybe?

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Paula July 17, 2013 at 11:24 am

Miriam, For lots of bread recipes, take a look at my recipe index.

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Helen July 16, 2013 at 9:10 pm

Thanks for this post, Paula, it’s really useful information. I have a question for other readers: do any of you use a Yogourmet electric yogurt maker? Mine works pretty well, although the temperature of the water bath, which should be about 110F, can vary, depending on the temperature in the room. I’d be interested in hearing about other people’s experience. The instructions call for far more starter than you use, Paula, and the incubation time is given as about 4 hours for regular (not probiotic) yogurt. That can give me chalky-textured yogurt, so I’m thinking I should reduce the amount of starter and go for a longer incubation time.

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Paula July 17, 2013 at 11:30 am

Hi Helen,
Maybe someone who owns a yogurt maker will respond. Even if your water temp drops to 100F, you should have no problem with your yogurt.

In regards to time of incubation, I suspect your yogurt will still make in 4 hours, even with less starter. Are you adding any dried milk solids to your milk before incubating? That can cause chalky-tasting yogurt, too.

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Helen July 17, 2013 at 6:30 pm

I usually use organic nonfat milk and generally don’t add dry milk to the mix. I’m wondering whether/how our altitude affects the process. We live at 7800′, and at this altitude, water boils at a little less than 198F. I have no idea what this might mean, if anything, to the recommended scalding temperature of 180F. Cooking here can be an adventure.

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Christopher July 23, 2013 at 9:59 pm

Paula….I very successfully “dehydrated” my greek yogurt and it works!!! I just spread a thin layer on a plate and let it sit out. NOT covered. When it was totally dry I put it in a coffee grinder and ground it until it couldn’t be ground any further. Then I sifted it through a small mesh strainer and some of I had to press through by running my thumb against it until i passed through. I then used 1C of whole milk and did the procedures you state to make yogurt…and it worked!! Took about a whole tablespoon to make it work. But it worked!!! :-)

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Christopher July 23, 2013 at 10:02 pm

next step will be to freeze it for a while, and see if it still works.

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Paula July 24, 2013 at 8:21 am

Very interesting, Christopher. Have not even considered such an idea. I wonder how long it will keep. Thanks so much for sharing.

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Christopher July 24, 2013 at 9:34 am

I should tell you that I put plastic wrap on top of the plate, very tight, then spread the yogurt on it. The batch I ground is about a week old, and sitting on my counter covered tightly. Will update when I figure out how long it lasts.

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Dayna October 7, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Thanks for this post. :) I am just now learning how to make yogurt and was confused on how much starter to put in. I have a batch incubating right now (my first!) and I think I might have overdid it with the starter. We’ll see what happens in 8 hours time….

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Paula October 7, 2013 at 3:41 pm

Dayna,
Don’t worry. You can reduce it the next time if you went overboard. It will still taste good.

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Eric_from_Ohio October 13, 2013 at 9:15 pm

hi guys,
i own a yogurt maker, but i made it myself out of an old plastic cooler and a lightbulb. i went to lowe’s and bought a cheapo lightbulb assembly and drilled a hole in the cooler and mounted the bulb inside on one end of the cooler. i put the jars of ready-to-incubate goodness in a big stockpot waterbath at the other end of the cooler. i also put a piece of aluminum foil around the side of the pot the gets blasted by the light so that that side won’t get hotter than the other.

i had to experiment a bit with different wattage bulbs to get the temp just right. a 100-watter was just a bit too hot (116/117 degrees), and a 40-watt bulb was a bit too cool (105-ish). a 60-watt bulb turned out to be perfect, and kept four full jars and a surrounding water bath at a perfect 110 indefinitely.

here’s some pictures of my cooler setup: http://imgur.com/a/oKJen

the lightbulb cooler method is awesome and makes great consistent yogurt every time, but there’s an even easier way to maintain temp that you might be able to use that you should try first: put a big flat rectangular plastic container with a lid (like one of those tupperware containers that’ll hold a bajillion cookies) filled with hot tap water (140ish?) on the bottom rack of your oven, then put the yogurt jars directly above it on another rack. ovens are basically big insulated boxes, so you should try this first. to test it, just use jars filled with 110-deg water and then test the temp of the jars every 30 min or so for a couple hours to see if it stays where you want it. if they cool off before your yogurt would have been fully incubated, reset the experiment and use slightly hotter water in the container. unfortunately i dont remember exactly what the temp of my hot tap water was back then, but i do remember that we had it turned up pretty hot and that once it got to temp you couldn’t put your hand under it without it burning you. also, i think that using plastic container for this was key because a metal container would maybe emit its heat faster and thus cool down faster. somehow the rate that it gave up its heat was just perfect to maintain the jars above it. but at any rate do try this in your kitchen because if it works then you’re set and you might not even need to buy anything!

btw, don’t forget, when testing your oven, if you were to just test it after 8 hours or whatever, you won’t know if the temp went way up and then back down during that time. the jar temp could conceivably have shot up to 130 and then come back down to 110 by the time you tested it, so you need to test it in smaller intervals to make sure. years ago i had an oven/plastic container combo that, when the container was filled with water from the tap i had let run hot, would maintain my jars at 110 for at least 10 hours! it was so perfect. but for some reason i’ve never been able to reproduce it since. hence the cooler.

my recipe: i use one gallon of whole milk (“red cap”) from the grocery, heated to 170-ish in a stockpot and then cooled back down to 110. i put about a cup and a half of the cooled milk into my meticulously just-cleaned blender jar and blend in one ounce of powdered milk (just the cheapo kind from the supermarket) and about one level tbsp of Dannon Plain for starter. i use the lowest blender setting and the pulse feature to ensure a good blend yet keep the foaming to a minimum. then add another two cups of milk, pulse once or twice to mix, and pour into jar. repeat for the other three jars.

**one thing that i’ve become convinced is really significant, and may account for lots of beginners having weak batches that barely set up, is using a blender. yes, it does create some foam, which isn’t ideal. and the first time you make yogurt you’re guaranteed to make a mess of your kitchen counter. but if you don’t blend it, and just stir or even shake it up with the lid on, i think you don’t properly disperse that dollop of starter evenly throughout the quart of milk. i think it’s the dispersing effect of the blender that’s critical. just my theory, but i’ve never made yogurt i liked without a blender.

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Kelly Thompson February 7, 2014 at 7:50 pm

Thank you so much. Very interesting.

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Maeve Robertson March 7, 2014 at 3:30 pm

I want to thank for your excellent instructions. I just bought a yogurt machine and tried following their instructions. “Heat the milk until it begins to crawl up the side of the pan.” What a freaking disaster. The first time I got the pot to the sink before it boiled over. The second time I did it in the microwave with a pyrex bowl. Since they also used the word “boil” I used an instant read thermometer and heated it up in stages to 212. Pulled it of the microwave (bowl had a handle,, thank you God) and the milk surged up and everywhere. Fortunately I was able to get the bowl to the floor without dropping it and only burned a forefinger, slightly, but what a mess! It would be in the least accessible part of the kitchen. However, I found your blog, tried again using the instant read, voila! no milk eruption and using just a table spoon of the previous batch, instead of a whole jar as the machine instructions directed, I have perfect yogurt! Thank you so much for sharing your techniques.

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Archana G March 13, 2014 at 9:51 pm

Does it get tangier from 4 to 6 to 8 hours?
Is it sweeter at 4 hours?
Is the yogurt that set at 4 hours the least tangy and sweetest?

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Paula March 13, 2014 at 10:06 pm

Yes, it does get a little bit tangier but that may not be easy to discern in 6 or 8 hours. Sweeter at 4? I would say milder. A lot of the flavor of yogurt depends on your starter and the type and brand of milk you use. Different brands of yogurt contain different bacteria and this can make a difference. I have a favorite brand of milk I like MUCH more than any other. I just like the way it tastes.

These are all things you can experiment with until you find your favorite. That’s one of the fun things about making your own yogurt. :-)

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Mark April 10, 2014 at 12:10 pm

Hi, thanks for showing me how to make yogurt. The idea just came to me one morning, and uncle Google showed me your blog. I haven’t tried it yet, but have you experimented with trying to use strained yogurt whey as starter? I’m just guessing that a lot of the cultures are probably still in the whey. Any reason you can think of why it wouldn’t work?

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