It was a nervous moment just before the sonographer put the probe on my daughter-in-law’s still-flat belly. Our imaginations were pulsing with prayers, hopes and dreams. Was there really a baby in there like the test said?
As the probe began to dance around in search of new life, we spotted something doing the jitterbug. It was a flicker with rhythm. YES! We were witnessing a tiny heartbeat that only a powerful God in heaven could create.
This may sound crazy but I get shades of the same feeling when incubating a batch of yogurt. The mysterious process that transforms a gallon of milk to a gallon of yogurt by adding a couple teaspoons of starter is mind-boggling to me. It’s a miracle I tell ya!
Making yogurt is easy but sometimes it doesn’t always happen as hoped. One major variable is the incubation technique. Similar to hens sitting on eggs, you must find a way to keep your yogurt babies warm and cozy for an extended period of time. Temperatures between 100-113 degrees F are ideal and stimulate the bacteria to reproduce faster than mosquitoes in my wooded backyard. Too hot and they die. Too cold and they’ll act like bears and hibernate, leaving you disappointed.
In the last two years since I published my method for making healthy Greek yogurt, my readers have left some great comments regarding their creative methods of incubation. I compiled several here in the hopes you might be inspired by their stories.
But first, a word about yogurt makers sold at department stores and kitchen shops. They work great because they maintain the perfect environment, holding temperatures steady with a thermostat. However, the amount they make is much too small to satisfy my yogurt addiction. Furthermore, it would be a pain to make Greek yogurt since you would have to remove the yogurt from all the little jars, strain it and then return it to the jar or another container for storage. Frequent sightings at garage sales may not be a good sign–although I suppose you could say the same about bread machines, one of my favorite appliances of all times so forget that last comment.
I’ll start with the obvious and easiest way to incubate yogurt. My way, of course.
1. A conventional oven
I heat and cool nonfat milk in a Pyrex, 2-quart batter bowl. It’s the perfect size and holds heat better than plastic or metal.
I’m blessed to have an oven with a bread proofing cycle. I set it to 100 degrees F and go to bed. No towels needed. No babysitting needed. Perfect yogurt in the morning!
My previous oven could not be set that low so I would turn it on briefly to heat it to 100 degrees and then shut it off. I produced numerous successful batches in that oven with the light on and the covered milk container wrapped in towels as illustrated in my original post.
N2ition commented about her own oven that also can’t be set on a low temperature. “Robert, I just saw your post and wanted to let you know that I make about 3 gallons a week. My oven is about the same age as yours and has the same problem (only goes to 200). I always preheat the oven about 1 minute and then turn it off and put the yogurt in. Yesterday’s batch took nearly 13 hours to set up…and at hour 11 it still looked like milk. Next time you try it, make it at night and just pop it in the oven over night. (I have good luck making it about dinner time or right after I put my kids to bed and it’s perfect by the next morning).
Preheating and then leaving the door closed usually will maintain the temp for 12-15 hours but if I am really impatient and open the oven a lot to check I have had to turn it back on for about 30 seconds to get the temp back up enough to keep the yogurt around 110. Good luck!”
2. A crockpot
I tried this for myself last night and it worked. After heating the crock-pot long enough to bring the temperature of the milk to 115 degrees, I unplugged it. Then I wrapped the milk container inside the crock-pot with a towel and wrapped the covered crock-pot with a couple of big bath towels
Others have similar experiences. Whitney said, “Just tried your recipe today! After a few tries of finding a place where the temp stayed the most consistent my crock-pot won out. On warm with a water bath surrounding a smaller bowl (I only tried a half batch to see if I would like it or not) it stayed a consistent 103ish.”
Stephanie had beginner’s luck. “Success on the very first try! But I want to try to find a better way of incubating, as the process is long and ties up the oven. Think I will find a crock-pot with a “warm” setting and donate my old one to my parish kitchen (we always seem to need them for nachos, puzzle, etc.).”
3. A heating pad and towels
I’ve tried this too but it takes a little experimenting. The Errant Cook writes, “Hi! I’ve made yogurt 4 or 5 times now thanks to your instructions, and it’s fantastic. I set the covered bowl on top of a heating pad on low, check it frequently with an infrared thermometer (a lovely gadget from my husband), and after about 11 hours, it’s ready to go.”
Nancy shared a word of caution. “We used a heating pad on the first round which had an automatic shutoff (something we didn’t realize before starting the process)–the yogurt did not get thick overnight! We added more starter (from a small container of nonfat Fage plain Greek yogurt) and found another pad in the house (lucky!) which didn’t shut off at all. We have had a great experience with this yogurt and will make it often!”
Julie likes the heating pad too, ” I have a glass casserole bowl with a cover that holds about 3/4 of a gal. I heat the milk in the microwave to 160 -180 degrees ( about 20 min in my microwave) then let it cool to 110 -115 degrees. Stir in about 2 tsp of my starter yogurt and put the lid on. I set it on a heating pad (mine is not adjustable it only has off and on) with 2 layers of a bath towel under it and I cover the rest of the bowl with the remaining towel. It keeps it at 105 – 110 degrees. I make it before going to bed, I check on it if I wake up for some reason, but in the morning before work I have a nice big batch of yogurt”
4. A microwave oven
From Tamara, a self-professed Greek yogurt addict, “A couple of tips that have worked for me — I’ve put foil over the top of the bowl to help retain heat and then double wrapped in dish towels. I incubate mine in the microwave, because it’s smaller than the oven. I also heat up a microwavable hot pad that will stay warm for hours. That provides the right amount of heat in the small space. I usually put it to bed about 11pm and it’s ready by 7am.”
Tony from Australia shared this idea,” ….Next, how to keep warm! Saw another reader’s microwave and pad idea. No pads, so used wheat bags we regularly use for muscle strain/pain. Heated the bags and wrapped around the bowl which was covered in foil. Then covered in two small towels making sure door side of microwave was well insulated with toweling. 8.5 hours later the microwave was still nice and warm and lo and behold I had lovely yogurt with no strong tang. Just very yummy.”
5. A camping cooler or ice chest
I have not personally tried this one but several have.
Yogurt man wrote, “I set up a regular camping cooler, and I put one plastic container in it which I fill with 2 kettle fulls of boiling water, then seal container/cooler right away. When yogurt is ready I put all the containers inside the cooler (where the boiling water makes it the perfect sauna and maintains the temperature you need) and let it sit for 7-8 hours and then it’s ready. ”
From Lynette, “This was so fun!! It is so easy. My gas oven did not stay hot enough with the pilot light on. I got our cooler out of the garage and put a heating pad in the bottom. I set it at medium heat. Wrapped the bowl in a beach towel, and set it in the cooler with the lid on. Next morning (12 hours) I have the most yummy stuff ever.”
Deanna said, “LOVE the tips here. I love making yogurt and used a yogurt maker with about 8 oz cups until now. A friend of ours makes his yogurt in quart jars and wraps the warm jar in towels and then puts it in an ice chest. Using commercial starter this method only takes about 4 to 5 hours.”
6. Miscellaneous ideas
Lenore uses a dehydrator and reports, ” I’ve got yogurt!! Straining now! Woo hoo! I followed the temperature instructions to a tee, but may have put too much yogurt in as a starter. I popped in a dehydrator at 100 degrees overnight and in the morning I had warm milk and a skin. Hmmm…pulled off the skin, added some probiotics and popped it back in the dehydrator again for the day. Got home late and..yes! I have yogurt.”
Janet wrote, “Hello there! I just want to say that both me and my wallet thank you- I have made two batches- both successful and I incubated the bowl in front of a long burning pellet stove!”
I have just one question for Janet. What is a long burning pellet stove?
Tim S. got really creative. “I use a sous-vide water bath to incubate yogurt at 113 degrees – worked great overnight….. Truth is, this ‘sous vide’ water bath is one I made using a bucket heater from Tractor Supply and an old Igloo water cooler, and sits under the dining room table in our trailer in the hills of Appalachia. Still, I am able to fix wonderful steaks and hamburgers for my wife (from our own farm), and the yogurt I did a couple of days ago came out perfectly.”
I’m impressed with Brooke‘s ingenuity. ” I’m so glad I found your website. This yogurt is an instant hit. For the incubation I put the lid on my Pyrex container and wrapped it in a towel. Then I put it on top of my computer router, put a 40-watt bulb in a desk lamp and put that about 6 inches from the top of the towel-covered Pyrex. I put an oven thermometer on top of the towel so I could monitor the temp. It read just under 100 degrees. I left it overnight–about 12 hours or so, and it was of perfect consistency!”
So, my beloved yogurt makers (sorta feels like a secret society, doesn’t it?), think about warm places in your house. Is there an old-fashioned radiator? Maybe a small closet housing a water heater where you could set a towel-wrapped bowl of warm milk? Or maybe you have a lamp like Brooke you could shine on your bowl.
I hope this has helped some of you who may have had trouble with the incubation process or even inspired others who haven’t worked up the courage to try it yet. If you have a completely different method, please share in the comments. This is also a good place to ask questions so don’t hesitate to speak up.
p.s. In case you haven’t seen my video on making Greek yogurt…
Other posts of interest about making homemade yogurt, Greek or otherwise.