I picked up a copy of The Feast Nearby by Robin Mather last year when it came out. A food journalist who suddenly loses both her job and her marriage, Mather chronicles a year of living in a remote cabin in Michigan eating as locally—and as cheaply—as she could. In this memoir-cum-cookbook, Mather proves that being a locavore doesn’t have to blow your budget, but it does help if you know your way around a pressure canner and have the time to “put up” mountains of vegetables to get you through the barren winter months.
I’d tucked the book away and didn’t find it again until I started unpacking after I moved to the Midwest from Brooklyn, NY, this spring. I’m glad that I waited to read it because I wouldn’t have appreciated her example as much in New York City. After more than a decade of living there, I knew where to find the best local produce, meat and dairy. I could walk three blocks to a beautiful Greenmarket on Saturday mornings, stroll a little further to a shop that carried local, sustainably raised meat and fish, choose among a handful of CSAs to belong to or have a box of organic vegetables delivered to my door weekly. I never took such a rich food scene for granted, but since I’ve moved, I’ve had to work a little harder to find places to shop that support local producers and stock sustainably raised food.
One category that Mather struggled to drum up local sources for was dairy. She found Moo-ville Creamery, a Michigan dairy that produces minimally processed milk from grass-fed cows. But for other dairy products, like cream, cheese and yogurt, she was out of luck. The cost of producing and marketing those items on a small scale is too much for some regional dairy producers like Moo-ville, she explains. So the resourceful Mather set about making her own yogurt, fromage blanc and cottage cheese—all from her Moo-ville milk.
Likewise here in Ohio, the product lines at the regional dairies I’ve found so far don’t sell yogurt, which my two-year-old daughter and I love so much. Our favorite yogurt in New York was from Ronnybrook Farm Dairy, which makes several varieties and sells bottles of fruity drinkable yogurt that never lasted long in our refrigerator. I thought I would just have to choose a national brand for our yogurt fix. But then I read Mather’s yogurt method, and I couldn’t believe how simple it sounded. So this week I brought home a cold carton of Snowville Creamery’s whole milk and set out to make my own.
More science experiment than cooking, yogurt is made by heating milk, adding a dab of commercial yogurt, then finding a way to keep the mixture warm enough for the bacteria in the yogurt to work its magic for 6 to 8 hours or longer. Like many science experiments, it took a little fiddling to get it right in my kitchen. In my first attempt, I took Mather’s advice and tried to keep the mixture warm by in a pan of warm water and a turned-off gas oven. What emerged 8 hours later was, well, milk.
I consulted a yogurt-making friend; he suspected the temperature of my yogurt got too low and suggested a few tweaks. For the next batch, I wrapped the yogurt in a bath towel rather than a hot bath and left the oven light on to supplement the heat from my oven’s wimpy pilot light. After about 6 hours, I dipped a spoon in to test it; it was still milky thin, but I tasted a hint of tang. Discouraged and thinking I’d probably have to try yet again, I closed the oven and forgot completely about it. When I saw the oven light still glowing on my way to bed 6 hours later, I grabbed a spoon and discovered I had a pan full of warm, creamy yogurt! I quickly stashed it in the fridge, and we had cold, homemade yogurt with our granola in the morning. Not only did it taste better and cost less than yogurt from the grocery store, my daughter asked for seconds…priceless. Next up? Homemade cottage cheese.
Here’s Mather’s yogurt recipe. You may need to experiment with different methods for keeping the mixture warm, as I did. Or, you can use a handy yogurt maker appliance. If you have any tips for making yogurt, I’d love to hear them.
How to Make Yogurt
Makes about 2 quarts
8 cups cow’s or goat’s milk
1 cup powdered milk (optional; for goat’s milk only)
2 teaspoons plain cultured yogurt
Warm the milk to 115°F. Stir in the powdered milk (if using). Add the cultured yogurt and stir well. Pour the mixture into glass jars and set the jars into a roasting pan filled with hot water.
Place the roasting pan in the oven with the light on if you have an electric range or in a gas oven with a pilot light. Do not disturb the yogurt while it cultures, 6 to 8 hours. The yogurt will be thickened when ready, but will thicken more when it chills.
If you like thick Greek-style yogurt, as I do, pour the yogurt into a muslin-lined colander and let it drain for 30 to 60 minutes. Yogurt will keep, covered, for up to two weeks in the refrigerator.