The first goal was to install a dimmer switch on my Crock Pot.
Confession: I didn’t own a Crock Pot before I had the sudden, urgent craving for homemade yogurt, and so I went out and bought one. I could just as easily have purchased a yogurt-maker and saved myself the DIY hassle, but then: what if I want to make pot roast someday? What if I have a hankering to put a chicken in a warm, cozy place to cook for the better part of a day? Mind you, these are things I’ve never done before, but I’m of the Why Buy Two Appliances When You Can Buy One persuasion, and so I bought the Crock Pot.
It is terribly thrilling to take a brand new appliance out of the box and proceed to cut. it. up. If you've never done it before, you simply must. My dad had instructed me to slice into the large-pronged side of the cord; my X-Acto blade neatly split the cord in two, and then – whack! – sliced straight through the larger half. Whee! Look at me! I'm cutting things! I struggled with the wire stripper for a few moments before tossing it aside in favor of the X-Acto blade (why use two tools when you can use one?). A few quick strokes, and I had a half-inch of exposed wire on each side, making it a cinch to install the dimmer switch.
I placed another call to Portland: “You said to bind the wires with electrical tape, but is it okay to use those little plastic thingies that screw on top?”
“You know? Those things that look like tiny hard hats? Kind of?”
Him: “Oh, those. Right. Yes. But tape it anyway, just to be sure you don’t have any exposed wire.”
In a matter of moments, my Crock Pot went from a bland white lump hulking on the countertop to a jiggered-up science-project-ish Piece of Work. I have to tell you: I was quite proud of the transformation.
As my goal was to reproduce the yogurt my dad had made years ago, I began with raw milk, as he used to do. I heated the milk just shy of the boiling point, then removed it from the heat to let it cool.
It might seem to defeat the purpose of using raw milk to heat it up, but since the milk is going to sit in a lukewarm bath for several hours, you do want to kill any bacteria that might grow alongside the Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Lactobacillus acidophilus and other yogurt cultures, as random bacteria might contribute sour or funky flavors that would create an “off” taste.
Once the milk had cooled to about 110ºF, I divided it among several clear, heavy glasses. I then dipped a teaspoon into a carton of plain live-cultured yogurt and briefly plunged the spoon into each of the glasses to inoculate them. I covered the top of each glass with a square of plastic wrap, and secured it with a rubber band. Again, though the possibility for cross-contamination is small, one wouldn’t want an airborne mildew spore or other bacteria to alight on the surface of the milk.
My notes indicated that the water bath temperature should be between 105º and 110ºF; I mixed cold water with boiling water in the Crock Pot to quickly reach that temperature, but the trick, I quickly learned, was to maintain it. A Crock Pot is a ceramic dish that sits inside of a heated metal basin, and thus the heat transfer is somewhat inefficient; a nudge of the dimmer switch doesn’t yield results for several minutes, making the adjustment process slow and painful.
Me to my dad: “Sorry to keep calling you. You’d think I was making something far more complex than yogurt. Are there any secrets to regulating the temperature?”
Him: “Not really. You just have to tinker with it until you figure it out.”
As my water bath fluctuated, so did my emotions; it plummeted to 97º – anxiously, I nudged the switch, then nudged it again. As it rose to 117º, I imagined hundreds of teensy-tiny bacteria flailing and dying in the heat, and frantically nudged the switch back down. I realized, with a thrill, that live cultures were at work – like itsy-bitsy elves, the bacteria feast on milk sugars and release lactic acid as a waste product, thus raising the acidity of the milk, which causes the milk proteins to “curdle” and become yogurt. Just because you can’t see anything doesn’t mean that complex biological processes aren’t taking place right beneath your nose!
My water bath finally stabilized at about 112º; a few degrees warmer than I had intended, but I finally stopped fiddling with the dimmer switch and left the house.
Since raw milk is not homogenized, the cream rose to the top of my yogurt cups, creating a thin, dense layer beneath which a warm, trembling mass of yogurt lay in wait. I found a spoon and ventured in. It tasted exactly like my childhood memory: tangy and soft, the texture of slow-cooked scrambled eggs. Just as I remembered, the cream adhered to the roof of my mouth as I dug through the cup.
I refrigerated the rest, but found, the next morning, that I didn’t prefer it cold. When I submerged the glasses in hot water for a few moments, the slight warming effect restored the tender, eggy texture of the previous night.
I imagined creating a water bath every Saturday night, late, moving through a semi-dark kitchen and inoculating cups of milk, like a ritual, to make yogurt for Sunday breakfast. Just like my dad used to bring them to the table for us, I imagined setting them on the table to be eaten plain or with a drizzle of maple syrup. Simple. Divine.
Whether or not I’ll actually do it remains to be seen.
There are infinite variations available to the yogurt maker; different milks yield different consistencies, while different processes such as straining or whipping can yield denser or creamier yogurts. Most cultures have their own distinct yogurts; from the lassi of India to the thick cheese-like labneh of Lebanon, there are countless flavors and textures to explore.
My dad is making kefir now. The same day I called him for the yogurt recipe, he told me that a woman on a nearby farm is cultivating mushrooms to grow atop hay bales. I had yogurt on my brain when he was talking, and it wasn’t until later that I recalled what he said, and thought: she’s… what? Cultivating mushrooms? How…?
Seems I need to phone home more often.