My Brush With Death Yogurt

August 10, 2009 at 8:45 pm 2 comments

The infamous death yogurt, looking harmless

The infamous death yogurt, looking harmless

Curdled milk? Ew.  Milk that’s been left outside of the fridge overnight?  Gross. Well, scratch that …  it’s time to forget everything you thought you knew about dairy.

Today I had a panic attack about yogurt.  At first, I was excited that I’d found a great shortcut recipe for making yogurt in a crockpot.  The drama started when someone (you know who you are … hint: your dad used to manage a dairy) reminded that yogurt basically involves letting milk sit outside the fridge for hours and growing bacteria in it.

That was enough for my mind to start racing with crazy thoughts … If good bacteria can grow so easily, what about bad bacteria? Had I sterilized the crockpot enough?  Did I follow the directions correctly? Am I about to feed a cesspool of bacteria (a.k.a. death yogurt) to myself and my loved ones?

Before sacrificing myself to food science, I thought I’d talk to a few experts … my dad (a chemical engineer) put my mind at ease: “Cold temperatures inhibit the growth of active cultures and thus the curding process.  Moderately warm temperatures are necessary for yogurt formation.  Leaving the warm milk (containing cultures) at room temperature for a few hours is safe — you should refrigerate once the yogurt has formed.”  My mom, the chef in the family, confirmed that that’s how she’d made yogurt for years.

The Culture of Yogurt
As I started talking to my Indian American friends about yogurt, I was surprised to find how many of them had tips of their own.  My friend Amy’s mom used to swap starter cultures with her friends to get slightly different flavored yogurts. It also mixed things up so you weren’t using the same exact starter for years on end.

Another friend told me that she was much more successful with yogurt-making in Los Angeles than in Seattle because the temperatures there were warmer — i.e. much closer to the weather in India.   I started wondering if that had something to do with my yogurt not setting quite right.

I realized that the process of making curds actually started as a way of preserving dairy products before refrigeration existed (it dates back to at least 4,500 years ago, and there are countless varieties).  But just because you’re curdling something or adding bacteria, it doesn’t mean you can use dated milk or throw your food safety standards out the window.

My batch of curds turned out not to be death yogurt.  Actually, despite being runny, it was pretty delicious.  If you haven’t had whole milk dairy products in a while, I HIGHLY recommend it.  But this process confirmed for me that I still have a lot to learn as a cook.  Next time, I’ll be more diligent about sterilizing my equipment and avoid the worry … as you might be able to tell, I have a slight flair for the dramatic 🙂


Entry filed under: Dairy, Equipment, Indian Food. Tags: , , .

Learning to Look Into the Future Succumbing to Paneer Pressure

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. sudha  |  August 13, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    stop worrying about sterilizing the equipment. we made yogurt every day growing up by grabbing the standard pot from the dishrack and then heating the milk. then i or my sisters would pop in some culture and boom, next day yogurt. there was no sterilizing.

    • 2. shiwanis  |  August 13, 2009 at 10:22 pm

      I know, I know — my mom never used to sterilize any of her equipment when she made yogurt either, but some of the desis I talked to swear by it (i.e. risnig the pot with boiling water before you add the milk).

      So I wanted to understand the science behind it… I was just about to post an update about this, but a comment’s just as good! I talked to Jeff’s dad yesterday because he used to manage a dairy, and he was telling me that the bacteria in the yogurt arrests the growth of other bacteria. Of course, that doesn’t mean the yogurt can’t go bad… But that makes my death yogurt fears totally unfounded 🙂


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