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Jessie Raymond: Join the culture club — make yogurt

When I was growing up, we never had yogurt in the house. Back in the early ’70s, I only knew one girl who ever ate the stuff, and her parents drove a VW bus. So my mother played it safe and fed us Sugar Smacks, presumably to discourage any antiestablishment leanings.
But eventually yogurt hit the mainstream, and now it’s everywhere. You’ve got yogurt with various fat contents; drinkable yogurt; yogurt with specially trained “probiotics” designed to improve the digestive tracts of women over the age of 50 (presumably leaving everyone else hopelessly constipated); and, of course, Greek yogurt.
Here’s a confession: I cannot stand Greek yogurt. I don’t get what has everyone raving about the stuff. Is it the gritty texture? The acid-reflux sourness? Or that it’s as thick as spackle? I guess I’m just not hip enough.
But that’s irrelevant. I want to talk about regular, old-school yogurt.
Over the years, yogurt has worked its way into my diet, mostly for breakfast. I used to buy pre-fruited yogurts. Then I veered into vanilla and lately I’ve graduated to plain, which I punch up with honey, oats or granola, slivered almonds and fruit. I’m practically a hippie.
The yogurt aisle, however, confuses me. So many brands, so many varieties. I like to believe yogurt is good for me; I don’t know what live cultures are but I figure if there’s one thing I can use, it’s more culture.
I’m just not sure all yogurt is that healthy. You can buy one kind, for instance, that has M&Ms on top. I’m no nutritionist, but I have my doubts.
Also, I’m not up to speed on all those additives. I don’t know whether high-fructose corn syrup is still bad for us, or whether it’s come back into fashion, like eggs and red meat. I can’t remember if gelatin and pectin are desirable or if they kill lab rats.
Most people would ponder these things in passing and grab the yogurt with the shortest ingredient list or the lowest price. But I, as a person who is always looking for the long way around, decided to avoid the questions altogether, by making my own yogurt.
I would have done it years ago as part of my pioneer-girl shtick — the handspun yarn, the homemade bread, it gets pretty nauseating, I know — but I always assumed yogurt making involved complicated steps and required fancy stainless steel equipment and mysterious ingredients.
Nope.
All you need are a saucepan, a thermometer and a dollop of storebought or homemade yogurt to use as a starter (I’d avoid the kind with the M&Ms). Heat up milk to 180 degrees, cool it to 120, stir in the starter, and leave it overnight in a warm place. While you are sleeping, live cultures from the starter run rampant through the milk, hooting and hollering and multiplying in an enthusiastic and indecent probiotic manner. The next morning you have a batch of creamy yogurt.
Given their annual profits, yogurt companies must be thrilled that most people don’t know just how easy it is to make it at home. In 2012 — and this is a real fact — U.S. yogurt sales hit $7.3 billion. To put it in perspective, that’s more than the Kardashian sisters spent on shoes that year. It’s mind-boggling.
Expect that number to go down slightly next year; I’m no longer buying yogurt. I’m so taken with the simplicity — and, let’s be honest, magic — of the process that I’ve started making two quarts each week. It tastes great, costs a fraction of what I used to spend and requires almost no effort other than keeping an eye on the saucepan while I’m cooking dinner.
But there is a downside.
My husband has, relatively late in life, taken a liking to it. Formerly an avowed non-eater of breakfast, he now fixes himself a bowl of yogurt with fruit, cereal and maple syrup every morning.
I don’t mind that I’ve had to double my yogurt production to keep up with his new taste. But yesterday he mentioned seeing a “groovy VW bus” broken down on the side of the road. It’s almost as if those live cultures are having some sort of countercultural effect on him.
I’m kidding.
But I’m picking up some Sugar Smacks on the way home tonight, just in case.

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