Yogurt Culture

posted in: Ruminations | 23

A few weeks ago my friend Sam decided she could no longer take care of her yogurt cultures and kombucha colony. So she offered them to me. When I went to her apartment, she was bent over a pad of stationery writing down step-by-step care instructions for each group of live microorganisms, which were bundled away in tight-lidded plastic containers next to sheets of cheesecloth and other paraphernalia on her counter. After a few demonstrations of these steps, Sam packed everything into a brown shopping bag, careful so as not to let the containers tip, and handled them over to me. I felt like I two babies had plopped on my doorstep.

You see, these would-be food items require a lot more nurture than I was prepared for. I’ve done a lot of this and that with cooking — I’ve even infused and pickled in my time. But bacterial fermentation? Keeping something alive and active?… I’m sorry to say that I killed the kombucha colony in a matter of days. The charge? Neglect.

So with a sinner’s heart, I immediately turned to the yogurt colony and placed it in the warmest spot in my apartment. Over the next week or so, I followed the rest of Sam’s directions dutifully — by keeping the cultures covered in milk in a container with a thin cloth over it to allow them to breathe. Every morning, I would strain the milky cultures over a bowl to collect the “yogurt.” Then, after a quick rinse with water, I’d refill the container with the cultures with milk, and let sit covered in a warm place for the next 24 hours. And repeat.

freshly strained yogurt is caught in a bowl, then refrigerated (in an empty yogurt container)

Over the course of the week, all those straining sessions produced enough yogurt to fill about half a 1-quart container. I had been nervous about tasting its contents until then. For one thing, this yogurt was runny. And I don’t mean simply organic Ronnybrook Farms-runny. But runnier. It smelled like yogurt though, so I gave it a try. It was pungency like a punch in the face. As I was about to reach for the sugar and maybe vanilla extract, I decided to instead add a spoonful of Jell-O instant vanilla pudding I had around. Since the powder supposedly thickens milk to a pudding-like consistency, maybe it would too with this stuff? And on top of that, add some flavor. Unfortunately, after whisking and letting the mixture “set,” all the instant pudding did was make the stuff turn from snowy white to light yellow, and whatever sweetness it added is not enough. Because frankly, this yogurt tastes like ass.

just call it ‘runnybrook’

So this is where I am now. After all the patience and hard work, producing a funky-tasting food is not very fun. I can’t even really pin down the way that it tastes — plasticky? But a little more sour and yogurty than that. I halted the daily rituals of straining and refilling and placed the cultures in a sealed container of water in the fridge — just the way they were when Sam had given to me. She thinks they’ll stay alive like that for about a week. What to do? Clearly, I need to be better cultured in yogurt. Yo is me.

a spoonful of sugar won’t make this go down

I know that only organic milk has touched these cultures, if that means anything. From the way things were progressing, nothing sounded off-track from what Sam described should happen. When I turn to the Internet for help, though, it seems like all the homemade yogurt methods out there call for using a cup of plain yogurt as a “starter” — not these funny little creatures living with me now. They also sound worlds different from the method I was shown, often employing incubators, thermometers and other lab-like apparatus. I feel a little bit alone here.

the bacterial babies

And scared. Did the cultures somehow die? Is my yogurt really a bloodbath of culture carcasses? What happens when you eat dead and inactive cultures? Oh, how I wish I were more like Alton Brown and had an answer! Oh wait… maybe he does. Darn it! He uses plain yogurt when making the stuff at home, too!

I guess you could say that I feel for all the single mothers out there. The clock is ticking for these young ‘uns. As long as they’re in my hands, I can only fear the worst.

23 Responses

  1. Eddy Connor

    Best regards!
    Thanks for information.
    Love this place! 😉

  2. Christina

    Wow, really interesting. Keep us posted on what happens to the cultures. I don’t have any answers, but I think you’re brave for taking on this experiment!

  3. ann

    hmmmm… That sounds like a lot of work for breakfast… I once had a roommate that had a sourdough culture that had been passed down to him from his mother who was given custody of it back in the 60s. He took it with him everywhere. France, work, Asia. I wonder if he can still get it on a plane these days.

  4. OhioMom

    No help here I am afraid, benign neglect keeps my plants alive but I would not attempt this. As far as sourdough starter, apparently there are some that go back hundreds of years.

  5. Stephanie

    If you want to give kombucha another try, let me know (I’m in New York). Every time I make a batch, it produces a new ‘mushroom’ and they’re piling up in the fridge.

  6. jane

    I’ve only made yogurt using some plain yogurt and a thermos. It’s very forgiving and not difficult at all, even though thermometers and stuff make it seem complicated when contemplating the task. It’s a lot easier than the process you describe above.

    Kind of like this: http://www.stretcher.com/stories/01/011112h.cfm

    And once you make it, you can use your homemade plain yogurt to make the next batch, so it keeps going and you don’t have to buy some store-bought yogurt which kind of defeats the purpose of making yogurt in the first place.

  7. martha

    I’ve never heard of yogurt cultures before but have been making yogurt for a while now using either plain yogurt as a starter or a store-bought starter… I’m fascinated but unfortunately can’t offer any advice.

    As for homemade yogurt though – I highly recommend it.

  8. Yvo

    Huh, interesting. What about your friend? Did she like her resulting yogurt?

  9. Russ

    I do some home brewing (better than any of those tasteless beers that are all too popular), and I have found that the yeast can actually go bad should a foreign microbe survive and reproduce. This is a possibility considering the milk sugars you use and the grain sugars I do.

  10. cathy

    Thanks everyone for the kind support! Yvo: Yes, my friend liked her yogurt, but she warned that it tastes, of course, like “homemade” yogurt, rather than store-bought, which I was prepared for. It seems quite a challenge telling where the line between “pleasantly sour and freshly homemade-tasting” and “bad – and perhaps contaminated by a foreign microbe” is drawn. Thanks a lot, Russ, for that insight. I wouldn’t have thought of beer fermentation as sharing similar issues, but it’s an interesting point. (Do you have a beer-making recipe/method on your website, by the way?)

  11. Stephanie

    You know – I can’t see completely, but that sounds a lot more like she gave you a Kefir culture than a yogurt culture…it looks like grainy cauliflower, and makes a very tart (and if you let it sit afterwards) mildly alcoholic and fizzy probiotic drink. It’s very strong though, and not for everyone – but that’s why it’s so runny, if you’re wondering.

  12. brooklynbee

    I love kombucha. I wish I could make my own at home but I have an incredibly tiny kitchen and I have no room for it.

  13. michael

    There is an easier way. Indian cuisine has many uses for yogurt and I found the following recipe in my ‘Real Indian Cookery’ book by Veena Chopra:

    Milk, boiled then cooled to luke warm 1 Pt.

    Culture from a thick natural yogurt, 1 Tbsp.
    mixed with a little milk until smooth

    – Bring milk to boil then cool to lukewarm.
    – Whisk yogurt/milk mixture into lukewarm milk.
    – Pour into airtight containers and place in cupboard above fridge or stove (goggle warming cupboard)for approximately 8 hours.
    – After yogurt has set (check it) place in fridge for 3-4 hours before consuming.

    A simple and delicious method which has been used for centuries in other countries and recently in my own home. I use 2% milk and Old Home yogurt though you could use whichever brands you prefer. The resulting yogurt is smooth, rich, and not quite so tart as some of the commercially prepared ones. Hope you enjoy.


    Hope this works as well for you as it does for me.

  14. Tiffany

    This is definitely a Kefir culture.

    I refrigerate mine with milk, covering it with cheesecloth and harvest every 5 days or so. If kept refrigerated, it slows down the fermentation rate so you don’t have to go through the trouble preparing it everyday if you aren’t going to consume it.

    I usually use the kefir milk i harvested and blend it with soy or almond milk and fresh fruit to make a delicious smoothie. It tastes great blended up (in my opinion). Try this out, and maybe you won’t regret taking over these cultures.

    Hopefully you haven’t given up on these cultures!

  15. Alexandra

    Very late weighing in, but I also want to add that it is probably kefir. Homemade kefir is definitely an acquired taste. I got hooked on it while on a homestay in Russia, where my hostmother would force feed it to me every morning, but… yeah. Doesn’t taste like yoghurt.

  16. Ken Appelt

    I work for a company that makes half the yogurt starter bacteria in the world. After reading your essay on preserving this personalized colony, I can only say that God only knows what strains you have in that container. You’d have to send it to a University Lab to find out.

    These are live bacteria and they eat, live, die and produce lactic acid which produces the yogurty, acidic taste. Different strains will “compete” with each other and give out different tastes. Not only that, but when exposed to air, other bacteria may grow and thrive in there. There is also a very good possibility that your colony has “phaged out” as we say in the yogurt business, which means that a virus has entered and killed off you primary colonies.

    Start over with a basic Kefir or Yogurt “starter” or “acidifier”, or easier yet, buy a commericial product you like. That’s my advice…I hope no-one gets ill!

  17. Roboto

    Talk about being late (2010), lol. My mom has a small batch of these guys. She’s had them for over 15 years, tho I’m pretty sure they’re the offspring of the offspring of the original now.
    Anyway, ours give a yogurt that is also acidy, but not too bad and can definitely be sweetened just by blending with fruit. It also looks white and creamy, yours looks kind of yellow tho I don’t know if maybe it’s the camera or something.. but ours is pretty runny too. Also my mom washes/changes their milk every other day, and tries to make sure the milk isn’t too cold or hot, as well ad the water she rinses them with. We’ve neglected ours a bit recently too, tho if you care for them again they seem to get ‘healthier’.
    I don’t know if there’s something wrong with your little guys (if you still have them) but I do know different conditions will give you diff results. Like when we used to give them whole fat milk they were big lumps, now with low fat they’ve gotten quite skinny. Maybe using soy milk is why you get more acidy yogurt?

  18. Roboto

    Sorry, mistake on assuming it was soy milk, and I re read and saw why it’s yellow. You can also try adding honey for sweetness.

  19. Tynki

    Oh man, Dots are one of my favorite candies. To the Walgreens, Candy-mobile!

  20. culture


    […]Yogurt Culture » Not Eating Out in New York[…]…

  21. Jual Container Office

    Jual Container Office…

    […]Yogurt Culture » Not Eating Out in New York[…]…

  22. Kara

    I am in the exact same boat!! My friend made it sound so easy to make greek yogurt with these babies but I am afraid to try it because I’m not even sure I’m doing it right. If you’ve figured it out by now let me know!

  23. Jessie

    It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button! I’d certainly donate to this brilliant blog!
    I guess for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.
    I look forward to new updates and will talk about this site with my Facebook group.
    Talk soon!

Leave a Reply