When I lived in Baku, I remember how every Saturday an old jiguli would stop in front of our nine-story apartment complex and an energetic woman in her late 60s known as sud satan (milk seller) or more affectionately, sud satan khala (aunt milk seller) would hurriedly step out of the car and open its trunk to proudly display its contents - home made dairy products. She would then go on shouting about the neighborhood enthusiastically , “Sud var, sud, gatiiiiiiiig! (Milk, milk, yoguuuuuuuurt) thus notifying her permanent and prospective customers about the arrival of milk and yogurt she made from cows her family raised somewhere in the outskirts of Baku.
Then the usual scene - dairy-hungry apartment dwellers flock downstairs to get fresh milk and creamy yogurt, sometimes bargaining the prices in vain and nodding approval when the seller swears by bread (it is common to swear by bread in Azerbaijan) that her yogurt has no thickening agent and that it is natural and best they can ever find. Then the happy buyers hurriedly go home with their purchase to make good use of it. They particularly like yogurt. They make soups with it (the most popular is dovga, yogurt soup with fresh herbs, chickpeas and sometimes meatballs), use it as a condiment to scoop onto dolma, or onto pasta dishes, in the latter case flavoring it with crushed garlic, or make a refreshing drink ayran from it.
Sud satan khala’s yogurt was really good - luscious cream thickened on top of dense yogurt was quite tempting. Well.. .That was in Baku. In California I often buy yogurt from markets and I find the local varieties pretty good (update: since writing this post I have rarely bought yogurt from stores, I make my own most of the time). But I sometimes venture into making my own yogurt and to my mom’s surprise (she is still in disbelief I can cook let alone make yogurt), I get good results. You can, too, with the following recipe. As sud satan khala would say - I swear by bread!
So, let’s get started.
How to Make Yogurt (Plain Yogurt) at Home
To make yogurt you only need 2 ingredients - milk and plain yogurt - more of the first and less of the second . Yogurt will act as culture or starter, which has benign bacteria necessary to ferment the milk.
You can use either homemade yogurt or store-brought. You can use any type of milk - cow’s milk or goat’s milk to make yogurt. Both your yogurt and milk should be fresh. Remember, whatever type yogurt (full-fat, fat-free) you will use as your starter, the resulting yogurt will be exactly the same. In other words, if you used creamy yogurt as your starter, you will obtain creamy yogurt once your milk has been fermented.
Ingredients you will need:
milk (I use whole milk - full fat)
You will also need:
a clean pot
a jar (I use 1-liter fido jars)
a kitchen thermometer (optional)
Have your milk and yogurt ready. For every liter (4 cups) of milk, you will need 3 tablespoonfuls of yogurt. Your yogurt should be at room temperature!
Let’s begin. Place the milk in a pot. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Here, it is very important to cool the milk down to the right temperature before you introduce the culture to it. The milk should cool only until it is neither too hot nor too cold. If you have a kitchen thermometer, put it in the milk and read - the ideal temperature should be 115F. If you don’t have a thermometer, use this old trick - put your finger in the milk and count to 15. If your finger can tolerate the heat, your milk is ready to be fermented. Remember, the temperature of the milk is very important! If your milk is too cold, the culture simply will not grow. It if is hot, the milk will kill the bacteria in the culture and your milk will never thicken.
Once the milk has reached the desired temperature, pour it into a jar. Add the yogurt to the milk (you can also mix the yogurt with 2-3 tablespoons of milk before adding it to the jar). Do not stir. Put the lid on the jar.
Place the jar in a place where you will not touch, move, disturb, shake or move it from one place to another (!) during the incubation period. Leave the jar there for at least 8 hours, or to be safe, overnight. The jar should be undisturbed for the duration of this time! Wrap a warm blanket around the jar to maintain the heat in the jar. Constantly keeping the milk warm will get the bacteria thicken the milk. That’s it! You can enjoy your home made yogurt in 8-14 hours! I will taste better to you than a store bought yogurt. No kidding, You made it yourself! Store your yogurt in the refrigerator.
Let’s sum it up:
1. For each 1 liter of milk, you will need 3 tablespoonfuls yogurt.
2. Use fresh milk.
3. Bring yogurt to room temperature before introducing it to milk.
4. Cool the heated milk to 115F before adding yogurt to it.
5. Cultured milk should not be touched or moved during the incubation period, so store it in a safe place.
6. Keep the jar warm within the folds of blankets.
Strained Yogurt (Suzme Gatig)
If you want to obtain a thicker yogurt, called suzme gatig, or simply suzme in Azeri, pour it onto a muslin (the traditional way) or 4 layers of cheesecloth, tie the ends together and hand the bag over the sink. The liquid will slowly drain out of the bag and you will obtain creamy and thick suzme. You can flavor it with chopped fresh dill or any fresh herbs of your choice.