Five Ways of Making Yogurt

1 / 5
2 / 5
3 / 5
4 / 5
5 / 5


Yoghurt … 5 ‘wheys’

1. Yoghurt from chilli stems

An heirloom culture is a lovely thing. But there are ways to make yoghurt without yoghurt, so if that’s you, no worries, we’ll start there first, the place that I arrived at last. I had been in raptures about getting an heirloom culture. Varma watched quietly, letting me go on about it for a few days until he mentioned that’s not how they did it at home.

Varma started with us at The Fermentary on his fourth day in Australia … and on his 600th day working with us, after watching me talk about my yoghurt cultures, he let me know quite casually that he does it another way (or more correctly, his aunty does).

It turns out that in Southern India it is a pretty regular thing to make yoghurt – or curd – using the stems of chillies. A bit of tamarind works too. (I was told that the whole tamarind pod was needed, but I didn’t have that so I just used a dab from a jar I had and it worked!) I’d read something about this method in one of Sandor Katz’s books, but mostly people wrote of it in an experimental tone. Here was someone telling me it was the best way.

This method is so easy it makes all other yoghurt recipes seem a bit superfluous. I’m not sure that we can even call it yoghurt, maybe it’s just a curd? There is an ever so slight chilli flavour to the first batch, but it’s hardly worth mentioning. In fact, my girls couldn’t tell the difference in a taste test, except that the chilli yoghurt is less sour. The fact that it is milder may make it even better than some other yoghurts. And if the chilli is too strong, go ahead and use that batch in a raita or a savoury soup, and start your next batch from it. I have recently found out that dried chickpeas are also a good inoculant, simply add a few instead of chilli stems.

I actually don’t know the science of the chilli method. The reason you will want to make other yoghurts, from a friend’s batch, for example, might be because of the microbial diversity found in the other kind. However, since I can’t give you the breakdown, and if you don’t already have an heirloom starter culture or good yoghurt in your local shop, or a milk kefir grain, then Varma and I give you this!

Even if you do have an heirloom starter maybe you’d just like to do this because it’s fun. And you’re curious.

Preparation time: 1 hour

Fermentation time: 3+ hours

Ingredients and equipment:

  • 2 x 500 ml (17 fl oz) jars
  • 1 litre (34 fl oz/4 cups) milk
  • 4–6 chilli stems (yes, just the stems, pop the rest into a ferment)


  1. Heat the milk in a saucepan for 20–30 minutes at about 80 degrees C (175 degrees F). Let it cool to around 40 degrees C (105 degrees F).
  2. Pour the milk into the jars, and add the chilli stems (2–3 per jar). Lid and pop into your incubator for 3–10 hours. (This can simply be your oven barely on, under 50 degrees C/120 degrees F.) I leave mine overnight. The chilli stems will float to the top, so just pull them out before refrigerating and storing. The yoghurt will keep covered in the fridge for a couple of weeks.

2. Yoghurt from tamarind, too

This curd is very mild, almost pudding-like. We love its flavour, and the fact that I always have tamarind paste in my cupboard means that I can make it whenever I like. If you want to taste the tamarind, you can mix the paste in from the bottom of the jar you’ve made the yoghurt in once it is ready.

Preparation time: 1 hour

Fermentation time: 3 + hours

Ingredients and equipment:

  •   2 x 500 ml (17 fl oz) jars or 1 x 1 L (34 fl oz) jar
  • 1 litre (34 fl oz/4 cups) milk
  • 1 tamarind pod, with shell, broken into small pieces, or 1 teaspoon tamarind paste (the oil will sit on the top, and the paste will remain on the bottom, but the flavour is nice)


  1. Heat the milk in a saucepan for 20–30 minutes at about 80 degrees C (175 degrees F). Let it cool to around 40 degrees C (105 degrees F).
  2. Pour the milk into a couple of jars, or one big jar, and add the tamarind. Lid and pop into your incubator for 3–10 hours. (This can simply be your oven barely on, under 50 degrees C/120 degrees F.) I leave mine overnight. The tamarind pod will float to the top, so just pull it out before refrigerating and storing. This will keep covered in the fridge for a couple of weeks.

3. ‘Back-slopping’ – how to reproduce yourself

Naturally fermented yoghurt doesn’t use a powdered starter, but instead uses just yoghurt. This is called ‘back-slopping’. The term ‘backslopping’ is not very pretty but I love to say it. It refers to the practice of using a little bit of something already good to start up another one to make it again, and again. It’s used in fermenting a lot and in this instance, it’s a bit of yoghurt as a starter for another batch.

You can back-slop using regular supermarket yoghurts, or buy starter cultures (made in a laboratory somewhere) to make your homemade yoghurts. But let me tell you: back-slopping from commercial yoghurt doesn’t usually last more than five times because the bacteria isn’t strong enough to survive. The same thing applies to yoghurt made with a powdered starter culture.

If we are celebrating the magical, we ideally wouldn’t use laboratory-grown, but even more importantly, if we are making something from scratch we don’t really want to add laboratory grown anything to our list of ingredients.

Don’t worry, you can get good heirloom yoghurt cultures quite easily. You can buy them online, get them through word of mouth fermenting groups, or from a good shop-bought yoghurt (a local, small-batch, tub-set yoghurt from wholefood shops or good supermarkets is a good bet). You can buy starter cultures from the supermarket complete with the incubator or system and pots to make it in, usually with a starter culture. But I prefer the free way, ‘The Art of Making Do’.

With any back-slopping, even though you may think it kind and generous or a sure-fire way to success, do not over-slop! Hold back. Less is more when back-slopping. It’s the ‘chick breaking out of the egg without help story’ – the struggle makes them stronger. Spoil it and it gets lazy. Or something like that.

Yoghurt swatches

If I were with you I might draw you closer, and tell you in one of those loud whispers, just for dramatics: ‘Did you know you can soak a cloth in yoghurt, dry it out and save it for another time? Put it in a book or something until the day you want to reinvigorate it? That’s how we still have old yoghurt cultures today! Did you know that?’

Swatches of linen dipped in your yoghurt and dried are a wonderful gift, and I sometimes include them as a gift to take home at workshops. Sounds fairytale-esque, but it has been done many times through history – and it’s so sad that most of us don’t know about it. This is just yoghurt, but it brings home to me how many other different things we need to learn to save, like seeds, and … music, old languages, stories.

I have an heirloom starter – I got it from Sandor Katz who got it from someone at Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery in Brooklyn. They had it because at that knishery they have been back-slopping for over 80 years. And that first strain was apparently brought with them on their immigration from Poland, on a piece of linen that had been soaked in yoghurt, dried, and then hidden to await better times, perhaps when routines in the kitchen become the norm again.

Sandor brought his home on a cloth just to see if it worked. Apparently, he forgot all about it, and months later opened a book and found it, reinvigorated it in a glass of warm milk, made a small jar from it, kept making from it, and that’s what I have now. Pretty amazing! (Mine started off a bit yeasty tasting, but really started to bloom beautifully after the third time around.)

Know this: yoghurt is a tinkering, relax-in-the-kitchen kind of thing. Yoghurt making requires some light attention and a bit of time cooking and cooling the milk, but the technique is simple and the fermenting time is fast, especially once you have done it a couple of times.

Whey too good?

You have to make your own yoghurt as soon as you find out that it tastes better, that it’s very easy and satisfying, and that the strained yoghurt industry produces more by-product than it does product! The whey is not extracted using large hanging strainers, but with machines using centrifugal force that really pulls out more proteins and acids than it should. This is the reason you now see more whey protein powders and whey in everything, including baby food.

If you are producing a lot of whey, use it. Apparently it’s not good for our water systems, so you’re better off freezing it in cubes to add to smoothies, dips, soups, pancakes, breads, stocks and cooking liquids; soaking your grains and legumes in it; or using it as a starter for sodas and vegetables. It’s also a great fertiliser, good to add to chicken and pig food, or other pet’s food as well.

If you were stuck with canned food, which has no life in it at all, you can open up the can, put a dash of whey in there to sit overnight, and that can give the vegetables some life back.

Yoghurt-making equipment

Have your thermometer and chosen jars clean. For the yoghurt to set, you need an incubator that can hold your jars consistently at a temperature of 38–43ºC (100–110ºF) for around 4 hours. Don’t let the temperature thing make it seem hard, it isn’t. Driving to the shop to buy yoghurt is hard. Think of yoghurt making as another foraging adventure.

For your incubator, there are a plethora of ways to keep the jars warm:

—— in an oven at its lowest temperature (easiest option and my favourite)

—— with a hot water bottle in an esky (cooler)

—— in a rice cooker or slow cooker

—— in a dehydrator

—— using a heat pad from brewing or even pet shops in an insulated box (we use an old bar fridge)

—— in a foam box, half-filled with hot water and with a thermometer stuck in the lid – so you can keep an eye on the temperature.

You can get fancy yoghurt making sets, or temperature controlled incubators, which are great, but I do love the oven most, followed by the dehydrator or the bar fridge with heat pad, and third (no power?): the esky (cooler) with the hot water bottle.

Oh and seriously, if you have one of those blenders that heats ingredients and holds a temperature, like a Thermomix, do use it – it’s almost a tool made for yoghurt making! I probably make yoghurt (and get my kids to make it) twice as much now I have one. Use the same recipe, but with your blender: add the milk, set the temperature to 80 degrees C (175 degrees F) and the timer for 15–20 minutes or longer, then leave on a low speed. Allow the milk to cool to 37 degrees C (100 degrees F), add the yoghurt and mix by giving it a quick whiz. Set the blender to 37 degrees C (100 degrees F) on the lowest speed for about 10 minutes. Pour the milk into jars and incubate it for at least 4 hours, depending on how sour you like your yoghurt.

Preparation time: <1 hour

Fermentation time: 4–12 hours

Ingredients and equipment:

  • food-grade thermometer, incubator (see equipment text), jars for storing
  • 1 litre (34 fl oz) milk (cow, sheep or goat)
  • 2–3 tablespoons yoghurt – a good shop-bought one or, even better, someone else’s homemade yoghurt


  1. In a saucepan over medium heat, warm the milk to around 86 degrees C (186 degrees F). The longer you leave it at this temperature, the thicker it will get; about 20–30 minutes is good. Some people leave this step out. Go ahead and experiment, but I have found that heating the milk this first time around makes for thicker yoghurt.
  2. Take the milk off the heat and cool to about 43 degrees C (110 degrees F) – you can pop it in a bowl of icy water, or into a bowl you’ve had in the freezer, and just stir with the thermometer in it. This might seem like a lot of work, but making yoghurt gives you a lovely pottering sciency feeling. You look like you’re doing something very intimidating, but actually you’re just waiting. The yoghurt makes itself.
  3. When the milk has cooled to about 43 degrees C (110 degrees F), add the yoghurt and stir it in well. Maybe take a cup of milk out first and stir the yoghurt into that so you know it’s properly mixed in.
  4. You can now jar and lid it, and pop it into your incubator. The jar size doesn’t really matter; you can simply use jam jars, or bigger 1 L (34 fl oz) jars.
  5. Watch the temperature, letting it work until it is set to yoghurt – overnight, or after about 4 hours. Then put it in the fridge. It will get tangier the longer it sits after setting.
  6. Yoghurt making complete! Consume within a couple of weeks. Maybe you’ll dip some linen in your yoghurt to keep for your kids.


WAIT! THIS IS IMPORTANT. Always keep one jar hidden in the fridge for your next batch. Write on this jar ‘Don’t eat’, or something similar. That’s your starter for next time.

Keep your yoghurt going, alive and ready to share the love. You’ll have yoghurt you can give to your friends as a starter.

And something to consider: in the initial period where you heat the milk, adding flavours like cardamom, cinnamon or vanilla can be a lovely way to flavour yoghurt without adding sugar. Experiment! I particularly like cardamom – add a few pods in and strain before you put the yoghurt into the jars to incubate.

 4. Kefir yoghurt

 With yoghurt, the culture you use is important, but even more so is the process and technique. So back-slopping with some milk kefir  also produces a beautiful yoghurt.

The directions are the same as with the yoghurt opposite, only the milk kefir is the starter. I use a little more milk kefir than yoghurt.

5. Vietnamese yoghurt

That’s what we call it in our house because my daughter Bella had this when she was homestaying in Vietnam. This is the rough recipe from a 16-year-old’s eyes and memory. We tried it and it’s pretty delicious! It’s certainly one that Lulu makes a lot now … because she’s a sweet tooth, and because it’s that easy.

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Fermentation time: 4+ hours

Ingredients and equipment:

  • food-grade thermometer, incubator (see equipment text), jars for storing
  • 1x 350 g (12-1/2 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
  • 2x cans boiling water (can is used as measure)
  • 1x can room-temperature water (can is used as measure)
  • 1/2 can plain, good yoghurt (can is used as measure)


  1. Empty the can of condensed milk into a large bowl then add the three cans of water. (For a thicker, creamier yoghurt substitute 1 can of water for milk.)
  2. When the mixture has cooled to about 40 degrees C (105 degrees F), add the yoghurt and mix very well.
  3. Pour into jars and lid.
  4. Incubate at around 45 degrees C (113 degrees F). The yoghurt will thicken within a few hours, getting sour as it goes. Try it after 4–5 hours. If it’s sour enough, put it in the fridge. It will keep for a couple of weeks.


 If your condensed milk didn’t come in a can, know that the ratio is 1 part condensed milk, 2 parts boiling water and 1 part room temperature water (or milk) and 1/2 part yoghurt.

Here’s a fun thing! Because you are adding boiling water, you can flavour the water by steeping some cocoa nibs, chilli, cinnamon and a vanilla pod in it. Or try rose hip tea and then mix dried rose petals through the finished yoghurt. Or maybe get creative and use some earl grey tea and then lemon zest at the end.

The girls love this with a bit of nutmeg or cinnamon and chopped bananas. They put it in moulds in the freezer with shaved milk chocolate – stracciatella style. I like it because they make it themselves, and it’s great when we don’t have any fresh milk in the house. All kids seem to adore sweetened condensed milk. Fermentation means that the sugar gets eaten as it turns into yoghurt … less sugar at least?

Buying sweetened condensed milk for the Vietnamese yoghurt sent me on a bit of a journey. When I was teaching in Japan 20 years ago, the men in the staffroom made ‘pour-over’ coffee and sipped it pretty loudly. Years later in Melbourne that has become a thing, and I live with a man who prefers pour-over coffee. When I first sent the kids down to the shop to buy condensed milk for this yoghurt, I got them to buy me some instant coffee as well.

They bought one in a tin with ‘gourmet’ on it for my ‘special coffee’. I felt nostalgic for the kind you get in some parts of Asia, you know, in a glass with the condensed milk down the bottom and the coffee sitting on top? Maybe it’s a holiday association, but I really love that coffee. Shh. I’m pretty sure it’s uncool in the coffee scene.

More from Ferment For Good:

Cover courtesy of Hardie Grant Books

Recipes excerpted with permission fromFerment For Goodby Sharon Flynn, published by Hardie Grant Books May 2017, RRP $29.99 hardcover.

Inspiration for edible alchemy.