I would like to make some homemade yogurt (to save plastic over-packaging, compare it to store bought and just have fun making it) but have questions: is a yogurt maker necessary? does anyone have tips on making yogurt without a yogurt maker? does anyone think homemade yogurt is extraordinarily better or worse than store-bought? thanks!
When my children were young we always made our own yogurt. A maker isn't necessary but I found that it was easier - not in terms of work required but in terms of mental effort. I didn't need to go find pans, bowls etc. I had two young kids and was working 60-80 hours per week so mental effort was a big thing.
I used to make yogurt when my children were young, though the yogurt makers at the time were too small to be of practical use for me, since I started with a half-gallon of milk. The yogurt makers then were just one quart size, at least the ones I saw. I used a big pyrex bowl and put it in my bread-rising drawer (just a deep drawer with a light bulb in the back). When the light was on, it was the perfect temperature for making yougurt. I found that I needed to drain my finished yogurt for a few hours to get it to the consistency my children liked.
I've read that using a yogurt maker can make the yogurt too sour since the heat only comes up through the bottom. I think I got that information from The Mexican Breakfast Cookbook. The author has a recipe for vanilla bean yogurt that sounds quite good.
A yogurt maker is not necessary. It serves only to maintain the temperature at the correct level. I have used our oven, which can be set as low as 100 degrees, and have had excellent results. You can also use insulated containers with light bulbs or heating pads to maintain the temperature.
The homemade yogurt was the best yogurt that my wife and I had ever had! I make it a gallon at a time and put it in pint Ball canning jars so that we can use it in small batches. Since it's so good we go through it very quickly, so it would probably be fine in larger containers.
My advice is to use Stonyfield plain yogurt (if you can get it where you are) as your starter culture. I also used whole milk with additional non-fat dry milk to boost the amount of milk solids in the mixture.