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Help my California yogurt man-up

I am a long-time home yogurt maker and apart from the odd misfire, have never had any trouble with it. That is, until I moved from Massachusetts to California. Since I moved here, I have NEVER been able to get my yogurt to set. I’ve tried everything: varying the incubation time, varying the incubation temperature (100, 110 and 112), sterilizing the equipment, not sterilizing the equipment, varying milk fat (I use cow), doing it at different times of the year when ambient temperatures are different, changing the yogurt culture. I haven’t resorted to adding gelatin, because I never needed to before, and I’d like to nail down the problem before adding another step.

The only variable I can think of is geography. Could it have something to do with CA vs. MA wild yeasts? Could it be something in West Coast yogurt cultures?

I’m getting mighty tired of thin smoothies. Any yogurteers out there have any ideas?

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  1. Have you tried a new culture? I've used pretty much every commercial yogurt out there as a starter (I started with Stonyfield but I prefer more tang, so have moved onto various Greek brands, including Fage, Chobani, Olympus, etc.), and they all work fine. You can also purchase dry starters from various vendors (I know New England Cheesemaking sells some, and Amazon has a variety). If all else fails, you can try adding dry milk powder and/or straining for a thicker consistency.

    2 Replies
    1. re: biondanonima

      +1 to this rec. I had been propagating the same culture for a looonng time and then went for a while without making any yogurt so had to buy some. When I used it as starter for my next homemade batch, the texture came out completely different--much thicker and better.

      I think my old culture had gradually strayed from whatever it was originally and I just didn't notice or pay attention.

      1. re: splatgirl

        Yes, using new cultures every time, because the previous batch is too runny to reuse. I was assuming I killed the culture somehow. I'm going to lower the temp and go for a longer steep. I'll report back.

        Thanks, friends-in-yogurt!

    2. http://thesoulanchor.blogspot.com/201...

      have heard the slow-cooker method is pretty fool-proof.

      1. Maybe it's those California cows??

        Perhaps you already do this, but I have better results on my yogurt when I heat the milk to about 185-190F first and hold it there for about 15-20 minutes. Then cool your milk to less than 112F or so and add your yogurt culture.
        The heat denatures the proteins and results in a more consistently thick yogurt, in my experience. Prior to instituting this practice, my results were hit and miss and it did seem to vary with what milk I used. This has also eliminated the grainy texture that I sometimes got.

        1 Reply
        1. re: kapusta

          This is a key step. Heating to that temp kills off competitive bacteria and also denatures one specific protein that can prevent the proper yogurt protein matrix from forming.

          I'd check to make sure your temps are correct, triomphe, using a different thermometer. I heat to 180F also but keep it there only for a minute or so, which sounds similar to what you're doing. When the milk has cooled to 105F, I add the starter.

          It also sounds as if your starter might not have enough active microorganisms to create yogurt. I like Stonyfield for use as a starter culture, if you don't purchase a specific yogurt culture. It's been written that Stonyfield has more active yogurt micro-organisms per volume than other brands.

          Make sure your incubation temp is in the correct window, and that the temp is consistent over several hours, at least 8 and up to 15, depending on how tart you like your yogurt.

          Long yogurt thread with many tips:
          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/567084

          Good luck!

        2. One thing you might have to consider is that the milk in California has more protein (and calcium) than milk sold anywhere else. I believe former Gov. Arnold signed a law requiring the milk to be "enhanced".

          Maybe that's the problem?

          11 Replies
          1. re: dave_c

            I never thought of the milk! That might indeed be the inconsistency. The cultures probably aren't different coast to coast (Skyr, Danon, Stonyfield, cheapo store brand) but the milk certainly is.

            Kapusta: Interesting thought about holding the milk for 20 minutes. I bring it up to temp and right back down. I'll try the raise-and-hold technique. Hotoynoodle, maybe that's where that slow cooker can come in.

            1. re: dave_c

              i was fascinated by this bit so did some ggogle-fu.

              calif. milk advisory board:

              California’s milk standards exceed federal standards because California processors add nonfat milk solids which offer improved taste and nutritional benefits. California milks exceed the federal guidelines for the amounts of calcium and protein in each serving.

              gaah. can't they just raise healthier cows? why are they adding stuff in after the fact? jeebus.

              op: don't know where you live in mass, but there are a fair number of organic dairies selling mostly grass-fed milk. we get milk and cream from shaw farms in dracut.

              1. re: hotoynoodle

                It has nothing to do with the health of cows. Cows do not produce the levels of that California requires
                It has more to do with Commerce and Nutrition.
                California's Milk standards keep other states Milk out of our market.

                1. re: chefj

                  they're requiring milk to have a higher protein content, so to achieve that, processors are adding non-fat milk solids to liquid milk. are you suggesting cafo mik is as nutritious as organic, grass-fed?

                  seems if other states wanted in, they could do the same, but with the high out-put of california dairy, i'm sure it hardly seems worth it.

                  1. re: hotoynoodle

                    I made no such suggestion. Just that the health of the cows have nothing to do with the CA requirements for dairy. And grass fed organic does not produce milk that meets the CA standard with out enrichment.
                    There have been many cases trying to make CA lower the Standard since it exceeds the Federal. The Claim is that it does not let out of state dairies compete.

                2. re: hotoynoodle

                  So basically, in California plain cow milk is illegal, and it *has* to have extra milk solids added to it before you can sell it?

                  There's something really off about that.

                  1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                    http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/dairy/dairy_qu...

                    I don't think it's of a significant difference from national standard to cause problem with making yogurt for the OP. I have friends who also make yogurt and paneer with store bought California milk with no problem.

                    1. re: gnomatic

                      op's problem seems to be with the "new" milk, not the stuff he/she was using calif.

                    2. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                      although raw cow milk is relatively easy to obtain, compared to other states, so i'm a bit unclear on the reg's.

                  2. re: dave_c

                    Correction: The "milk enrichment" law was enacted in 1962, not by Gov. Arnold (Ret.)

                    1. re: dave_c

                      But any added milk solids would not get in the way of yogurt forming. After all, manufactured yogurt often adds milk solids to milk. I've often made yogurt this way myself.

                      It's not the milk. I'm guessing incubation temp and starter activity to be the culprits.

                    2. I'm in CA. Have found that nonfat milk sets very loosely. Full fat is best.

                      1. I am in San Francisco. I make my yogurt using Trader Joe's 2% organic milk (usually the cream top, but sometimes use the regular when they run out of cream top). I use a local artisan yogurt, St. Benoit (available at farmer's market and local Whole Foods) as the starter (at least 20 batches ago).

                        I heat the milk to 180 F, let it cool to 120 F. Add in the yogurt (21g to a cup of milk). I usually make yogurt with 6 cups of milk at a time.

                        I put it in a cheap thermal cooker (my mom gave it to me while back to make chinese herbal soup..which I would never make of my own free will). I also used a small thermos before. Wrap it up in a tea towel (more insulation), and leave it on top of my fridge overnight. Perfect yogurt every time.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: gnomatic

                          That sounds pretty close to what I do, although the St Benoit usually ends up in my mouth--dang, that's good yogurt. You're using a variation on the slow cooker too, although not with powdered milk. I'm giving that a try next.

                        2. Any chance you are using a different thermometer (or the one that you have got jarred in transport)? You might try to calibrate to make sure you are getting the temp's you think you are.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: firecooked

                            IT WAS THE THERMOMETER! I can't believe it. I've got the richest most amazing yogurt now that the temps are right. Thank you, firecooked!

                            1. re: triomphe

                              So glad my geek engineering background was able to help!