Friday, November 27, 2015

Homemade Greek Yogurt in a Crockpot: How I Did It and What Not to Do

In case you are not among the hapless schmucks who follow my self-indulgent documentation on Facebook, my most recent domestic experiment consisted of an appropriately seasonal diplomatic mission with the colonies -- bacteria colonies, that is. I was determined that Greek yogurt, one of my four basic food groups amongst coffee, kale and snark, should absolutely be something I learn how to make on my own, and I'm pleased to report that I succeeded. 

Initially, I considered investing in a yogurt maker, but that somehow felt like A) cheating and B) a waste of precious counter/cabinet space. Instead, I followed The Tasty Cheapskate's recipe for crockpot Greek yogurt "for dummies." Since either I'm a special breed of dummy or the recipe isn't quite as dummy-proof as I'd hoped, I'm going to share my process as well as what absolutely not to do. As a disclaimer, I have attempted this a total of twice, once with success and once with a mild case of food poisoning. Since they didn't occur in that order, I'd say progress was made.

Rule #1 of yogurt making/biggest mistake I made the first time since it wasn't mentioned in the recipe: KEEP EVERYTHING SCRUPULOUSLY CLEAN. Any bad bacteria you introduce or don't eliminate has the perfect environment to propagate itself and wreak havoc on your digestive tract. Anything that comes into contact with the yogurt should be sterilized, including spoons, thermometers, jars and the crockpot itself. I kept water boiling in my electric kettle throughout the yogurt-making process and poured it over any new utensil to be used -- I suspect you could also sanitize everything all at once, if you're better at planning than I am.

Rudy is why we can't have nice things.
To get started, you will need a 7-quart crockpot, a reliable thermometer, an oven or other draft-free warm environment, a thick sacrificial towel, a gallon of whole or 2% milk (I used whole and can't vouch for 2%), 1/2 cup of plain yogurt* for starter, enough airtight containers to hold a gallon collectively, and a large chunk of time to devote to babysitting your batch. I suggest starting on a weekend afternoon about six hours before you usually go to bed, on a day when you have nowhere to be in the morning. Supervision's only really necessary when the milk is coming to temperature, but I wouldn't leave it alone until its temperature is stable.

*When selecting a yogurt for a starter, the most important thing is that it have the five requisite live cultures and minimal extra stuff like pectin, flavoring, gelatin, etc. -- you can determine all of this by checking the tub it comes in. Look for a good plain yogurt whose flavor and consistency you like -- I used Mountain High. Greek yogurt starter does not make Greek yogurt; in fact, using Greek yogurt as a starter can throw off the bacteria balance and give you a wonky batch.

Now, then. On to the process:
  1. About six hours before you want to go to bed, pour your gallon of milk into your sanitized crockpot, put the lid on, and turn it on Low. At this point, you should be able to leave it alone for two hours or so. Take the milk's temperature periodically to see how fast your crockpot heats up -- I generally crank mine up to High after two or three hours when I get impatient. The idea is to slowly heat the milk to 180 degrees to kill any harmful bacteria present in the milk.
  2. When the milk reaches 180 degrees F, turn the crockpot off, unplug it, take the lid off, and leave it to cool to about 130 degrees. This takes about an hour, so don't stray too far. The milk will develop a skin throughout this process -- just skim it off with your thermometer and flick into the trash. Do not stir it in, or you'll have gross slimy lumps in your yogurt. Do NOT rinse your skimming implement in tap water and put it back in the yogurt, or you might as well pitch the whole thing now.
  3. When the milk reaches 130-ish, get your starter and your oven ready. I like to measure my yogurt into a Pyrex measuring cup -- you'll want something roomy that you can pour from, and make sure it's sanitized! Arrange your oven racks to the lowest level, and make sure your oven is warm but not hot. I turned my oven on to Warm for a bit, but some people just turn the oven light on or set the oven to a bread proofing temperature (spoiled bastards). A too-cold oven will slow down the culturing process, and a too-warm one can kill your bacteria.
  4. When the milk reaches 115 to 110 degrees, ladle a bit of milk into the measuring cup with the yogurt, and whisk them until they're smooth. This tempers the yogurt and keeps you from having lumps. Mix this slurry back into the crockpot of milk, working quickly so your temperature doesn't drop below 110.
  5. Put the lid back on the crockpot, and wrap the the whole thing in your sacrificial towel. Stick the bundled-up crockpot in your warm but NOT HOT oven (you want it to maintain around 110 degrees overnight), and close the door. Leave the oven light on if you can. If you have a self-cleaning oven with one of those little levers that locks the door, use this to help trap heat. If you share your oven with others, leave a note so that no ones turns it on. Once your crockpot is all tucked in, you can hit the hay. 

Soft yogurt, warm yogurt. . .
In the morning/after 8-ish hours, check your yogurt. It should be set up, like gelatin. If it is still runny but looks yogurty, you can stick in back in the oven to continue curing longer. You can also let it cure longer if you like a tangier yogurt, so be sure to test. DO NOT try to heat it back up -- this was a giant mistake I made the first time. Also, do not stir it at this stage, or you'll end up with a nasty cottage cheese consistency. If you're happy with flavor and consistency, take half a cup off the top right away, and stick this in the freezer to start your next batch. Then, you can go ahead and scoop the yogurt into your choice of airtight containers and stick it in the fridge.

If you like a good thick Greek yogurt, you can strain off the whey (make sure to take your starter for next time before straining so the bacteria balance is correct). Set up a large colander over the sink (if you don't want to keep the whey) or over a large container (if you want to keep the whey). If the latter, make your colander a little kickstand of some sort so the colander doesn't sit in the whey as it accumulates. Line your colander with a clean tea towel, T-shirt or cheese cloth, and pour/scoop in all your yogurt. Leave this for two to six hours; the longer it sits, the thicker your finished product. I left mine for a little over two hours as I had somewhere to be, and the finished product was about Yoplait consistency. In the future, I'd leave it a couple hours longer.
Turn and face the strain . . .
When your yogurt has strained to your desired consistency, you can either pack it up right away or whip it with a mixer or eggbeater to ensure a uniform texture. Once your yogurt is packed in its airtight containers, it purportedly lasts in the fridge up to two weeks. If you don't think you will go through it that quickly, you can freeze it (probably). If you chose to save the whey, use it in smoothies for a splash of protein, or use it as a buttermilk substitute in baking.

The total cost of the ingredients was ~$6 for a gallon of organic milk and half a cup of yogurt, which came out to about $0.50 per one-cup serving of yogurt seeing as I yielded three quarts. If I strained it longer, I'd probably yield 2-2.5 quarts at $2.50-$3 each, or $0.60, $0.75 a serving. Considering organic Greek yogurt retails for ~$3 a pint, that's a hell of a savings. If you reuse your containers and make a new starter every time, you can make this process even more economical.

Pro tip: before you wash all your dishes, slather some of that yogurt on your face. The lactic acid and beneficial bacteria make an excellent mask -- just rinse it off after ten minutes.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Elderberry Syrup and Plans to Culture All the Things

As of today, November 15th, I am officially free from the bonds of Q3 earnings, or "busy season" with my work. This means more time to play in the kitchen and continue trying to optimize the ways in which I take care of my home and my person. Today held a series of small victories on that front.

First, on a mission to Vitamin Cottage for elderberry syrup implements, I discovered this:

As some of you are aware, I've been meaning for a while now to start making kombucha and actually attempted to grow a SCOBY at home using some store-bought kombucha, but that experiment has . . . fizzled out, shall we say. Thanks to, I suspect, a combination of ginger in the existing kombucha, using metal utensils, using non-organic sugar and/or keeping it in too cold an environment, I remain sans SCOBY after three weeks. Since this kit comes with a SCOBY, all I'll need is a gallon container to start what will hopefully be a successful batch, with potential for further brews. Plus, pear and ginger sounds awesome.

While at Vitamin Cottage, I also discovered that organic Greek yogurt is obscenely expensive, so I went a-Googling and found this recipe for bulk quantities of homemade Greek yogurt made in, of all things, a crockpot. This strikes me as the most economical way to keep Greek yogurt around, since I eat it every morning. If I'm especially crafty, I can probably even stock up on gallons of milk when it goes on sale and freeze it till I'm ready to make yogurt.

Finally, I got around to making a batch of homemade elderberry syrup -- FrugalGreenGirl's recipe, to be specific. For those who've yet to be subjected to my proselytizing on the subject, elderberry anything is excellent for boosting the immune system and treating colds and flus. I've now used the commercially available Sambucol (basically elder berry Zicam) to nip two colds in the bud, but that runs $15 for 30 tablets, or one cold. This syrup ran about $5 for a two-cup batch. Ingredients are nothing more than 1/2 cup dried elderberries, 1 tsp fresh ginger, 2 cinnamon sticks, 4 cloves, and 3 cups water, brought to a boil, simmered on low for half an hour, strained and mixed with 1/4 cup of honey. It purportedly keeps in the fridge for up to three months -- we'll see if it lasts that long, knowing my propensity to come down with stuff. I'm planning to drizzle a tablespoon or so on my morning yogurt to keep me evenly supplemented.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Musings on Meal Kit Services, and Feeding Myself Economically

I was debating whether this was worth a blog, but figured I'd spit it out so I can quit overthinking it. You're welcome?

My friend Jessi posted on Facebook an article entitled "How to Save Money When You're Young, Dumb and Broke." I won't tell you which of those modifiers I identified with, but I read the article and noticed that the author, who also seems to be living alone, has taken to using a meal kit subscription service and finds it economical for her circumstances. For those of you who don't know (I didn't), companies such as Blue Apron, Hello Fresh, Plated and Gobble offer weekly subscription boxes delivered to your door that contain ingredients and recipes for 3-ish meals, for anywhere from 2 to 4 people. The one the author cited, Blue Apron, costs $60 a week, and she gets anywhere from 6 to 9 meals out of it. This got me thinking, and I've wasted most of my morning ruminating on the pros and cons in my head, which I will presently share because I can.

Pro: Cheaper than grocery shopping
I know, $60 sounds kind of expensive for three meals. However, in watching a Youtube grocery haul recently, I realized I spend an average of $100 on food a week. For myself. $50-ish at Costco and $50-ish at Trader Joe's, once a week. Having groceries delivered would dramatically reduce my monthly food costs by mitigating temptation if nothing else. Even if I went shopping twice a month for breakfast food, fruit and snacks to augment, I'd still be saving over $100 a month on food. If I got 7-9 meals a week out of it, my daily food cost would be under $10 total, which is pretty good -- better if I can stretch the leftovers.

Pro: Less Waste
The food I consume is 90% perishables and 50% Costco quantities. Even with a consistent diet and eating at home as often as I can, I end up wasting a lot more produce than I'm happy to admit simply because I can't get through that large a quantity before it goes off. (I do plan to start composting to offset some of this, but that's a work in progress.) Having pre-portioned ingredients means no waste. As for the packaging, it all seems fairly recyclable -- some services even let you ship the packaging back for free to be recycled.

Pro: Variety
When it comes to feeding myself, I am spectacularly unoriginal. My daily meals at home consist of a bowl of plain Greek yogurt with fresh or frozen berries and chia seeds (which I have eaten daily for at least six years) and a lunch/dinner salad consisting Costco power greens, cherry tomatoes, a couple other veggies, maybe some fruit, Kirkland pre-grilled chicken breast strips, a smattering of blue cheese and some balsamic vinegar (which I've eaten daily for three years), occasionally augmented with hard boiled eggs to snack on. I just never think to make anything else and can't normally be bothered to do any food prep that involves slicing, let alone heating. With one of these boxes, I'm guaranteed at least some variety in my diet without having to be creative.

Pro: Forces me to cook
I'm not a naturally gifted cook and don't do it unless I have to. I bought a crockpot thinking that if I could cook in bulk and freeze it, but it's been a long ordeal retraining myself that the freezer is not just where food goes to die, and that leftovers from the freezer can indeed be palatable. Knowing how I tick, I'm much more likely to cook three times a week and eat day-old leftovers than cook twice a month and eat leftovers that went unrecognizable in the freezer.

Pro: Less time spent shopping
I'm a bit of an agoraphobe, and grocery shopping for me is like running the gauntlet, especially on weekends (stay tuned for a Costco intra-aisle road rage post to follow). Not only would having to do it less be delightful, but I'd save a gallon of gas each week I don't have to go. Plus, I'll be less likely to starve those weeks over the winter when I can't be arsed to put on snow boots, unbury my car and go out.

And finally . . .
Pro: It's a package to open
I'm a Prime addict -- I love flirting with the delivery guy receiving packages in the mail. There's something tactile and fun about unpacking surprises, even if you picked them out and know they're coming.

As for the cons . . .
Con: I might still waste food
If for some reason I don't like the recipe, get busy or otherwise flake, there's still a good possibility I'll defeat the box's purpose. I like to think I'd do better than that, but let's be real -- I'm committing to cooking three times a week when I currently cook once a month at best.

Pro/Con: I might never leave the house
There are indeed some weeks when I only go out because staying in means waiting to see whether the cats eat me first or I them. If the food comes to me, why go out at all.

For my circumstance, this service has enough going for it that it's at least worth a shot. I'll probably order a box for next week since I'll be out of busy season and will have more time to cook.I'll try to chronicle that ordeal -- with pictures -- if I remember.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Back in the Saddle Again . . .

That's right, kids -- the time has come for the biennial resurrection of the blog and kidding myself that this time will be different!

Before I found myself given to fits of misanthropic indignation, this blog was intended to document my pitiful attempts to play house while shacked up --  a role and circumstance I referred to as hausfraud. A great deal has changed since my last post, and yet not so much. After a four-year relationship and two years of living together, my beau and I broke up -- in sentiment at first, but not in dwelling. Since we renewed the lease for another year two weeks before we pulled the plug on "us," we continued sharing our one-bedroom apartment for another year after the breakup, both of us working from home the whole time. Maybe at some point I'll post something on how to not kill each other when you're within 500 feet of each other 24/7, because I'm frankly extremely proud of the civility of that breakup given its duration and proximity.

Since my first foray into domesticity was predicated on that relationship lasting, I thought for sure that a breakup would mean moving back in with my mother and turning into Little Edie of "Gray Gardens" infamy (Google it), but then a miracle happened: I bought a condo. I'm blessed with a smart and sainted mother who embodies the perfect balance of pushing her young to better things and also helping them get there. Because she'd pushed me to go to college in high school on the state's dime, I had a large enough college fund to put a down payment on an 880-square-foot condo in the same complex where my kid brother had already bought one (you see, in our family, the fetus isn't viable until it has a mortgage). She functioned as my realtor and hooked me up with other family friends to cut me a deal on renovations and help with the accounting and loan-acquisition side of the equation, which made this small semblance of autonomy possible. Clearly I'm not grateful at all.

At any rate, the point is that I find myself in a new stage of hausfraud-dom (hausfradity?): keeping a house I own, for no one but me. In a masochistic sort of way, being able to support myself and also be my own housewife feels like having it all. Because I live alone, there is no one else to please, no one to object when the urge to grow a new thing comes over me, and no one to kvetch when I cathartically clean the kitchen and listen to standup at 1 AM. I have a lot more responsibility, but also a lot more freedom, and keeping my home has become my greatest joy, even with no one around to keep it for. I'm beholden to no one, which means the domestic itch in me can grow completely unchecked. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Since I've been plastering my Facebook with pictures of plants and kitchen decor for several months now anyway, I figure I might as well consolidate it. I'd promise more content, but it is me we're talking about. We'll see.