In Time You’ll Be Yogurt

Home madeThanks to Forrest Gump, we’ve all heard that life can be like a box of chocolates because you never know what you’re going to get. If you ask me, destiny can be a whole lot more like yogurt when it comes to the changes and evolution of life after you’ve gotten your chocolate.

Introduce a small amount of culture to milk, apply consistent warmth, and you’ll end up with yogurt. This is similar to how we adapt to our environments, slowly over time; although the original milky flavor is retained, in the end we become a whole new food.

The actual moment when milk definitively becomes yogurt is hard to identify because it’s a subtle process. In life, this can be compared to that oft-unnoticed moment when you go from merely existing in a place to actually living in it. Being yogurt means actually seeing and pondering the things around you instead of just looking through them as temporary incantations of things you won’t care about one day; and, it means trying to understand them whether you want them around you or not.

For me, being yogurt in China has meant too many things to really expound upon in a single article, but when it comes to food, it has meant learning to cook the way I want to, regardless of limitations. It means getting over complaints about what foods I can’t get and finding a way to make them by myself. In my diet, yogurt–as a food, not a metaphor–is the best representation of such adaptability. To me, being yogurt means making yogurt.

When I first came to this country, I thought to myself: China just doesn’t do dairy. Sure, in a big city one can find imported cheese, butter, sour cream and cream cheese, but they’re all luxury items. After trying it several times, I decided that China’s versions of yogurt were all too sweet for me, and I pretentiously deemed it all some silly, questionably healthy health fad. (With all that sugar, how healthy is it really?)

Yoghurt 1Plus, it was just weird: when I’d reach for a spoon, China reaches for a straw. I just couldn’t get used to the idea of drinking yogurt unless I was in an Indian restaurant downing a lassi. A fan of thick, unsweetened plain yogurt—which I could find in import stores, but couldn’t afford in the quantities I desired—I wrote off dairy in China, thinking I could handle a year or two without it.

A year or two turned into five, and I realized I couldn’t live for so long without some things. When it comes to culinary creativity, I felt confined by a lack of dairy, yogurt especially. Back home, I’d use it in salad dressings, smoothies and even Indian-style vegetable dishes, and I’d regularly have it for breakfast with a little granola and honey. Even though I’ve since learned to mimic locals and drink it occasionally, I don’t associate that kind of drink with real yogurt.

At the same time, I get Asia’s fascination with the acidophilus (a daily dose of live cultures that fights bad bacteria in the bowels) and I can see why being able to drink it as a supplement makes sense in fast-paced urban life. In fact, dwelling on this fascination and what I was missing in my own diet first gave me the idea to just make my own.

And of course, as often happens when one truly wants to understand something and begins to research it, I learned that China has been doing yogurt for a while and even has a few unsweetened varieties. You can find street snacks like Beijing yogurt (老北京酸奶) and Qinghai yogurt (老青海酸奶). Unsurprisingly, they’re usually served with a straw, but they are a testament to the fact that yogurt isn’t just a new fad in China.

The recipe below requires plain unsweetened yogurt, so you’ll need to splurge for a small container of it in an import store. But, yogurt culture is reusable–when you’ve finished off one batch, you can save a little for the next batch. Below I offer a few methods for incubating milk, but however you do it, the key is consistent low heat. I bought an EasiYo yogurt maker online, impressed by its non-electric simplicity. I don’t actually use the packets that you can get for it containing powered cultures; I just use the thermos apparatus to incubate my own mix. If you have one of those, check out the Cooking Tips for how to use it. For those who prefer Greek-style yogurt, the Tips have something for you, too.

Monthly Recipes: Homemade Yogurt

Ingredients and supplies:

  • ¼ cup/60mL unsweetened, plain yogurt
  • 1 liter milk (skim, low fat or full fat)
  • Food thermometer
  • Incubator, like an oven, crockpot or small ice chest


  1. Pour milk into a pot or double-boiler. Stirring constantly so it doesn’t burn, heat milk to 85°C/185°F. Remove from heat and place in a cool water bath.
  2. Stirring occasionally so a skin doesn’t form, lower milk temperature to 45°C/110-115°F. Once milk has reached desired temperature, mix about 60 mL of it with yogurt in a separate bowl. Add mixture to the rest of the milk and combine thoroughly.
  3. Pour milk mixture into sealed glass jars or a plastic container. Set in incubator (see cooking tips) for 6-12 hours, maintaining a milk temperature of 45°C/110-115°F. Try not to open it for the first 6 hours; it should thicken to yogurt by then, but you may want to leave it longer to make it even thicker.

Cooking Tips

To incubate yogurt, you can set it in an oven on 45°C/110-115°F, if it goes that low. You can also use an electric slow-cooker filled with water on low heat. The non-electric method is to use an ice chest filled with 32-45°C/90-115°F water, wrapped in towels to seal in heat (you may need to reheat water by pouring out half and filling with more warmed water). If you’re using an EasiYo maker, you can pour boiling water into the bottom half, add your jar and leave it untouched.

If making Greek yogurt, use cheese cloth or mesh weave cloth to let whey (clear liquid) drain from finished yogurt for another six hours. This can be done in the refrigerator. Don’t forget to retain a little for your next batch.