Sunday, October 18, 2015

A thing or two about yogurt and why you should make your own

My husband and I have been making our own yogurt pretty regularly since about 2010 when our sweet neighbor in San Diego introduced this great idea to us. At the time money was tight. I’d cook as often as possible but always bought yogurt at the store. I knew better than to buy the individual 6 to 8 oz small cups of yogurt because the bigger 32 oz tub was clearly a better deal. Little did I know that I could be eating something way better for way cheaper and that’s when I learned about the possibility of making my own. Our neighbor Del showed us which yogurt maker to buy and how to do it. Soon enough we were on our way to eating healthier yogurt that cost at least half of what we were spending. 

It's been a few years and now I’m a bit of a yogurt snob. I haven’t quite gotten to buying my own lactobacillus bulgaricus et al concoctions, so from time to time I still buy some yogurt at the store to use as a starter. I refuse to buy anything with additives or added sugars because I’m a purist at heart when it comes to yogurt. Yogurt is just one of those magical foods rooted in simplicity.  

About yogurt and the home made process

So let’s start with the basics. As far as ingredients go, all yogurt is—and is supposed to be—is milk and bacteria. The process that turns the liquid milk into yogurt is just a heating process: milk has to heat between 180-195 or even 200 degrees Fahrenheit and then brought back down to 110 degrees. At that point, bacteria is added to the milk usually in the form of a starter from another batch of yogurt. About a cup of yogurt is mixed into the warm milk and then the mixture sits in a comfy warm container for about 9 hours— a typical ‘work day’ for the bacteria. Afterward, the container goes in the fridge and once it cools down, voila! you’ve got yourself yogurt. 

Homemade goodness
What’s really cool about this food is that it’s full of protein, calcium and probiotics and even has a bit of sugar, which is naturally there already from the milk. A cup of pure whole milk has about 11 grams of sugar, it’s just the way it is. Yogurt also has fats in it from the milk (mostly saturated fat), and whole milk makes the best kind of yogurt, especially when it comes to consistency. The fats in the milk help give yogurt that smooth creaminess to it, which can be enhanced even more by straining it for an hour or two. Straining removes the whey in the yogurt and leaves you with a bit of a “yogurt concentrate”, aka greek yogurt. All greek yogurt is is strained yogurt, which is why it’s more expensive: you need more yogurt to make the equivalent 8oz container. It also has more of everything (more fat, more sugar, more protein per ounce) so you don’t need to eat as much greek yogurt as you would regular yogurt. 

Putting our homemade yogurt in the "Wave" strainer to make Greek Yogurt -- leave it straining longer and you've got Labneh!

Store bought yogurt

Ok, so back to my snobbery with yogurt. When our homemade yogurt sits in the fridge for more than a week, I don’t like to use it as starter because it doesn’t have as much useful bacteria that I can put to work later. We’re pretty good about making yogurt once a week or so but when we forget, we have to replenish the starter with a fresher batch of store bought yogurt. 

Ideally I’ll make it to a fabulous store like Berkeley Bowl that offers plenty of choices. I usually buy organic yogurt and I devote time to looking at the ingredients. If the yogurt only lists two ingredients—milk and probiotics/bacteria— then I get it. If it starts listing crazy things like pectin, sugar, the evil, evil high fructose corn syrup, gelatin, citric acid, etc. I put it back on the shelf. When I’ve been in a bind and go to stores that don’t have a lot of variety, I’ve had to buy yogurts with things like pectin in them and my homemade yogurt just isn’t as good. A good, pure organic yogurt starter is essential to making great homemade yogurt. 

But that’s only half the battle. Milk is just as important and should not be skimped on. I always opt for organic whole milk and I buy the whole gallon so I can make my 64 oz tub and use the rest of the milk in coffee/tea. If I feel like splurging, I’ll buy the really fancy milk like the Straus whole organic milk from grass fed cows that comes in a glass container but at 9 bucks per container, it’s not something I always do. Still, even then you’re more than breaking even if you compare the cost of a store-bought 32oz fancy organic plain yogurt to the cost of the milk, which will yield more than 64oz of fancy organic plain yogurt anyway.

Cost per ounceTotal cost (excl. taxes)Savings per 32 oz container
32 oz. Store bought Leading brand yogurt, non-organic, “all natural”$0.09$2.78
1 gallon non-organic milk$0.03$3.20
32 oz. Homemade non-organic plain yogurt$0.03$0.96 (not even a buck!!)$1.82
32 oz. Store bought Organic plain yogurt (fancy)$0.15$4.79
1 gallon fancy organic milk (yields 4 32 oz containers)$0.06$7.70
32 oz. Homemade organic plain yogurt$0.06$1.92 (omg that's less than store bought non-organic)$2.87
Return on your $40 yogurt maker investment (comes with a 64 oz tub):
Total cost of buying two 32 oz tubs of fancy store-bought organic plain yogurts: $9.58
Total cost of making two 32 oz tubs of fancy organic plain yogurts: $3.84
Difference in cost: $5.74
Pay back period: after making 7 homemade yogurts

Low-fat and yogurt marketing nonsense

When it comes to store bought, I also don’t even bother with the non-fat or low-fat yogurts. Almost every single one of them has added sugars to compensate for the lack of fats and to enhance the taste so now you’re eating something that is less healthy even though you think you’re eating a health food. I’d rather eat naturally occurring fats, aka whole plain yogurt, than added processed sugars, aka low or non-fat yogurt. I refuse to buy those branded flavored yogurt single-serving cups that pretend to be healthy; you might as well just eat a couple of spoonfuls of sugar and call it a day. If you want to eat yogurt because it’s healthy, I would avoid anything that isn’t plain. You can add fruit or honey to it at home and keep it healthy that way.  I’m also weary of "extra-creamy/smooth" claims because there are usually additives that make that happen. For example, I was really excited when I saw a new yogurt at the store claiming to use a secret Australian recipe. When I was in Australia I ate yogurt like it was my job and I’ve missed it dearly. I could barely contain my excitement at the dairy section when I saw that we were finally getting Aussie yogurt in the States. To my surprise, however, this yogurt wasn’t pure goodness but instead had the pectins and gelatins I like to stay away from. So the lesson with plain yogurts is to always look at the ingredients and to just walk away if the list has anything other than milk and bacteria. 

Why get pre-flavored ones when you can just DIY?

Anyway, if you want to save a couple of bucks on your grocery bill, eat a truly healthy product and stay away from additives, make your own yogurt at home. If it seems like too much of a hassle, at least do yourself a favor and get the good ol’ stuff with just milk and bacteria in it. Your gut will appreciate the friendly bacteria and your organs will appreciate taking a break from processing any extra sugars! 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Saturday, February 21, 2015

If you're a foodie in Berkeley and you haven't been here yet...

... you're missing out! And no, it’s not Chez Panisse. Or with fellow foodie, Nancy Li (photos/captions)

Think back to your childhood memories and try to remember how you felt when you visited your favorite toy store. The sheer joy from being in the store is hard to forget and even harder to replace. Throughout my life, I have found several blissful spots that make me explode with joy — although I have yet to write about them, Yushan in Taiwan and my godmother’s dining room are two of a handful of these places. These powerful places that heighten almost all my senses are hard to find and to my surprise, and unexpectedly, I found one of those places last year in Berkeley, California. What was most surprising to me was that I suddenly felt overcome with joy and I wasn’t outside hiking a mountain or in the middle of a fantastic meal. No. I was in a supermarket. And I was ecstatic.

Entrance to Berkeley Bowl West in Berkeley, California
Greetings, foodie!

It’s hard to describe a Berkeley Bowl (West) experience in writing but we will give it our best shot. The back of the massive 54,700 sq. ft (5,000 sq. m) space feels like it offers a curated version of everything that grows in California’s Central Valley plus a variety of many other fruits and vegetables you’d find in farmer’s/street markets throughout the world. The produce section in the back splits into the organic and the non-organic section and has a fantastic bulk area with four rows of bins full of dry goods. The organic section is much more seasonal and the majority of the produce is actually affordable. Now that dark leafy greens are in season, I saw at least four varieties of kale, at least seven different kinds of organic mushrooms and a kind of lettuce I had never seen before, leopard lettuce. 
Organic glory!
The larger non-organic section could be a produce market just on its own and there is almost nothing they don’t have — my recent favorites are the bins full of shishito peppers, baskets full of Mexican guayabas/guavas, the bulk section where you can fill your own bags of baby kale, wild arugula, mizuna or the banana/plantain section where, even if my 6 ft 3 in husband were to stretch his arms out, he would still not be able to hug all the kinds of bananas and plantains offered. 
Them 'shrooms!
The bulk section, my go-to spot for granola-making, has three rows of floor to ceiling bins stocked with anything from organic coarse pink Himalayan salt and goji berries to roasted salted, roasted unsalted, raw, smoked, slivered or crushed almonds. I may or may not have spent one hour in this back area during several of my visits there. Time flies when you’re food shopping, I have proof!

I'm a sucker for value and spend a lot of time at the bulk section

The rest of the perimeter consists of a large and busy meats and seafood section where you can get their deli peppered bacon, massive cuts of pork shoulder or the wild caught, seasonal fish. There is also a huge L-shaped refrigerated dairy section that wraps around the south-eastern corner of the store. If it wasn’t so frigid, you may be able to spend more time thinking about which of their 20+ selection of egg dozens to get or which of the milks to try next: organic whole, organic whole cream top, Strauss in a glass container or in the larger plastic gallon? Decisions, decisions! 

Life without yogurt would be miserable! They've got St. Benoit further down the aisle (can't see it though!)
Across the store in the north perimeter you can go snag a free sample of the featured cheese and walk around the DJ-booth-like cheese section. You may go bananas if you’re a fan of zee goats; you’ll freeze in excitement about all of the opportunities — humboldt fog, raw goat milk cheddar, the truffle tremor, the cremont, the goat gouda or any of the other Cypress Grove ones. For me, if I visit the Bowl with a type of dish in mind, I’ll get stuck on various sections as I move down this little piece of cheese heaven. The other day it was all about the blue cheese; I was struggling to pick the right mix of blues for Smitten Kitchen's blue cheese and chive buttermilk biscuits I was planning on making. Mind you though, I’m not complaining. For those of you with a sweet tooth, there is a lovely selection of delicious desserts immediately adjacent to the cheeses and they feature a phenomenal Tiramisu according to my friend Nancy. 

A lady ate half the samples after this picture was taken -- goat cheese can have that effect on people

Knowing that the middle section is full of the more processed, packaged and high-margin goods, I tend to skip it. But from time to time I do get sucked in. You can find yourself spending way too much time picking the next mustard or three for your fridge door - how about a green peppercorn or a seeds and suds (beer) one? The same could happen in the spice section where you could buy at least six different brands of spices or over by the tofu racks where you can get organic firm tofu, organic non-GMO firm, non-organic silken or how about some teriyaki, BBQ or spicy baked tofu? I don’t know about you but this kind of decision-making is something I get really excited about.

I still don’t think I’ve done Berkeley Bowl justice. Hopefully the images below will help. But even better, next time you’re in the Bay Area and you’re in the East Bay (Berkeley/Oakland), make sure to pay a visit to one of the best food stores on earth. Fellow foodie adventurers, you won’t be disappointed.
Bulk meets organic

The milk rainbow at the Bowl
J'aime le fromage
Blueberries, anyone?
The spot for 'rug and other salad greens
It's hard to capture how huge the Bowl is, those apples are so far (behind he toddler)!
Great stop before camping trips

I don't have much of a sweet tooth but Nancy definitely recommends these
I hear this ox tail is one of the best in Town
Wall to wall meats

Delicious results after a day at the Bowl: Ox Tail Soup at Nancy's!