Culture club: The joy of homemade yoghurt
With sales of the milk-based food decreasing worldwide, Meadhbh McGrath finds out why people are snubbing supermarket products for homemade versions
Tang is in. From tracking our sourdough starters to brewing kombucha in our kitchens, the last few years have seen an embrace of fermented foods. Now, DIY foodies are turning their attention to yoghurt.
In the UK, store chains John Lewis and Lakeland have enjoyed an increase in sales of yoghurt-making products, with the latter reporting sales of its own-brand yoghurt maker rose 49pc in the past 12 months.
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Michelle Collins, from Loughrea, Co Galway, picked up a Lakeland machine on Amazon in January for €28, and now uses it twice a week to make yoghurt for herself and her four children, aged between two and nine years old.
"I've really got more health-conscious with the kids and what we eat," explains Michelle, who chronicles her homesteading adventures on Instagram (instagram.com/the_riverview_life).
"We produce our own chicken and our own pork here, and we're trying to cut down on processed foods. I started making yoghurt so I know what's going into it: I can buy the organic milk and make it so I know it's just milk, and price-wise, it's a lot cheaper to do it."
Before she started making her own, Michelle recalls browsing the dairy aisle at her local supermarket and being alarmed by the lengthy list of ingredients in the yoghurts on offer.
"I love the really thick Greek yoghurt, and I noticed that most of the yoghurts are 'Greek-style', and they're made with whipped cream and thickeners and additives. It's not the true, strained yoghurt," she says. "If you're eating yoghurt, you're trying to be healthy and I don't really want to be eating whipped cream for my breakfast every morning.
"My local town has two supermarkets and there's no organic Greek yoghurt. The Greek yoghurt they did have was quite expensive - it was €6.50 for a 1kg tub," she says.
Once the preserve of health-conscious hippies, more and more people are trying their hand at homemade yoghurt as commercial yoghurt sales are declining.
Last year, British food industry title The Grocer reported that big-name brands saw volume sales slump by up to 10pc in the UK, while in the US, sales have fallen in the past two years after a decade of growth, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. A report in The Wall Street Journal cites Nielsen data that found yoghurt sales dropped six per cent by volume in the year to February. Sales have been hit by the vegan boom, rising levels of lactose intolerance and changing health perceptions, as families are increasingly put off by high sugar content and mysterious additives. With innumerable options - Greek, probiotic, skyr, coconut milk - shoppers are overwhelmed by choice and can suffer from 'yoghurt fatigue'.
As modern consumers look for more natural, less processed yoghurts, a shift towards making it at home seems inevitable.
Since Michelle began making her own yoghurt, she only needs to buy a bottle of milk every week to produce 1kg of yoghurt. The method is straightforward: she warms up 1.5 litres of milk, then adds in two tablespoons of live yoghurt with cultures, or a sachet of dried culture.
After that, all she needs to do is put the mixture in the machine and switch it on, already programmed to her preferred setting for thick Greek yoghurt.
"I would have made yoghurt the odd time over the last two or three years with a slow cooker, but you're not exactly sure what the temperature is, you're constantly checking it. With the yoghurt maker, you basically press a button and it does it for you.
"It's timed and it has the temperature set, so it makes it easier. It tastes lovely and you can get it the thickness you want yourself," she says.
"The only thing with yoghurt is it takes time. It takes about eight hours and then you have to strain it, so you're talking another two hours. It's not big hands-on time, but you have to prepare it in advance - the day before you want it, really."
Sarah Ridge, from Carraroe in Connemara, gets around the long fermentation process by making hers overnight.
"I like trying new things and I like the idea of making your own food and figuring out how these things are made," she explains. "I've dabbled in making sourdough as well, so I liked the idea of trying to make yoghurt more than I like yoghurt itself."
Sarah makes her yoghurt once every seven to 10 days using a sous-vide, a contraption for vacuum cooking food in temperature-controlled water.
"I got my boyfriend a sous vide for Christmas and I'm a vegetarian, so I was like, 'how can I use this?'. I saw that you can make yoghurt with it, so from then, I started making it."
She's currently completing a postdoc in biomedical research at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and she schedules her yoghurt-making around her studies.
Like Michelle, she heats the milk before adding in yoghurt, then places the mixture in airtight containers, which she leaves in the sous vide, filled with water, overnight. In the morning, she puts it in the fridge to set and firm up, and when she gets home from work, strains it with a cheesecloth to remove some of the strong tangy flavour.
"I do that for about 20 minutes, and you get a lower volume by doing that, but you also get more of a Greek yoghurt consistency and a slightly lighter taste. Then it's good to go, and you can use your own yoghurt as a starter for the next batch, so all you really have to do is buy milk once a week," she says.
For Sarah, homemade yoghurt tastes best in a parfait with fruit and granola for breakfast and lunch.
"If you go out to any store or cafe, if you buy a parfait with yoghurt, granola and berries, you're going to be spending €8," she says. "It's replaced me buying lunch out - I don't do that anymore - so that's much cheaper."
In the near future, will we all be waiting around for eight to 10 hours for our homemade yoghurt to ferment? Whether or not it ends up becoming the new normal, yoghurt making looks set to become a popular do-it-yourself project.
Sarah says she has yet to meet anyone else who makes yoghurt regularly like she does, but Michelle notes that her neighbours are planning to give it a go with their kids this summer.
"My local farmer saw on Instagram that I was making it, and he said, 'I'll give you some of my milk and you can make some yoghurt for me', because he loves it," she laughs.
"My primary reason for doing it was that I knew what went into the yoghurt and that there was nothing else added in. I like it just plain, but the kids like it with a bit of raspberries or blueberries and honey.
"We have our own honey, so you know there's no sugar going into it. A lot of the yoghurts are full of sugar. But they like the fresh yoghurt, they don't complain about it - they're always going for it."