The first thing you should try is homemade plain yogurt. It is really easy and just takes a few basic supplies that you probably already have on hand (no yogurt maker necessary!). This past year I have done a lot of experimenting with homemade yogurt. I have always had it turn out well when I used this method.
This is what you need:
- Large glass jar and lid (I use a big old applesauce jar) or 2 mason jars
- wire whisk, spoon
- saucepan (2+ quart)
- milk (whole or 2% work best)
- powdered milk (nonfat dry milk)
- candy thermometer
- To get started, boil some water, then stick the whisk and spoon in the jar and pour the water in to sterilize, don't forget the lid. (I put it right into the cooler in case I spill some water)
- Then heat 4 c. milk + 1/3-1/2 c. dry milk in your saucepan whisking regularly so no clumps form. The dry milk will help your yogurt thicken (use the greater amount if you want it really thick); you can also do it without the dry milk, but it will be a thin drinkable yogurt consistency. (You can also can use 3 3/4 c. water and 1 2/3 c. powdered milk, if you prefer).
- Heat to 180°(this kills off any competing bacteria); remove from heat.
- Then you need to cool the milk to 110°-115°. The best way I've found is to set the jar in a sink of lukewarm water and wait about 15-20 min. Check every 3 min or so if it is still not cool enough. To speed up the process, you can stir the milk and add slightly cooler water to the sink every few minutes.
- When your milk is down to 115°, add about 2-4 T plain yogurt with live active cultures (this is your starter*); let it sit a few minutes, then whisk together. Cover jar with lid.
- Fill your cooler with warm water, about 110° (not hotter, you don't want to kill your yogurt!); gently place in your jar and close it up. The water should be as high as the yogurt, it does not need to cover the top of the jar (It needs to be kept at 90°-110°, and the cooler should maintain that temperature).
- DO NOT DISTURB for at least 6 hours. I usually wait 8 hours. When you check, pick up the jar and tilt to see if its thickened enough for you (do not shake). When done to your preference, stick it in the fridge - its ready! If it is not done, you can add warm water to bring the temperature in the cooler back up to 100°-110°.
- yogurt is also a great sour cream substitute in recipes
If, for some reason, your yogurt fails, you can still use the end product in baking (biscuits, muffins, pancakes, bread, cake etc.)
* to make your own yogurt starters, boil water and sterilize a spoon and ice cube tray. Then dump out the water and use the spoon to fill the ice cube tray with plain yogurt from a store-bought batch or one of your own fresh batches. Make sure it is a yogurt with live active cultures, I pick the best kind I can. Once frozen, put the cubes in a freezer bag and save until next time, you can plop a frozen cube right in for the starter!