Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Cooking With Yogurt: Cultured Flavors

I cook a lot with my kids, and last week my 11-year-old asked me what was the first recipe I remember making. I had to think hard (OK, it has been a while since I was 11) but I clearly remember making yogurt as a child. And I think it was, possibly, the first recipe I ever learned.

Today, 30 years later, I use the same exact recipe that my parents taught me. We had no special equipment — no thermometers, nothing. Just a simple yet effective technique to make yogurt:

Before each school exam, my mother would feed me tablespoons of yogurt loaded with sugar as is typical in some Indian homes. She said it enhanced brain power.

  • Bring about 1 quart of milk to a boil. You can do this on the stove top or in the microwave.
    Remove from the heat and pour the milk from the pot into a storage container. Set aside to cool.
  • Do the pinkie test: If you can touch the milk comfortably with your pinkie for 30 seconds, it's ready for the culture. You can also use modern technology and check the temperature with an instant-read thermometer. It should register just warm, 110 to 112 degrees.
  • Add about 2 tablespoons of plain, unflavored yogurt, stir, and cover the container. This is called a starter yogurt as it helps you start a new batch.
  • Wrap container snugly with a large towel.
    Place the container in a warm spot. An oven with a pilot light is ideal. Alternatively, place it inside the microwave.
  • Let this sit undisturbed for at least 7 hours. Overnight works best. During winter months, I find that it has to sit longer.
  • To check if the yogurt is set, remove the towel and lid and very gently shake the container to see if the yogurt is firm. If not, it needs to sit for a few hours longer.
    If it has set, place the container in the refrigerator to chill.
  • That is it. Simple, easy and no stabilizers or preservatives or sweeteners added — or needed.

    You can prepare homemade yogurt with any type of milk. Whole milk produces thick, creamy yogurt that is excellent for cooking. Make sure the starter you use comes from a yogurt with active cultures. Before you start cooking with your homemade yogurt, scoop 2 tablespoons of it into a small container with a lid and refrigerate. Now you have a starter ready for your next homemade batch.

    Cooking with yogurt can be a challenge. Over the years, however, I have learned some tricks that work. For instance, when I use yogurt in curries — or anytime it is going in a dish on the stove top — first I lower the heat to medium-low. (If the heat is set too high, the yogurt will curdle, and then there is no saving it.) I always use whole milk yogurt for cooking because I find it has less chance of curdling. I add it very slowly, a tablespoon at a time.

    Dishes made with yogurt are best eaten fresh. They'll keep in the refrigerator a couple of days at most. Freezing dishes prepared with yogurt is not recommended, because the texture changes when frozen. If I am using yogurt in an uncooked dish, I whisk it well before using. This incorporates the whey (which usually separates) back into the yogurt and makes it really smooth. For a thick yogurt (the consistency of Greek yogurt), drain the yogurt for a few hours. A lot of liquid drains out, making the yogurt really thick.

    While Western cooks mostly use yogurt in its raw form for desserts or in drinks, Indian chefs use it to tenderize meat, as a souring agent and as a base for lightly textured curries. In India, yogurt also turns up in desserts and is used to prepare homemade buttermilk. Whether it's dusted with cumin, creamed with saffron or churned with water, this protein-rich ingredient has an important place at the Indian table.

    In India, yogurt is integral outside the kitchen as well. In fact, one of my favorite Indian festivals stars yogurt. Celebrated in North India, the dahi-haandi ("yogurt in a bowl") festival is a loud and magnificent festival to celebrate Lord Krishna. Yogurt (or sometimes buttermilk or butter) is placed in a terra-cotta bowl and tied up high (like a pinata). Teams of young men climb on top of each other, trying to break the bowl. The team that succeeds wins money — sometimes big money. The festival showcases Lord Krishna's love of yogurt (and butter).

    My favorite childhood memory of yogurt, though, comes paired with my least: final exams. Before each school exam, my mother would feed me tablespoons of yogurt loaded with sugar as is typical in some Indian homes. She said it enhanced brain power. I just think it was because she loved me and wanted to send me off with something delicious in my mouth.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

    Monica Bhide