Homemade yogurt is more sour than commercially prepared varieties, which tend to extract some of the live cultures, and the flavor resembles more closely the yogurt available in Middle Eastern countries. Because no thickeners are added, the homemade version is a bit thinner than the store-bought. My grandmother used to enjoy eating plain yogurt with nothing in it as a snack or even a cool drink in the summer, finding the commercial stuff in the United States too bland for her Syrian palate. (Some Middle Easterners believe that the live cultures help in digestion and protect against intestinal infection and, therefore, drink a salty yogurt beverage before a large meal. It is also easier for lactose-intolerant people to digest.) The trick to making a more sour, slightly thicker yogurt is the temperature. The best yogurt my grandmother and I ever made was during the winter. We wrapped the covered bowl with wool blankets and placed it on top of the radiator. The temperature was perfect for keeping the cultures growing, and the resulting consistency was the creamiest! Note that the recipe calls for whole milk yogurt. You can try using a lower-fat yogurt, but the result will be a much thinner version than desired.
Yield: Serves 2 to 4 (about 3 cups)
2 tablespoons plain whole milk yogurt
1 quart whole milk
1. Mix the yogurt with ½ cup of the milk in a large glass or earthen bowl. Set aside.
2. In a small saucepan, bring the remaining 3½ cups milk to a boil and allow to boil for 5 to 6 minutes (the milk will start to foam and rise up). Take immediately off the heat and allow to cool for 15 to 20 minutes, until you are able to comfortably insert a finger into the hot milk (the temperature should not feel much different from your body temperature).
3. Pour the milk into the yogurt-milk mixture and blend well. Cover the bowl tightly and wrap in blankets to keep warm (the more blankets, the better). Let stand overnight or for 12 to 14 hours in a warm place (you want the active yogurt cultures to grow). The next morning you will have yogurt. Because you will not be adding thickeners such as cornstarch or gum stabilizers, the final product will be somewhat runnier than commercial brands. But the resulting taste has a much more sour flavor, which is more traditional. Keep refrigerated for up to 3 to 4 days.
Once you have made this first batch of yogurt, you can save some of it (2 tablespoons) to use as a starter (called rawba) for the next time you make yogurt. That way you won’t have to buy commercial yogurt at all. The starter yogurt will keep, refrigerated, for 3 to 4 days.