Homemade Yogurt Troubleshooting Guide

by Kristen on September 4, 2013 · 64 comments

in DIY

yogurt troubleshooting

I regularly get emails from readers who wonder what went wrong when they tried to make yogurt, so I thought it might be helpful to put together a post detailing common mistakes.

Making homemade yogurt is a fairly simple process, but there are some common things that can go wrong. If you’ve got a failed batch and want to know why, read on!

Homemade Yogurt Troubleshooting

If your yogurt turned out runny/watery, here are some things that could have gone wrong:

1. Your thermometer isn’t accurate.

If your thermometer isn’t giving you correct readings, you can accidentally kill your yogurt cultures. Milk that’s too cool will just result in slow-growing yogurt cultures, but if your milk is over 120° F when you stir in the starter, you could kill the yogurt bacteria.

Make sure your thermometer is working correctly, and be precise about following the temperature recommendations in the recipe. There are some foods that can be made by feel, but when it comes to yogurt-making, it’s better to be exact.

My spoiled self got a Thermapen as a birthday present, so that’s what I use. However, a simple digital or non-digital thermometer will also do the trick.

2. You used ultra-pasteurized milk.

Ultra-pasteurized milk, which is often sold in paper cartons, has been heated to very high temperatures in order to ensure a long shelf life. The ultra pasteurization process kills off too many bacteria for the yogurt-making process, though, and your yogurt will likely be very runny if you use this kind of milk.

Organic milk is frequently ultra-pasteurized, and sometimes is sold in plastic jugs, so don’t assume you’re buying regularly pasteurized milk…read the carton/jug.

Raw milk (if available in your area) also works just fine for yogurt.

3. You used non-dairy milk.

This recipe is formulated to work with cow’s milk, and it should also work with goat’s milk. Almond milk and soy milk usually require some modifications, though, so find a recipe meant specifically for those milks.

4. You used skim milk.

Milk with a higher fat content makes much thicker, milder yogurt, so I use whole milk in every batch.

If you use skim milk, your yogurt will be thinner and more tangy. To thicken it up a bit, you can stir some powdered milk into the warm milk before you add the starter. Some people also add gelatin (the Kitchn recommends one teaspoon per quart of milk, and they advise letting it dissolve in some milk before adding it to the pot of milk during the heating process.)

5. You used a faulty starter.

I recommend using Dannon or Yoplait plain or vanilla yogurt as your starter. Their yogurt provides consistent, reliable results.

A number of people have reported yogurt failures when using Greek yogurt as a starter, and I personally have had a failed batch from a store-brand starter, so I would shy away from those.

FYI, Greek yogurt starter does NOT make Greek yogurt. Greek yogurt is made by straining the whey out of regular yogurt, and thus has everything to do with method and not with the starter.

6. Your incubating water wasn’t deep enough.

A gallon of hot water is perfect for my cooler. The water reaches about 3/4 of the way up the jars, which is as it should be. If you have a larger cooler, though, you may need to add more water.

If the jars aren’t 3/4 submerged in the water, the yogurt will not stay warm enough during the incubating process for the cultures to grow.

What to do with failed yogurt

If you have a batch of runny yogurt, you probably won’t be able to save it by trying to remake it into yogurt (I tried that once and it was an unmitigated disaster.)

But don’t throw it away!

You can:

Throw it into a smoothie.

No one will ever know it was runny once it’s all blended up with fruit and ice.

Use in place of buttermilk.

Runny yogurt is often the consistency of buttermilk, and since it’s at least somewhat cultured, it tends to make a great buttermilk substitute.

So, make some biscuits, pancakes, or waffles.

Strain it.

Greek yogurt is made by straining the whey out of regular yogurt, and you can easily do this with your runny yogurt (although if it’s the texture of regular milk, this will not work.)

Simply line a colander with a cloth napkin or thin kitchen towel, place the colander over a bowl, fill it with yogurt, place the whole works in the fridge, and let the whey drain out until the yogurt reaches the desired consistency.

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P.S. Lisey and I have a post up involving bananas and chocolate. And the freezer.

 

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{ 64 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Carrie September 4, 2013 at 7:10 am

I would disagree that using raw milk to make yogurt is easy. I’ve failed at it many times – it has the texture of… well, milk. It never sets. From my research I’ve found that the enzymes that are still intact in raw milk “compete” with the culture. So people either scald their raw milk or use non-homogenized pasteurized (but not ultra, as you mentioned).

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2 Kristen September 4, 2013 at 7:16 am

My recipe does call for heating the milk to 180° F before cooling it down and adding the cultures, so perhaps that’s why it works with raw milk? The times I’ve had raw milk around, my yogurt has actually turned out thicker and creamier than with any commercial milk I’ve used.

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3 Battra92 September 4, 2013 at 8:12 am

Heating it to 180 will effectively Pasteurize it. 165F for 15 seconds is more than enough for commercial pasteurization (so called “normal” Pasteurized) although the best method is 145F for half an hour. UHT is cooked at 280 for 2 seconds then rapidly chilled.

The reason Organic milk is given the old UHT treatment is that it needs an insane shelf life. It can also be stored at room temperature on a truck. Mmmm :-/

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4 Janknitz September 4, 2013 at 4:01 pm

I think it’s a matter of semantics. It works well to start with raw milk, but the heating to 185 denatures the proteins and does essentially pasteurize the milk. It’s great yogurt made from what started as raw milk, but it’s not raw yogurt.

To have a truly raw yogurt, you need to get a culture that works at cooler temperatures–they are available but you have to buy specific low temperature cultures, you can’t use commercial yogurt from the grocery store.

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5 Dawn September 4, 2013 at 10:02 am

My inlaws have a Jersey cow, and when she is milking, I regularly make my yogurt from the milk following Kristen’s recipe. Because Jersey milk has high fat content, the yogurt is WONDERFUL. I use Stonyfield Farms organic vanilla yogurt as my starter. I don’t add any other flavor or sugar, but the starter gives the yogurt a nice hint of vanilla. Right now the Jersey is dry and I’m making yogurt from store bought pasteurized milk. It is good….but just not the same. I can’t wait till the cow calves next month!

I encourage you to try again with the raw milk being sure to heat it first. I’ve read someplace in my internet wanderings that heating it a little higher than 180–closer to boiling–will cause your yogurt to thicken even better, but I have good luck with the 180, so that’s what I shoot for.

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6 Battra92 September 5, 2013 at 8:46 am

Jerseys and Guernseys are the best cows on Earth. Sadly many kids think cows are those black and white things that give tons of subpar milk and have never tasted the really good stuff.

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7 Liz September 4, 2013 at 4:52 pm

I love the science lesson going on here! This brings back fond memories of raw milk I used to get from a local farmer – I made cheese and ice cream instead of yogurt, along with drinking it up in cereal and with cookies.

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8 Victoria September 4, 2013 at 7:46 am

Thank you for this encouraging post about ‘Troubleshooting’. I am really wanting to start doing this for my family (husband primarily) but it just seems like such a difficult task to take on. However, I put my foot down about spending $4.50 a box for his favorite granola cereal and started making a homemade version and we’ve been doing that for about 6 months. Still a bit scared and leery of doing it myself. Will check back for other’s feedback on the subject.

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9 Economies of Kale September 4, 2013 at 8:13 am

I used to use UHT (ultra heat treated) milk to make yogurt because you don’t have to heat it. It worked about half the time, but the rest of the time it was runny, so that might have been the reason why.

Eventually I gave up, but now that I buy organic, non-UHT milk I should try it again. Thanks for the reminder :)

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10 Rose @ The Cosy Dragon September 4, 2013 at 3:59 pm

I used UHT, and haven’t had a problem. I don’t bother heating the milk, I just chuck in the Jalna starter (I’m an Aussie), whisk the two together and put them in my $15 Aldi yoghurt maker to sit for 10 hours!

The only time I’ve had problems is when I used goats milk and it ended up more like buttermilk – and we used it that way!

You inspired me to make yoghurt in the first place :)

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11 Jennifer Scales September 4, 2013 at 8:16 am

I have been using your recipe for almost 2 years now. So far I have never had a bad batch. Thanks for the great recipe! My water level has not been as high as you noted in this article. I will fix this and see if that makes any difference in the yogurt. I currently make 10 jars (2-batches) every other week.

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12 Kristen September 4, 2013 at 8:32 am

Whoa, you are a serious yogurt-maker, girl! You go!

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13 Battra92 September 4, 2013 at 8:49 am

I just want to point out that I am totes jelly of your Thermapen. I just can’t seem to get myself to spend the money on one.

I’ll have to try gelatin in my yogurt sometime.

My culture came from Stonyfield yogurt, I believe. So I can confirm that that brand works just fine.

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14 Elizabeth September 4, 2013 at 1:37 pm

I’m anti gelatin-the whole concept freaks me out (I do make jello for everyone though). I add dry milk powder as a thickener.

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15 Janknitz September 4, 2013 at 4:03 pm

The longer you keep the milk at 185, the thicker the yogurt will be. I’ve kept it that high for up to 15 minutes.

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16 Battra92 September 5, 2013 at 8:48 am

I’m weird. I won’t eat veal but have no problem with gelatin. I know exactly where it comes from (collagen melted down) and its uses (culinary and otherwise) are just so useful and besides, you’re using the whole animal at least.

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17 Elizabeth September 8, 2013 at 11:12 pm

I think my issue with gelatin is purely a texture thing-if it jiggles on its own, it’ll be jiggly in my food-it’s werd. i do realize that. but the kids love when i make something with gelatin and I make over dramatic (and apparently histerical) objections. I’m truly all for the whole animal approach. I’ve never had any good experiences with veal so we don’t eat it either

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18 Frugal Nurse September 4, 2013 at 9:16 am

I make yogurt every week. I use 2% milk, and it works fine. I also use a Salton yogurt maker that takes about 8 hours, and uses low heat. I found that during the summer when my kitchen is hot (thanks to west-facing windows), the yogurt overheats and gets too runny. So I started putting the yogurt maker in the basement where it’s cooler and I haven’t had a failed batch since. I like the Donvier mesh yogurt strainer for making Greek yogurt or yogurt cheese.

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19 Battra92 September 5, 2013 at 8:48 am

I use a coffee filter. It’s actually the only thing I use them for. I expect my package of them to last me decades.

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20 Amie September 4, 2013 at 9:24 am

To calibrate most thermometers ….put 50% ice 50% cool tapwater. It should temp at 32F.

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21 Dogs or Dollars September 4, 2013 at 9:36 am

We had a rocky start with yogurt making, with several failed batches. Backyard chickens *LOVE* runny yogurt, btw. So do dogs. ;) I’d encourage anyone having problems to broaden their starter horizons. We had to try several brands before we found one that worked. We also leave our starter out for a bit to warm up (and encourage those cultures) before adding it in.

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22 Be September 4, 2013 at 11:44 am

I make my own yogurt frequently in the summer and get good results using skim milk and my crock pot. (Except for when I over heat my milk past 180 degrees, but that’s my fault. And when that happens — it’s tapioca time.)

My question is what do you do with the whey? I use them in waffles and pancakes. Any other suggestions besides those and smoothies and biscuits? Have you ever tried making ricotta? Or do you have any other creative uses for the whey?

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23 Stephanie September 6, 2013 at 7:14 am

I make yogurt in the crockpot too- we go through a gallon every week or so. We use the whey in bread, pancakes, waffles and any baked good possible. You can also use it in soups in place of water. When we can’t use it fast enough, I freeze the excess in ice cube trays and pop then in a labeled Ziploc bag to be used as needed. I used to make cheese and had bad luck making ricotta from yogurt whey. What do you do with tapioca and overheated milk?

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24 Karen. September 4, 2013 at 11:51 am

I second that room-temperature starter is better than cold starter.

I let my yogurt incubate in the oven with the light on. Nice and warm, and fewer things to take care of afterward, but takes longer. Also, as long as you don’t need the oven right away, the timing is way more flexible. I let it go as long as I can, though usually not more than 24 hours.

To greekify yogurt, you can place yogurt in a coffee filter in a mesh strainer over a bowl. Only drawback is that if you let it strain too long, the coffee filter starts to tear when you clean it out.

I’ve used numerous brands of yogurt as starter, and my favorite has actually been a store brand (Shur-Fresh). My current starter is Mountain High, but the product turned out a little chunky, which is odd. I’m going to give it another chance, and if it does it again, probably will find something else.

And for that matter, I use clean jars, not sterilized jars, and use the dregs of a quart (as opposed to off the top of a new jar) for the next starter. I have never had any problem.

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25 Tasha September 4, 2013 at 12:47 pm

I have been using the Fage whole milk greek yogurt as a starter, with whole milk, and it’s been turning out great. I do notice that the remaining yogurt in the jar after some is eaten will release it’s whey very aggressively, and I wonder if that’s been bred into strains of yogurt used to make greek yogurt. I incubate it in a cooler per Kristen’s recipe, but often leave it for 7 or 8 hours and it comes out nice and thick.

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26 Chris September 4, 2013 at 12:07 pm

There is an easier way to make yogurt that everyone might be interested in.
1. Put one gallon of milk in the crockpot on low for 2 hours and 45 minutes.
2. Turn off for 3 hours.
3. Whisk in 1 cup of yogurt (bought with lots of cultures – or you can use your homemade yogurt once you start making it. I think it is good to only do this a few times though).
3. Cover the crockpot (still turned off) with a thick bath towel or two. I have done anywhere from 8 to 12 hours. Like overnight, for example.
See, how simple. I absolutely love it. If you want to strain it, you can use coffee filters. You can use the whey in smoothies.

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27 Chris September 4, 2013 at 12:09 pm

**correction “bought yogurt” with lots of cultures. :)

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28 Jen September 6, 2013 at 1:40 am

My husband does this, but checks the temps with a thermometer since crockpots vary a lot in temp. It works great!

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29 Holly September 4, 2013 at 1:02 pm

I started off using whole milk. Then 2% and now settled off at 1%. For 1 gallon I add 2 pkt gelatin plus 1.5cup dry milk. Its oerfect every time!
I prefer vanilla so 2T and a total of 1/2-1cup honey+sugar is a home run winner. I sometimes actually add whatever other milk is around and get 5 qt plus a small jar starter. Still same amounts added in. I barelt have any whey seem out.

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30 Elizabeth September 4, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Just wanted to say thank you for the yogurt tips. I was intimidated at first. You’ve been such an encouragement. My kids yogurt and cereal-that can get pricey and difficult to find (especially since I’m picky about what’s actually in the yogurt). My 4 year old is my yogurt making buddy. I do add dry milk to thicken it as they all like it very thick and I don’t like throwing out the whey.

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31 Maureen September 4, 2013 at 2:00 pm

I just made my very first batch Monday night, and used giant brand greek as the starter – seems to have worked out ok. It’s been straining through a tea towel in the fridge since yesterday morning, so now nice and thick. Thanks for all the pointers!

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32 The Norwegian Girl September 4, 2013 at 2:05 pm

yum! Now I want some delicious yoghurt! I havent tried making it yet, because Im lactose intolerant, and Im not sure if the lactose free milk can be used to make yoghurt because it goes through different processes than regular.. anyone who knows if it works?

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33 Janknitz September 4, 2013 at 4:09 pm

I think you can make yogurt from lactose free milk, because the milk sugars (glucose and galactose) are still there, just in a different form. But I think yogurt bacteria feeds best on the whole lactose molecule.

For the GAPS diet and other auto-immune protocols they ferment the yogurt 24 hours to be certain that all the lactose is used up. You might try that, although it will be a fairly sour yogurt.

BTW, did you know that you can purchase lactase enzyme and make regular milk lactose-free yourself? We do this for our daughter, because it’s MUCH cheaper than buying lactose-free milk. That way you can try your yogurt with regular milk, and then apply lactase to make a batch of lactose free milk for yogurt, too.

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34 Marge March 29, 2014 at 8:39 pm

Yogurt becomes lactose free after 16 hours of incubation. Still tastes great!

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35 Terry September 4, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Great trouble shooting tips. I make yogurt at least once a week. I have the Euro-Cuisine YM100 Automatic Yogurt Maker because if I make it in quart jars I would sit and eat the whole jar in one sitting LOL I do use reconstitute milk powder for the milk, plus I add 3 TBSP powder extra and it comes out nice and thick.

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36 Green Money Stream September 4, 2013 at 9:58 pm

Thanks for the troubleshooting, this is very helpful. I’ve recently started making my own yogurt and it has been a bit of a learning process. Have been making my own granola for a while now, but that is the easy part. :) I think investing in a better thermometer will be helpful for me. Good suggestion.

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37 Lia September 11, 2013 at 2:27 am

Thanks so much for your tip on using yoplait vanilla as a starter. I wanted to use a plain dannon brand but I wasn’t sure which variety you use and my regular supermarket only carries their greek and activa brands. Just checked out my batch and it turned out beautifully. I use skim w/ 1cup powdered milk and 2tsp gelatin for a 1/2 gallon batch. I have a euro cuisine yogurt maker that I got for my b-day and am very happy with it. I love your blog!

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38 Cathy November 28, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Question? I have been making wonderful yogurt, but then I found a recipie that said that if you added a half cup of powered milk to your cold milk it would make thicker yogurt. And it did, I ended up with great looking and tasting yogurt. Before usally strained my yogurt because I liked it thicker, and when I did I got about a pint or more of good pure yellow whey. Also when I would oped my jar of yogurt I would see the yellowish whey on top and I would just mix it in before I took out my serving.
My question is, is my yogurt not as good for me now with no whey in it?

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39 Kristen November 28, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Oh, there’s still whey in it! It just probably isn’t separating like it used to.

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40 Holly January 6, 2014 at 7:50 pm

I tried a crockpot yogurt and the resulting texture is ok but it tastes more like milk than tangy yogurt even after culturing for 8+ hrs. I did use Greek yogurt and 2% milk.. My question is should I be more concerned with taste or texture to tell if it is done? I am straining it now to make it thicker. Any thoughts, anyone?!?

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41 Kristen January 7, 2014 at 5:23 am

Homemade yogurt is usually more mild tasting than store-bought, and you shouldn’t be worried about whether it’s safe to eat…I think you’re good on that count.

Some of my readers have had mixed results using greek yogurt as a starter, so next time, I’d recommend using dannon or yoplait as your starter. I use Yoplait and have never had a fail with it.

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42 Diane January 8, 2014 at 10:24 am

Hello, I just made my first batch of yogurt. I cannot wait till I can try it and see how it is. Question though, how long do I need to refrigerate it before I can try it? Also I may have let it cool below 120 before adding the starter and getting it into jars, will that effect it in any way?

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43 Kristen January 8, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Nope, a lower temp is no problem…you get into trouble if you err on the high side, b/c that can kill the yogurt bacteria.

I just refrigerate mine until it’s cold, because I don’t like warm yogurt!

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44 Diane January 9, 2014 at 11:22 am

Thanks Kristen, The yogurt turned out wonderful although it needed a little more sugar or honey for me. Has anyone tried it with different flavored extracts like lemon, banana, or even root beer or peanut butter extract?

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45 Kristen January 9, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Wow, those are adventurous ideas! I’ve only ever used vanilla, myself.

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46 Cathy January 9, 2014 at 9:01 pm

After my milk has cooled down to 120 and I add my yogurt culture I add a tablespoon of good quality honey. Not to flavor or sweeten it but I’m told that the honey will cause the good bacteria to grow more and faster resulting in a thicker yogurt.

47 Diane January 10, 2014 at 7:30 am

It might be worth a try but could I add the extract after I mix in the starter? That way I might be able to try different flavors with one batch. Oh chocolate mint yogurt! Does it freeze well? like frozen yogurt ice cream sorta.

I might try using the honey idea on my next batch cause I’m going to try it with 2% because it’s cheaper.

48 Trudi van der Berg January 21, 2014 at 1:13 am

In your process, the milk is heated and cooled down again. Will this heating process not also kill of some of the bacteria needed? Please explain.

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49 Kristen January 21, 2014 at 6:27 am

You don’t add the starter until after the cooling process, so nope, everything should be fine. As I understand it, you heat the milk to kill any bacteria that would compete with the yogurt bacteria.

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50 Lisa Kadet March 4, 2014 at 11:26 am

Just attempted my first batch of home made yogurt using 2% milk and a crockpot. It turned out rather elasticky, almost gelatinous. Wiggles around in the container when shaken and slides off the spoon in long strings. It tastes fine but the texture is off putting. I could use it in my smoothies, but am not sure if it’s gone bad. Should I throw it away and start again? Help!
Lisa

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51 Kristen March 4, 2014 at 3:43 pm

Oh, I doubt it’s bad…I’d just use it in smoothies. It’s not all that abnormal for yogurt to turn out like that sometimes.

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52 Cathy March 4, 2014 at 10:26 pm

Question? Has anybody made yogurt in a machine by just adding cold milk and a yogurt culture? I found a yogurt maker on E-bay that says this works. I have been making my on yogurt for some time now and just love it thanks to you.

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53 Kristen March 5, 2014 at 5:41 am

I used a machine waaay back in the day, but it required milk heating, and the yogurt it made was pretty sour.

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54 Teresa Distler March 29, 2014 at 3:17 pm

I am on my 4th batch of yogurt. So easy. I have been converting my family to whole natural foods away from processd foods. It’s nice to have control over the ingredients.

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55 Deborah Boyce April 17, 2014 at 12:16 pm

I was anxious abd nervous so I put too much yogurt starter in my milk. After reading instuctions again I realized my mistake and read on internet that too much cultures will compete for food. Can i still use it? Will it taste bad or shouldI throw it out?

Very Dissapointed:-(

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56 Kristen April 17, 2014 at 1:48 pm

Well, I’d say let it incubate and see how it goes! It might be fine. And if it’s a little thin, you can always just make smoothies with it. Don’t give up…it should be usable in some way!

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57 Laura April 27, 2014 at 1:01 pm

I love greek yogurt. I prefer it to regular yogurt yogurt, mostly because of the thickness. I noticed in this posting that you suggested letting the yogurt mixture run through a thin towel overnight. Is that really all there is to it? Also, in the pictures in your post for making homemade yogurt, your yogurt look pretty thick to me…does it have the consistency of greek yogurt?

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58 Kristen April 28, 2014 at 6:19 am

Yep, that’s exactly how you make Greek yogurt…it’s just regular yogurt with the whey drained out.

My yogurt is fairly thick, but it doesn’t have that sour-cream-ish texture that Greek yogurt does.

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59 Susan May 6, 2014 at 8:59 am

Help! While culturing my yogurt, I am getting white “mold” looking on the top, what could be causing this? Is it safe to scrap off and eat the yogurt beneath it?

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60 Kristen May 7, 2014 at 7:31 am

Is it just bubbly looking white stuff? I usually have that on top of my yogurt if I don’t scoop off the bubbles before I incubate it.

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61 Dan July 14, 2014 at 6:34 pm

That was super information!! Made my first batch out of store bought yogurt came out great. Made second batch out of yogurt starter, came out like runny cottage cheese. Was going to add started culture, but you changed my mind. You just saved me allot of grief and frustration. Also I used organic whole milk that is ultra pasteurized.

Thank You

Dan

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62 Kristen January 10, 2014 at 7:50 am

Yep, you can certainly add it after the starter.

I’ve never made homemade frozen yogurt, so I’d find a recipe. If you stick it straight into the freezer, it will probably become hard. You probably need to keep it moving as it freezes (like you do with ice cream).

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63 Diane January 10, 2014 at 8:17 am

Great I’ll have to see what extracts I have and try it next time.

I’ll definitely look up the frozen yogurt idea.

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64 Olivia April 16, 2014 at 9:04 am

What happens if you added the yogurt to the cold milk for the first cooking time? Can I then add it again when the 2 hours and 30minutes are up? Or is it not fixable?

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