Therapy Is Great, but Have You Also Tried Making Yogurt?

For one writer, the practice of making yogurt is as good for her brain as it is for her body.

A bowl of homemade yogurt

Huizeng Hu / Getty Images

Shopping for yogurt makes me anxious. A lot of overcomplicated things do. Buying yogurt feels like a ridiculous waste of my emotional resources. The yogurt section in the grocery store stretches on and on, filled with tiny containers, each touting its own dessert-y flavor or lack of fat. Back in my days as a consumer of commercial yogurt, for minutes I’d stare at the refrigerated shelves as if my frustration could manifest the one thing I’d come for. All I wanted was plain, whole-milk organic yogurt in a tub — the most basic form of yogurt — and my store didn’t have it. Even when I did bite the bullet and buy yogurt, there was guilt over the tub, made of generally unrecyclable number 5 plastic. I hoarded the empty tubs in my basement in a growing stack. There’s only so many times you can reuse a single-use item, after all.

Maybe eight or nine years ago, the scope of the inconvenience drove me to a solution: I’d make my own. Objectively I can say that my yogurt is the best, something I savor by the spoonful unblemished by accompaniment. The edible rewards alone justify the effort, which is minimal, anyway. Beyond that, it’s the act itself that I cherish. The cyclical nature of making yogurt has given my life a continuity that’s as soothing as its cool whiteness. Yogurt has seen me through cancer, a divorce, and a pandemic. It coaxes me out of my head and into a microbial world I can only understand through observation. 

The extent of my devotion to making yogurt didn’t fully hit me until I came across a book all about that very thing. Homa Dashtaki’s Yogurt & Whey: Recipes of an Iranian Immigrant Life is ostensibly a cookbook, but to a yogurt enthusiast like me it’s a low-key mission statement; everything about making yogurt is low-key. Homa Dashtaki and I are nearly the same age, but other than that, we don’t have much in common. She is a former lawyer who founded the yogurt company White Moustache, which has a fanatical following; I am a three-time college dropout with a string of abandoned schemes and plans. Her Zoroastrian family moved to the United States from Iran right around the time my mom, a Rust Belt native, sold her dusty 1970s yogurt maker in a garage sale. 

And yet we both live the yogurt life. There are not a lot of people around you can talk yogurt life with. “The world would be a better place if more people made yogurt,” Dashtaki told me. Of course.

I have ADD, and spend a lot of time in my head. People sometimes say to me, “I didn’t know adults could have ADD,” but unlike some other maladies of childhood, you don’t age out of it. It’s part of you for life, and grows with you as you grow. You do your best to cope, and sometimes it works. 

Making yogurt is a sequence. People with ADD lack certain receptors in their brain, ones that organize impulses, and this makes following sequences difficult. My particular ADD brain does not intuitively journey from A to B to C, but starts with A and then jumps to Q and then backwards to M. To complete daily tasks with minimal collisions and flubs requires an elevated level of effort and rigor. Thus the anxiety. My natural way of moving through the world is flawed, meaning I default to thinking I am a terrible person lacking in discipline and propriety. 

“Yogurt forces you to slow down,” Dashtaki says. Ultimately, this is why I make it. It’s not my dread of secretly non-recyclable number 5 plastic or frustration with the counterintuitive offerings of the dairy aisle. The practice of making yogurt is medicinal for me. On the weekend when I tend to begin the process, I naturally enter my yogurt state of mind and begin the steps I have repeated so many times. The culture of yogurt is a thread running back to the earliest days of humans who consumed milk from something that’s not a human, and so it is not up to me to dictate the sequence of thoughts and actions it takes for me to make it. The sequence dictates itself, and I am merely an instrument entering into a sacred space. Milk is a gift from a cow, and if you open yourself up to its energy, it will transform itself and continue giving. 

Though I can’t get plain, whole-milk organic yogurt where I live, I can get excellent milk from a local family dairy. This is one of the bonuses of rural living. I go to the farmers market on Saturday morning and exchange pleasantries with the young man selling the milk. We always make the same jokes. “Hello, Trouble,” he says. Does he call every customer Trouble? I don’t think so. Maybe only me. The milk has a halo of cream up at the top of the jug. Sometimes I’m not there or he’s not there and I have to use milk from the grocery store. The yogurt still winds up pretty good, but it feels like it’s missing something. 

Then I bring the milk home and get started. There are many ways to incubate yogurt. All it takes is a low, steady source of warmth. Though it’s not particularly romantic, I make yogurt in my Instant Pot, because that’s the best tool I happen to own. It has a yogurt making program, but there’s more to it than pressing buttons. First you boil the milk, then let it cool down so it’s like a very hot bath. Then you stir in a few spoonfuls of the culture, which is the yogurt you saved from what you made the previous time. Each batch of yogurt seeds the next batch. 

Then you wait. Having ADD makes me bad at waiting. My affliction insists that I must at all times be doing something, saying something, or taking something in. Inactivity is the enemy. This is where the threads unravel. Making yogurt has shown me that instead of a space to be filled, time is a space that fills itself: an unbroken thread.

A number of years ago, I wrote a guide to making yogurt in the Instant Pot. For mysterious Google reasons, it performs well on internet searches and has sparked a slow-motion digital dialog among first-time makers of yogurt. People leave comments or questions, and I reply. I don’t know anyone else in my daily life who makes yogurt. It’s a part of me that exists largely in the vacuum of my kitchen, and then to see that others do it too makes every report a joy. We compare notes. These people sometimes do things differently than I would, but that’s the point. I don’t make my yogurt the way Dashtaki does. When you are a parent, you raise your kids the way you want. Really all you need to do is to get them to adulthood alive. Same with yogurt. 

I’ve screwed up many batches of yogurt. I’ve added the culture too early, when the milk was too hot, and it killed the culture’s bacteria and the yogurt didn’t set. I’ve added the culture at the correct temperature but then spaced out and re-boiled the milk, once again killing the bacteria.

I’ve mistakenly eaten all of my yogurt and had nothing left to culture the next batch with. I’ve started too late in the day and left the pot incubating overnight, which for my yogurt is often about four hours too long, and the texture isn’t as silky. I still have yogurt in the end. After you make yogurt for a while, you learn all of the ways to rescue it, and you bear with a not-optimal batch knowing you will soon enough start over again. 

Peeking into the pot as the yogurt incubates is a bit like waiting for your period. You know it’s coming, but it’s not clockwork. Every cycle has its quirks. Yogurt does what yogurt wants. When you open up the lid and the contents slosh, it’s disappointing. It’s still milk. Have faith and let it be. When you open up the lid and see a glossy opacity with a subtle gap between the pot and the whiteness, it’s ready. When in doubt, go longer. 

I make yogurt on the weekends because I’m at home and can monitor its progress the way you monitor young kids as they play. You go about your business in another room and then intuitively you’ll get this feeling that it’s time to check in. My yogurt often sets in about two hours, which is quite fast. That’s typically the case when I add the culture when the milk is 118°F on the nose. Occasionally, depending on other variables, it takes over eight hours. When you are in the business of writing recipes, you know that a range of two to twelve hours freaks people out. How do you know what to expect? How can you make any plans? My answer: don’t. 

The way I exist with relative steadiness as an ADD person is to plan everything out to the tooth during the week, because when my brain is left to its own devices, all stimuli assume the same screaming level of red alert urgency. It’s exhausting and can make me abrupt, insensitive, and thoughtless to others. My schedule is a map to steer me back on track when my brain leads me astray. I cling to it rigidly out of necessity, not affection. 

On the weekends, I have no schedule except for yogurt and intuition. Freed from the bonds of meeting times and deadlines, yogurt is my remedy. It makes me a nicer person.

If everyone made their own yogurt, they’d have less time to do other things, like watch movies or make pottery or follow professional sports. I largely don’t do those things and so rely on other people to graciously fill me in. My job is to do two things: make yogurt, and try not to freak the hell out when I’m not making yogurt. We can’t all do a million jobs. You don’t have to make yogurt. You can buy Dashtaki’s. I’ll give you some of mine. If everyone made their own yogurt, there’d be no point in sharing it. Sharing is the most important part of the sequence. I’m nice like that.  

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