At last I bought a yogurt maker a couple of months ago, and set to work. Happily, I discovered that the process is not as complicated as I thought it would be. It takes a little planning to get the timing right, and it's critical that you keep all of your attention on the yogurt in the mixing and getting the temperature right stages, but the actual business of making the yogurt is fairly simple. You don't have to have a yogurt maker to accomplish the task, but it does simplify the job, and if you get one like this one, a $30 item I got on Amazon, Euro Cuisine Yogurt Maker - YM80, you get some awesome little glass jars for your yogurt.
The Yogurt Maker
What does a yogurt maker do, anyway? It's basically an incubator that keeps your yogurt at the proper temperature for a long duration of time. And for yogurt making, the temperature is key. If it's too cold or too hot, the beneficial bacteria (they're responsible for the nice tart flavor, and the digestive health benefits of yogurt) that populate the yogurt will not be able to thrive and they could be killed off entirely.
Side note: if you are thinking "Wait! Stuff in yogurt is alive? Is that vegan?" Well, the answer is yes, it is considered vegan to eat bacteria because bacteria is not part of the animal kingdom. Furthermore, bacteria is everywhere and in everything, and some of it is really good for humans. Here's a nice bit of information all about bacteria.
Ok, back to our yogurt maker. If you don't want to buy one, there are lots of suggestions online for alternative incubation methods for yogurt-making. Some people use a crock pot, others use an oven, and I recall my mom incubating her homemade yogurt by wrapping the jar in a comforter and stashing it in a dark closet for a while.
I've never made dairy-based yogurt, so I can't tell you how it gets its texture, but as far as I know, animal based milks thicken up on their own during the yogurt-making process. Non-dairy milks, however, need a little help. I've seen suggestions to strain the yogurt before serving. I can't be bothered to try that, plus it seems wasteful because inevitably you'd be straining out liquid. There are several vegan thickeners that I've seen in yogurt recipes: pectin, cornstarch, carageenan, xanthan gum, and the two that I've been using with good success, tapioca starch and agar powder. I followed the advice of Bryanna Clark Grogan and was satisfied with the results, so the recipe I'm sharing here is an adaptation of hers. She has a wealth of information on her site about yogurt making and her extensive experiments, well worth a read. I'm only providing a simple outline of the one method I have used, requiring store-bought soymilk and live cultures that are *not* from store-bought yogurt.
If you decide to use the agar powder, make sure it is the powder and not the flakes or any other form of agar. If you use any other form, it will not dissolve all the way and you will end up with chunks of agar in your finished yogurt. I had trouble finding agar powder, so I know from experience what happens if you use the flakes. In the end I had to buy a bottle of agar powder online.
I know someone else who makes a combo soymilk and coconut milk yogurt, and she uses cornstarch and brown rice syrup in her recipe. So, there are lots of paths to success, and I think it comes down to what exact texture you personally like. It may take some trial and error to figure it out.
There are a number of ways to get the live cultures (bacteria) for your yogurt. The simplest way to acquire it, though probably the least dependable, is by buying a soy or coconut or rice yogurt from the store. I didn't do that because as I mentioned before, you have no way of knowing how viable those cultures are after that container of yogurt has been trucked from place to place and then placed on a store shelf for who knows how long. If you try it anyway, just make sure the container lists actual bacterial cultures in the ingredients. Common ones are: L. Acidophilus, B. Bifidum, L. Bulgaricus, and S. Thermophilus. If you are vegan and have concerns about how the cultures were originally grown, check with the company that made the yogurt. WholeSoy states on their website that they grow it on a vegetable medium, so it's suitable for vegans. When you make your yogurt, you use a small amount of this store-bought yogurt to populate your batch. I didn't try it, so I'm not going to get into more detail about that here (you can find specific instructions online pretty easily).
I checked the packaged yogurt starters that our local Whole Foods carries, but they were all dairy-based, so I ordered a package of Vegetal vegan yogurt starter from an online company called Cultures for Health. This particular starter is a "direct set" starter, which means you cannot use the resulting yogurt to populate your next batch. Some starters allow you to do so, which is nice.
There are a couple of other brands I've seen mentioned around the web, and I haven't tried them yet, so I can't review them. Yolife Yogurt Starter is one, but I noticed the reviews aren't very good. GI ProStart non-dairy yogurt starter looks promising, though the Vegetal has more healthy bacterial strains in it.
Here is an intriguing method of creating your own yogurt culture without having to buy any, using the stems of chili peppers! I had never heard that before, but this is the kind of thing that makes my DIY admiration meter go off the charts! Apparently the chili stems contain wild yeast that perpetuate the right kind of bacteria for yogurt.
First, get out all of your supplies and ingredients so that you have everything available when you need it.
What you need:
room temperature soymilk - 5 cups
tapioca starch - 1/4 cup
agar powder - 1 teaspoon
live active cultures - measure depends on source, I use 1/8 teaspoon as suggested on my package of Vegetal
sweetener of choice - agave, maple syrup, sugar - 2 tablespoons *Note* if you are using soymilk that already contains sweetener of any kind, you don't need to add more. The sweetener is only added to this recipe to give the yogurt starter some fuel, not to create a sweet flavor in the finished yogurt.
large pot, heavy bottomed and large enough for 5 cups of liquid with room to stir
measuring spoons and cups
refrigerator (clear out a space large enough for your pot to fit)
1. To begin, make sure all of your tools and instruments are very clean. Most recipes recommend scalding everything in boiling water. I'll be honest and tell you that I didn't do that, most of my tools came straight out of the sanitize cycle of the dishwasher. The rest, I just washed really well and made sure that I never set anything down on a dirty surface. You don't want unhealthy bacteria growing in your yogurt.
2. Put 1/2 cup of your room-temperature soymilk in the large pot, and add the tapioca starch and agar powder. Start warming up the mixture on low, and whisk it well until the tapioca starch and agar are completely dissolved.
3. Add 1 1/2 cups of soy milk and turn the heat up to medium. Continue whisking steadily but try to avoid creating a lot of froth. Do this until the mix is thick but are no lumps and the liquid has a shiny surface. Let the mixture get hot but don't let it boil, at least not rapidly.
4. Add the remaining 3 cups of soymilk, mix thoroughly but gently, and then measure the temperature with the thermometer. We want the temperature to be as close to 115 degrees Fahrenheit as possible. If it's anywhere between 110 degrees and 115, that's good. Mine is usually around ten degrees too hot. Getting this temperature right is going to make or break your batch of yogurt, so take extra care in getting it within the right range.
5. If it's hotter than 115 degrees, place it in the refrigerator and check it every few minutes with your thermometer. Set a timer for yourself if you think you'll forget about it.
If it's cooler than 115 degrees (well, let's say below 110), you can use a microwave on low for very short durations of time until it's hot enough (in a microwave-safe container of course), or keep it on the stove and heat it very slowly, checking the temp frequently with your thermometer.
6. Once your temperature hits the right range, ladle or spoon about 1/2 cup of the soymilk/thickener mix into a large measuring cup (you'll need room to whisk) or a smallish bowl and add your yogurt starter and, if you are using unsweetened soy milk, your sweetener. Whisk it up really well, and then pour it back into the pot with the rest of the mix. Whisk it all together until it is very well combined.
7. Immediately pour into your jars. It helps to use a funnel. My yogurt maker instructions say not to put the lids on the jars, to just cover with the yogurt maker dome lid and then start the machine. My yogurt maker has little hour marks on the side, but it doesn't actually appear to time the incubation in any way. I thought perhaps the lid would spin to mark off how many hours had passed, but it doesn't do that. It's not a big deal though. There's no harm done if the yogurt incubates for a little longer than you intended, it just might be more tart, which I like anyway.
8. You can taste your yogurt after about 6 hours to see if it's done by gently opening the cover and using a clean spoon to get a little bit out of a jar. Avoid agitating the jars too much or stirring in case it's not ready. Yogurt likes to be very still while it's incubating. I tend to leave mine alone for 8 hours overnight and it has always been done at that point. If it's ready, you will then need to put the lids on the jars and chill them in the refrigerator. My yogurt maker instructions say to chill for a minimum of 3 hours, but it will likely thicken more if you wait longer.
9. You will want to stir the yogurt before you serve it because there will likely be some separation. There are countless delicious ways to flavor and use it. You can put it in smoothies, in your baked goods, or in Greek or Indian dishes that call for yogurt. You can add fresh fruit or berries, maple syrup, a little bit of jelly or jam, or granola. My favorite way to eat the yogurt is with my granola bars crumbled over the top. I think it's great plain, too!