For many, maybe even most people, cheese is the one thing that is most difficult to imagine giving up when considering going vegan. Fortunately, there are so many awesome and uncannily-similar-to-dairy vegan cheeses on the market these days that there’s little to miss out on in this department anymore. About as often, though, I hear another reason for which I’ve been able to offer little recourse: yogurt.
I so get this. For many people, yogurt is a breakfast staple. It’s lighter than oatmeal and cool on those days when you’re not in the mood for something hot, yet is still a solid base for all the same sorts of toppings. There actually are several dairy-free yogurt options on the market, but few of them are very good and not all of them are reliably vegan. I’ve personally only ever found two store-bought vegan yogurts that I wholeheartedly enjoyed*. The first was a brand called Whole Soy & Co, a soy-based yogurt with a nice texture that wasn’t intolerably sweet. I appreciated that it came in a plain variety and, though I was never able to find it, plain unsweetened as well. Unfortunately, this yogurt disappeared from the shelves shortly after I found it, made a brief and glorious comeback, and now seems to be gone for good (you can read the details here). The second brand is Anita’s Creamline, a coconut yogurt made with coconut milk, coconut water, and cultures—and that’s it. It’s unsweetened, free of additives and thickeners, and has a creamy, indulgent texture and a lip-smacking tang. The problem with this brand is that it’s on the pricey side, only locally available (so I can’t widely recommend it), and difficult to find consistently even at the locations that stock it.
So, last summer, in the midst of an Anita’s shortage and before Whole Soy made their fleeting reappearance, I decided to begin working on a homemade dairy-free yogurt.
Before going vegan, I used to make dairy yogurt regularly. It was something I loved doing and was sad to see leave my cooking repertoire. I used the slow cooker method, which always seemed easiest to me, so that’s the route I decided to go when I began testing vegan yogurt. It was important to me that the yogurt be unsweetened and didn’t use any fancy thickeners (most recipes online state that vegan yogurt requires both of these things to culture and set properly), in part for the au natural factor but mostly for the sake of simplicity and versatility. Through my trials, I tested several different plant-based milks and, though I could never get coconut to work (I’m not sure what voodoo Anita uses, but it would not thicken up for me), I managed to create really great soy and cashew yogurts. The soy is the simpler of the two to prepare and that’s the one I’m going to share today.
Before I go into the method, I want to mention that there are also several ways to make “faux” vegan yogurt—or fauxgurt, as I call it in my head. This generally involves blending a creamy medium, like coconut, tofu, or cashews, with something acidic for tang, and occasionally adding a probiotic capsule for the “good bugs” benefit. I’ve made this kind of fauxgurt before (there’s a recipe using young Thai coconut in Living Raw Food that we love), but it’s decidedly not the same and many fauxgurt recipes turn out a product that is more appropriate as dessert than an everyday breakfast item.
First things first, you’re going to need to get your hands on some vegan yogurt cultures to use as a starter. Whether or not yogurt cultures are vegan is determined by the medium on which they are grown. Most yogurt cultures are grown on a dairy medium, while vegan cultures are grown on a plant-based medium, like barley, rice, or soy. The growing medium doesn’t necessarily make it into the final cultures except potentially in trace amounts, but the use of an animal product to create dairy-grown cultures still has ethical implications (this is the reason why Stonyfield’s non-dairy O’Soy yogurt wasn’t vegan for many years). You can obtain your cultures one of two ways:
First, you can purchase a container of store-bought vegan yogurt. Make sure that the container specifies that the yogurt contains live, active cultures. The less-than-ideal part of going this route is that it can be difficult to find plain, and especially unsweetened, vegan yogurt in the store, but, unless you’re aiming for a strictly savory application, a smidge of sweetness or a hint of vanilla in your first batch shouldn’t be too much of an issue. I’ve only tried SoDelicous plain Greek-style coconut yogurt as a starter, and it worked just fine.
The second way to obtain your starter cultures is to purchase them directly. They may be more difficult to find in your local store this way, especially vegan, but there are several sources for ordering them online. I’ve only ever used Cultures for Health’s vegan yogurt starter, and it has consistently worked great for me, but there is a company called Belle and Bella that makes a non-dairy starter as well. I personally do not recommend using probiotic capsules/powder here. You can try if you’re so inclined, but the cultures in a yogurt starter are specifically selected for the flavor and consistency they will produce and are more likely to yield a favorable result. Once you’ve successfully made a batch of your own yogurt, all you need to do from there on out is save a few big spoonfuls to use as a starter for your next batch.
After you’ve selected your starter method, pick up a quart or two of high-quality, organic, unsweetened soymilk. The only ingredients on the label should be water and soybeans. There are two brands I know of in the U.S. that fit the bill: EdenSoy and WestSoy. Eden tends to produce a marginally thicker, creamier yogurt for me, but WestSoy is easier for me to get my hands on; use whichever you can find.
Now let’s get started. Pour your soy milk into a medium-sized slow cooker. Mine is somewhere in the neighborhood of 3.5-4 quarts in size. This method works well with either one or two quarts of soymilk. I use two quarts, because if I’m going to make some yogurt, I might as well make more yogurt, right? Place the lid on your slow cooker, plug it in, and turn it on the low setting. Now, set a timer and heat the soymilk for two and a half (2.5) hours. I like to set an alarm on my phone.
After the time is up, turn off and unplug the slow cooker. Set another timer for 3 hours and allow the soymilk to cool a bit.
I don’t have pictures of this next step because I was doing it at 10:30pm in my dark kitchen, but once the 3 hours are up, you’re going to add the cultures. Use a ladle to remove about a cup of the warm soymilk to a separate bowl. (Note: the process of heating the soymilk will often create a thin line of tofu skin around the crock at the surface level of the soymilk. When you remove some of the soymilk to add the cultures, the lower level of milk in the crock will make this visible. You can leave it and incorporate it into the yogurt later or use a clean finger to swipe it up the side of the crock—once you’ve got a hold of it, it will usually pull away in one long piece.) If you’re using store-bought yogurt or a previous batch of homemade, add a couple large spoonfuls (about ¼ cup) of the yogurt to the soymilk; if you’re using starter cultures, add the amount specified by the manufacturer (Cultures for Health = one packet). Stir to combine thoroughly and then pour the soymilk mixture back into the slow cooker. Give it all a good stir and replace the lid.
Now wrap the entire slow cooker in towels. I have two old bathsheets from college that I use for this. I like to fold one in a large square to put over the top, and then fold the other one lengthwise and wrap it around the outside, covering the edges of the top towel. Do whatever feels right to you—just make sure that everything is cozy and well-insulated. All those little bugs are going to need several hours to incubate and we want them to stay warm!
The soymilk will now need anywhere from 8-12 hours to culture. How long you let it go is largely about preference: the longer it cultures, the thicker and tangier the yogurt will be. For soy yogurt, I usually shoot for about 10 hours, though I don’t mind leaving it a little longer if I don’t get to it right away.
When you remove the towels and take the lid off the slow cooker, you should find that the soymilk has set into a smooth, thick mass. Sticking a spoon into it will effectively “cut” a chunk out of this mass, and if you stir it a little, it will break apart into little curds. Since this isn’t exactly the texture we’re hoping for with yogurt, I like to take a whisk at this point and smooth everything out. If you have a nylon or silicone-coated whisk, I recommend using it here. Though I imagine this is less evident if yours is black, the crock portion of the slow cooker is highly susceptible to scratching by metal utensils. (If you don’t have a non-metal whisk and plan to make yogurt regularly, it’s a worthwhile $7-12 investment.)
Once everything is smooth, you can ladle the yogurt into food storage containers and transfer it to the fridge. (Actually, before you do that, take this opportunity to set aside ¼ cup of yogurt in a small, airtight container as a starter for your next batch. Done? Okay, carry on.) It will be on the runny side at this point but will thicken up as it cools. That said, it will not be quite as thick as commercial yogurt. This was true of the dairy yogurt I used to make as well, to be honest. I personally don’t mind that it’s not super thick, especially since I tend to load my yogurt up with tons of fruit, nuts, and seeds. If you want to add some viscosity naturally, you can stir in a tablespoon of flax meal or chia seeds and then set it aside for 10-15 minutes to gel. If you’re not feeling the flax and really want a thicker or even Greek-style yogurt, you can do what I used to do when I made dairy yogurt: strain it.
Now I don’t take this extra step these days because, like I said, I’m good with the consistency as-is. Plus, it’s an extra step, which means extra time and extra cleanup. But I did test this out for the sake of this post, and I have to say the results were really nice. So here’s what you do:
Set a colander in a large bowl and line the colander with several layers of cheesecloth (I use a flour sack towel for these sorts of things). Ladle the yogurt into the lined colander, cover it all loosely with plastic wrap, and stick the whole thing in the fridge. This may seem obvious, but the amount of time you let it strain will determine the final consistency of your yogurt. You may need to go through some trial and error here to find your perfect level of thickness. I strained this yogurt for 3 hours and it came out super thick, maybe a smidge thicker than your typical Greek yogurt. It was incredibly rich and worked beautifully as sour cream.
Once you’ve strained the yogurt to your liking, scoop/scrape it out of the cheesecloth and into a bowl or food storage container. You’ll likely want to give it another whisk to even out the consistency again. Again this may be obvious, but straining will also reduce the final volume of yogurt, so don’t expect a full quart (or two). For really thick yogurt, the volume may reduce by as much as a third to half. This is another reason why I don’t strain mine regularly, but that’s not to say the process isn’t worth it. I’d totally do it again.
So there you have it—unsweetened, additive-free, homemade vegan yogurt! The whole process is really simple and low-effort, especially once you get into the swing of it. We get about 6 servings of yogurt per quart of soymilk and I make two quarts at a time, which means that I’m making yogurt about once a week. Sometimes it’s more often because Roman goes bonkers over it and will want seconds…and thirds. It works out to be way cheaper and less wasteful than buying dozens of the little plastic cups.
As for shelf life, to be safe, you probably shouldn’t keep a batch around for much more than a week or a week and a half, but if it still has that clean, tangy, yogurt smell it may be okay (your judgment call!). Also, you should be able to keep making yogurt using a bit of your last batch as starter for quite a while. I read somewhere that eventually the cultures will become less effective or begin to yield off-tasting results, but I’ve yet to have that happen to me—and I’ve managed to keep the ball rolling for months at a time.
I hope you all enjoy this as much as we do! It’s incredibly versatile and works anywhere you might have used dairy yogurt. You can sweeten it and load it up with fruit and granola for breakfast, add it to smoothies for a probiotic boost, use it in baked goods, or dollop it on your next bowl of veggie chili. There’s no need to worry about giving up good yogurt when going vegan!**
This unsweetened, additive-free vegan yogurt requires a lot of inactive time but is a cinch to prepare using the slow cooker as an incubator. It works great in both savory and sweet applications and can even be strained for a super thick Greek variation!
- 1 to 2 quarts pure*, organic, unsweetened soymilk
- Vegan yogurt starter cultures OR ¼ cup store-bought or homemade vegan yogurt
- Pour the soymilk into a medium sized (roughly 4-qt) slow cooker. Place the lid on top and heat the soymilk on the low setting for 2.5 hours.
- After the 2.5 hours, turn off and unplug the slow cooker and allow the soymilk to cool for 3 hours.
- Remove about 1 cup of the warm soymilk to a separate bowl. Add starter cultures or ¼ cup yogurt to the bowl of soymilk and stir to combine.
- A line of tofu skin will likely have formed around the crock. Remove it now if desired.
- Pour the soymilk/culture mixture back into the slow cooker and stir. Replace the lid and wrap the entire slow cooker with towels to insulate. Allow the soymilk to culture for 8-12 hours.
- Once the soymilk has finished culturing, stir with a nylon or silicone-coated whisk to even out the texture. If desired, reserve ¼ cup of the yogurt in a small, airtight container to use as a starter for your next batch. Transfer the rest of the yogurt to food storage containers and refrigerate.
- Greek Variation: Set a colander over a large bowl and line with several layers of cheesecloth. Transfer the yogurt into the lined colander, cover with plastic wrap, place in the refrigerator, and strain to desired consistency. Scoop strained yogurt into a food storage container and refrigerate to store.
- Finished yogurt will keep for 7-10 days.
*There are two companies who currently have vegan yogurts in the works that have yet to hit the market, so I haven’t tried them: Kite Hill & Daiya. Kite Hill makes remarkable almond milk-based cheeses, and I imagine that their yogurt will be excellent as well. Their products fly off the shelves about as soon as they land on them, though, so I expect their yogurt will be just as hard to get a hold of. Daiya has a Greek yogurt in the works that I’m sure will be tasty and hopefully relatively easy to find. Both of these companies are completely soy-free.
**As I mentioned, for those of you with soy allergies, I do have a cashew-based yogurt in the holster. I want to test a few more variations on it to make it accessible to those without high-speed blenders, but it is coming.