Q: Liz – I am interested in making my own dairy free yogurt, but am not sure what “starter” to get. Also, I would prefer not to use soymilk, but rather almond/ rice or coconut milk … any recipe ideas?
A: Alisa – First, it is important to understand what a “starter” is. Starter culture itself is merely bacteria. It doesn’t contain ingredients such as milk. However, the bacteria must be grown on a medium, and that medium is often dairy. For most dairy-free or dairy-low consumers, this will not be a problem, since the bacteria or starter is completely removed from the medium before use. Nonetheless, if you are dealing with a severe milk allergy, have any concerns about trace dairy, or are strictly vegan and want to ensure there was no dairy used in the making of the product, look for a dairy-free or vegan label, and then contact the company to verify their processes.
Some may wonder, “Why even add the starter?” Starter culture is what gives yogurt its characteristic tang, and those friendly bacteria known as probiotics. While you can make a mock yogurt using something tart and acidic such as lemon juice, it won’t contain a good dose of that healthy bacterium.
Now, there are three things that are commonly used as a starter for homemade yogurt:
1) Another Yogurt – You can actually use a finished yogurt as the starter for your next batch. If you’ve never made yogurt before, a store-bought version will also work. There are many brands of dairy-free yogurt currently on the market, including ones made from coconut milk, nuts, oats, soy, and rice. Though these can be expensive, you only need one to get your first batch on the go. From there, you can simply save a little bit of yogurt from your first batch and use it as a starter for the next. This concept works well, even if you do your first batch with one of the other two starter options …
2) Starter Culture – You can actually purchase yogurt starters. Ther-Biotic (from Klaire Labs) and Custom Probiotics are touted as dairy-free. Ther-Biotic is the brand I use; you can read about their hypoallergenic policy here (they reportedly do not use dairy media to create their probiotics). Of course, always check with the manufacturer to ensure ingredients or processes have not changed.
3) Probiotic Capsules – Many brands of probiotics come in capsule form. To use as a starter culture, simply open the capsules and pour the contents into your yogurt. Again, probiotics are simply bacteria, and removed from their “host,” which may be milk-based. Nonetheless, where dairy is a strong concern, make sure to look for brands labeled as “dairy-free” or “vegan” and double check with the manufacturer on their processes.
You can technically use any milk alternative to make yogurt, not just soymilk, but the results will vary. Some won’t thicken as well as others. To compensate, some recipes use thickeners like agar flakes, gelatin (not appropriate for vegans/vegetarians), or starches. Also, higher fat “milks” (such as coconut milk) will produce a creamier end result. To note, homemade yogurt typically differs a bit from store-bought, but making it from scratch does allow you to tweak your yogurt to taste. Finally, if at first you don’t succeed, definitely try again. Very few people have complete success on their first batch of yogurt. It takes a bit of practice to get it right, but once you do, the financial and edible rewards are great.
For dairy-free yogurt recipes to work from:
Alisa Fleming is the founder of GoDairyFree.org and author of Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living. In addition to her own dairy-free lifestyle, Alisa has experience in catering to the needs of various special diets, including gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free, vegan, and multiple food allergies.