How To Make Your Own Cultured Milk Products

Fermented foods, including cultured milk products, are said to strengthen immune systems with probiotic power. Here are a few you can make at home using any milk available.

by Maureen Blaney Flietner
PHOTO: Ildi Papp/Shutterstock

A growing number of people are inviting bacteria into their lives. Of course, we’re not referring to the type that causes infections, but just the opposite—the “friendly” or “good” bacteria.

Good bacteria can be found in the correct culturing and fermentation of foods such as milk. Cultured milk products such as yogurt, kefir, piima, cream cheese and buttermilk are used in many parts of the world. Some date back to ancient times.

As a hobby farmer, you may find cultured milk products an attractive source of food since the supply of milk is readily available. Also, they further your efforts toward self sufficiency. Whole milk, partially skimmed milk, skim milk or cream may be used from any milk-producing animal, including cows, goats and sheep.

Some enthusiasts of the bacterial process, treading on controversial ground, are taking it a step further, using raw milk and all of its enzymes and bacteria. For raw fluid to be used, it’s vital that it meet certain criteria, such as having a low bacteria count and being free from:

  • antibiotics
  • sanitizing chemicals
  • mastitis
  • colostrum
  • rancidity
  • contamination by bacteriophages

Probiotic Possibilities

So why the interest in beneficial bacteria? People today are becoming increasingly interested in natural ways to improve their health. Avoiding heavily processed foods and incorporating foods with some “life” are just two ways to do that.

There’s also a bit of pride in the independence and interdependence surrounding these foods. While bacterial and yeast cultures may be purchased, many are shared through family and friends.

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Foods that use cultures are available on many farms. So people are not entirely dependent on external sources for nourishment.

Most of these good bacteria come in two basic groups: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Within those two groups, there are different species. Within the species are various strains.

If you’ve eaten yogurt, you’re probably familiar with one of these species: Lactobacillus acidophilus.

There is anecdotal evidence that supports the use of friendly bacteria, known as probiotics, or “for life.” Probiotics have even been defined by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”

homemade cultured milk products

Learn By Doing

Several instruction books are available to get you started. However, many people who make cultured milk products suggest taking a class to see, smell and taste how it is done correctly.

After all, you are dealing with bacteria. And while bacteria are all around us, you don’t want unfriendly bacteria—yeasts, fungi or parasites—interfering.

Fortunately, because of the public’s growing interest classes are easy to find. People who are well-versed in producing their own cultured milk products often don’t mind sharing their secrets.

While visiting the on-farm store of Grassway Organics in Wisconsin, I signed up for a cultured foods class being conducted by herbalist Linda Conroy. Kay Craig, co-owner of the farm with husband, Wayne, also offered to show me how she makes kefir and yogurt for her family in their farmhouse kitchen.

While Conroy and Craig believe in the benefits of raw milk, they assured me that pasteurized milk and cream work just as well for cultured milk products. I relished both opportunities to learn!

“People are so separated from food today, they don’t realize what they could do for themselves,” Conroy says. “It’s really fascinating when the light bulb goes on and they say: ‘Wow, I can make my own yogurt.’”

It was all that and more for me as I watched, measured, ladled, smelled, shook cultured cream into butter and tasted the foods.

Seeing the “life” in these cultured milk products reconnected me for an instant to my past. I remembered yeasty dough rising under dampened cotton cloths when my grandmother and mother made delicious, hearty breads.

My two instructors—Craig and Conroy — offer history, sample recipes and a bit of advice.


While many of us are familiar with today’s commercial, sweetened yogurts, this cultured food has been around for nearly 5,000 years.

It’s believed that the first yogurt happened by accident. Eurasian nomads carried milk in goatskin satchels; bacteria within the bag inoculated the milk, culturing it into yogurt.

From that time on, cultured-dairy foods have been popular in India, Asia and Europe.

Yogurt is created from bacterial fermentation of the milk sugar called lactose. The process releases lactic acid that thickens the milk, gives it a sour taste and hinders the growth of bad organisms.

Read more: You can make yogurt from goat milk—here’s how.

How to Make Yogurt

To make your own yogurt, you will need:

  • a food thermometer marking temperatures of 0 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit
  • 1 cup of plain, fresh, pasteurized commercial yogurt with “active” bacterial cultures, or a freeze-dried packet of yogurt culture
  • 1 gallon of milk
  • an insulated cooler
  • a sterilized, 1-gallon glass jar or several smaller sterilized canning jars with rims and lids
  • a large glass or ceramic bowl
  • a spoon

Heat the milk to 185 degrees and then let it cool to about 115. Put the fresh yogurt culture in the bowl and slowly add the warm milk to it. The temperature of the combined ingredients needs to be about 110 degrees. (It’s a bit of a dance keeping the mix at the proper temperature.)

Once all of the milk has been added, stir gently with a clean, wooden spoon. Next, ladle the warm, cultured milk into either a gallon glass jar with a rim and lid, or several smaller canning jars with rims and lids.

Place the jar or jars in the appropriate-sized cooler and fill the cooler with warm (about 120 degrees) tap water. Since the cooler itself is cool, the temperature will drop to about 110 to 112 inside—just what yogurt likes, says Craig. Close the lid and set the cooler aside.

Let the bacteria do its thing for the next 10 to 16 hours.

The warm-water-bath method has worked consistently for both Craig and Conroy. Other options are to keep the cultured milk warm with a light in the oven or on a heating pad.

When the mixture has thickened, remove the jars from the cooler and pop them into the refrigerator. Be sure to pull a cupful of the yogurt to start your next batch.

About Homemade Yogurt

Homemade yogurt often is not as smooth or as thick as commercial yogurts. It does not have the added dry milk, sweeteners, stabilizers and natural or artificial flavors found in commercially prepared products. It will separate, even if it’s fresh.

The whey may pool, but it can be mixed back in or spooned off to use in other fermented foods.

Homemade yogurt also does not have the sweet taste many of us are used to. Instead, it tastes fresh and tangy.

“The bacteria are eating the milk sugars and making the product gradually more sour,” Conroy says. Eat yogurt fresh or, for those who like something sweeter, add fresh fruit or preserves.

cream cheese

Yogurt Cream Cheese

For something extra special, use yogurt to make a spreadable cream cheese.

Put a strainer lined with cheesecloth in a large, glass bowl. Place the yogurt in the cheesecloth and tie the ends together. Let it drain overnight into a bowl or jar in the refrigerator.

Be sure to collect the whey for other uses. Remove the cream cheese from the cloth. Put it in a crock or covered bowl, add a little salt and some chives, and it’s ready to spread. Leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for about a week.


Pronounced kuh-FEAR, this fermented milk drink originated in the Caucasus Mountains of Eurasia, where shepherds carried milk in leather pouches. Before long, the milk fermented into a fizzy, sour yogurt.

Making the drink today involves culturing milk with kefir “grains,” which aren’t really grains at all. Kefir grains are a gelatinous mix of bacteria, yeast, proteins, lipids and sugars that look like a cross between cottage cheese and cauliflower.

While yogurt is known for its handful of good bacteria, kefir has many more. True fans of kefir give this mother culture a revered status.

As the kefir grains increase in volume and number, they need to be thinned. This enables the kefir grains to be shared with friends for their own cultured milk products. It also allows the culture to grow in other kitchens.

homemade cultured milk products
Oksana Mizina/Shutterstock

How to Make Kefir

What you will need to make kefir:

  • a kefir mother culture, either purchased as a freeze-dried packet or 1 tablespoon live culture
  • 1 gallon of fresh milk
  • a clean, gallon-sized glass jar with lid and rim

The “recipe” for kefir couldn’t be simpler. Those who prefer to use raw milk can simply place the kefir culture in the jar, pour in fresh milk and cover. Let the inoculated milk incubate at room temperature for about 24 hours. The lactose will ferment until the mixture has the consistency of thin yogurt.

When using freeze-dried cultures, follow package instructions. For example, one packet indicates heating pasteurized milk to 85 degrees before adding the culture. Other sources, such as the National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia in Athens, have more stringent requirements.

After the milk has been cultured, pour the mix through a strainer and gently retrieve the kefir mother grains. Put those grains in another jar of fresh milk to repeat the process.

Pour the cultured milk into a jar. You can store the covered jar on a shelf at room temperature for a few days. This will ripen the flavor and increase the vitamin B content, but it will also increase the carbon dioxide and alcohol content.

Homemade kefir has a tangy, slightly alcoholic taste. Conroy tells me that kefir is considered the “champagne” of cultured milk products for just that yeasty reason. While many swear by it, you may need to acquire a taste for homemade kefir.

For me, the texture was not as appealing as commercial kefir, with its flavorings and smoother, thicker consistency.

Kefir Soda

Being a true kefir product, says Craig, kefir soda provides a refreshingly different probiotic. Plus, she notes, it’s what people drank before commercial sodas with artificial colors, preservatives and sugars became popular. To make kefir soda, you will need:

  • 1 cup of fruit juice (Craig cooks grapes from her parents’ farm, adds sugar and strains them for a concentrated juice)
  • kefir grains that have been placed in a strainer and gently rinsed in water
  • 1⁄2 cup lemon juice
  • 1⁄4 cup sugar
  • water to fill remainder of a half-gallon or quart-sized glass jar

Put the ingredients in the glass jar, shake and leave on the kitchen counter for a few days to let the kefir grains work their magic. Remove grains. The juice, in the covered jar, should keep for a month or so in the refrigerator.

Kefir soda smells a bit like a wine cooler and has a tart-but-refreshing taste. I imagine it is a quite-satisfying summer drink, unlike cloyingly sweet commercial drinks.

Since the mixture gradually increases in tartness, Craig suggests adding a bit of maple syrup to sweeten the drink.

cultured milk
Marianne Danielsen/Shutterstock

Kefir Cheese

Make this cheese when you have extra kefir that has been refrigerated and has produced separated whey.

Pour off the whey (be sure to save it!) and put the solids in a cheesecloth hanging in a glass jar. The remaining liquid can drain as it sits in the refrigerator. When it has finished draining, peel the kefir from the cloth and use it like cream cheese.


Piima (pea-ma) is a culture based on the butterwort, a carnivorous plant, but its exact role is a bit unclear. Many sources of piima culture suggest that Scandinavian farmers noticed that milk curdled quickly when cows grazed on butterwort.

The culture was then isolated to become the piima culture.

However, there is also evidence that Scandinavian farmers were familiar with the small, carnivorous plant that grew in marshes and they discovered the lactic acid bacteria on its leaves would speed up the coagulation of milk. It became practice to pour fresh milk over the leaves of the butterwort before placing it in a warm area to acidify.

Either way, the culture is associated with the plant and is used by piima fanciers in the U.S. to make piima butter. The recipe is a simple one.

Read more: These 6 fall crops are great to use for fermented drinks!

How to Make Piima

What you need to make piima butter:

  • a few tablespoons of fresh piima culture in the form of cream
  • a sterilized, quart canning jar with lid and rim
  • a quart of pasteurized, heavy whipping cream

Put the culture in the jar, add the milk and stir. Screw on the lid. Put it in a corner of the kitchen where it can maintain a 70- to 75-degree temperature. On top of the refrigerator is a logical choice.

After about a day, when the mixture has thickened a bit, remove a few tablespoons as starter for your next batch and put it in the refrigerator. Then, either shake the jar for about 15 minutes or cool it down to about 50 to 55 degrees and whip it in a mixing bowl.

In my class we took turns shaking the bottle. At first it felt as if we were shaking a fairly liquid product. After several minutes, it seemed as though the mixture had thickened into sour cream.

Indeed, at this point you can stop and use the cultured cream as sour cream. We continued until it seemed as if we were again shaking a liquid. It was finished.

We opened the jar to find the yellow piima butter in the center, bathed in buttermilk.

Pour the buttermilk into a jar, and spoon the butter into a small-holed colander. Use a wooden spoon to softly press the butter (you don’t want it squeezing out the holes) to remove all the pockets of buttermilk, which can leave a sour taste.

With all of the liquid removed, gently rinse the butter in the colander with cold water to remove any last liquid. Put the butter in a crock and enjoy!

Drink the buttermilk or use it while baking.

Or, if you haven’t made butter, obtain a piima culture to add to pasteurized milk. Follow the directions on the culture pack to have buttermilk in no time.

This article appeared in Best of Hobby Farm Home, a 2020 specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such asBest of Hobby Farms and Urban Farm by following this link.


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