Some milk. A few mason jars. A cooler. A pot and a range for heating. A previous batch of yogurt. These are the tools of Bob Mathews’s trade, and they sat before him on folding tables Thursday night at the Brentwood Library as he led a class on yogurt-making.
About a dozen people were in attendance to learn from Mathews how to make yogurt and to hear him talk about what he describes as homemade yogurt’s many health benefits.
Those benefits, in Mathews’s view, largely come down to the fact that yogurt is a fermented food that contains live cultures of bacteria.
“Anything that’s fermented is about a thousand times better for you than raw,” Mathews said.
Not all yogurt is equally healthy, though, Mathews said. Most of the yogurt at supermarkets, for instance, contain ingredients not found in the homemade yogurt he makes.
“Most of them will have sugars and lots of other additives,” he said.
Then there’s the matter that the live cultures found in many commercially available yogurts are added in after the pasteurization process. Mathews thinks this negatively affects a yogurt’s nutritional value.
His yogurt-making demonstration was remarkably simple. Without going into each and every detail of the process, making yogurt in the way Mathews advised goes something like this: you heat milk to 180 degrees or so to boil off some of its water content; let that milk cool to a temperature that won’t kill off your yogurt culture (a little under 118 degrees); separate that cooled off milk into containers (Mathews likes wide-mouthed Mason jars); add some yogurt to the milk in those Mason jars; and put those jars into a hot water filled “incubator” (Mathews likes to use a cooler) for 12 to 16 hours.
Finally, you transfer those jars into the fridge for six to eight hours and, voila, you’ve got yourself some homemade yogurt.
Mathews is so fond of his yogurt that he and his wife go through a gallon of it a week, he said. The yogurt culture he used for Thursday’s demonstration is one that he had been working with for three years.
Throughout the presentation, Mathews spoke with an evangelist’s fervor and certainty about the health benefits of not only yogurt, but other fermented foods like sauerkraut and sourdough bread.
“Cabbage is an extraordinary vegetable,” he said, decrying the fact that faddish foods such as kale get most of the spotlight when people talk about healthy vegetables.
Mathews said that many nights, half of his dinner consists of a generous heap of the fermented vegetables. He loves it so much that he even starts off each morning with a serving of juice — he’s really into juicing, too —that’s part sauerkraut juice.
As far as sourdough bread is concerned, Mathews is suspicious of modern strands of wheat grains, and uses einkorn wheat to make the plethora of bread and crackers that stock his freezer for months at a time.
“It’s a rhythm I get into,” he said about his process of fermenting and cooking.
Someone in the crowd asked what his wife thought about this rigorous sounding schedule of healthy food preparation.
“I may be a little overbearing about it at times,” he said with a smile.
The crowd was engaged throughout the demonstration, with some in attendance fairly new to the idea of fermentation and others already avid fermenters themselves.
Two of the relative newbies were Nancy and Julia Vesely, a mother-daughter duo from Franklin.
Nancy has experience making bread and grinding her own grains at home, but had never tried her hand at yogurt before.
Julia is a freshman at Tennessee Technological University where she is studying to be a dietitian. The idea of making yogurt was new to her, as well.
“I’d never thought about it, but when I heard about the class I thought, ‘OK that’s something I should try,’” she said.
She hoped that the night would give her some good ideas about nutrition as she goes forward with her studies.
“[Making yogurt] could be an interesting thing to know how to do to give patients later on,” she said.
Part of the appeal to Nancy was the idea of becoming a part of a legacy of natural, home food production that stretches back eons.
“I’m just interested in all these ancient ways of doing things,” she said. “People did it for years and probably didn’t’ realize how healthy they were.”
Whatever its health benefits, Mathews’s style of yogurt-making gave rise to one more argument in favor of fermentation: taste.
At one point in the evening, Mathews gave out samples of some of the yogurt he’s made.
“It tasted way better than store bought,” Julia said. “Creamier and you could just tell it was homemade.”
If the Veselys are apprentice fermenters, Sibylle Hulbert is more of a seasoned pro.
Born in Germany, Hulbert had always liked sauerkraut, but began to get serious about fermenting her own supplies of it after a discussion with a fellow German-born colleague in her field of pharmacy. She discovered the work of Sandor Ellix Katz, a sort of fermentation guru, mentioned several times Thursday night, who authored the influential book “Wild Fermentation.”
Hulbert bought her own fermentation crock. She also attended Mathews’s sauerkraut-making class.
“I’ve got sauerkraut going right now,” Hulbert said.
She noted the six weeks it takes to make a batch and mentioned the pleasing sounds of its “gurgles” and “bubbles” as it cooks.
She already makes her own yogurt at home, but liked Mathews’s previous presentations so much that she came to the yogurt class, as well.
Hulbert is health-conscious, but when asked if she has noticed a positive change in her health since she started getting into fermenting, she gave an unexpected answer.
“I should say I do, but I don’t,” she said, smiling.
She added that she thinks this is because she is already in pretty good health, exercising and watching what she eats.
“I assume I’ll benefit from it in the long run,” she said.
Fermentation is a style of food preparation that seems to be in the midst of a popular renaissance as of late. A segment a few months ago on NPR’s Morning Edition was dedicated to fermentation’s growing cachet with top chefs and culinary schools. Closer to home, Middle Tennessee State University has announced that it is creating a Bachelor of Science program in fermentation.
If that trend continues, expect many more classes from Bob Mathews and many more happy homemade yogurt enthusiasts.