An Introduction to Heirloom Yogurts

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Branden Byers

Branden Byers › Branden Byers is a writer, photographer and podcast host for FermUp, a fermented food podcast and ...


It is not difficult to make yogurt. But it is even easier to make different heirloom yogurts.

Most people that make yogurt at home use store-bought yogurt or freeze-dried powder. This type of starter is referred to as direct-set. Specific strains of bacteria have been isolated in a laboratory for easily reproducible yogurt products.

These starters are consistent, but remain so for only for one or two batches. Generally, if a person ‘backslops’, or uses yogurt from a previous batch for subsequent batches, the yogurt will only resemble the original yogurt for a few batch generations. Eventually, a new starter will be required.

Reproducibility may be important for the large scale producer where a new direct-set powder is used for each new batch. But for the home yogurt maker, there is an everlasting way to make yogurt. This is where the word, “heirloom” comes from. Similar to heirloom seeds, heirloom yogurt can be passed down from one generation to the next without ever needing to buy a new starter culture. Many of the heirloom yogurts available today are over one-hundred years old and most come from unknown origins.

There are two types of heirloom yogurts; thermophilic and mesophilic. Store-bought yogurt is thermophilic. A simple way to to think of thermophilic yogurt is that it contains heat-loving bacteria. This is why most people incubate milk and starter to make yogurt. The most well-known thermophilic heirloom yogurt is often referred to as Bulgarian yogurt. The original commercial yogurt was based on bacteria isolated from Bulgarian yogurt.

Many of the heirloom yogurts available today are over one-hundred years old and most come from unknown origins.

If heating and incubating milk keeps you from making regular batches of yogurt, then you might enjoy making mesophilic yogurts. These are yogurts that did not originate in warm climates and so are fermented at room temperature.

Some popular mesophilic yogurts are viili, piimä, filmjölk, and matsoni (a.k.a. Caspian Sea). In loose terms, even cultured buttermilk could be considered an heirloom yogurt. While these yogurts were once difficult to source outside of their origins, now it is possible to order heirloom yogurts online.

My favorite part about mesophilic yogurts is their ease of preparation. I simply put a spoonful from my previous batch of yogurt into fresh milk, leave it on the countertop and within 12 to 24 hours I have a new batch of mesophilic yogurt.

One important caveat, heirloom yogurts are like pets; they must be fed regularly. But as long as you make a new batch of heirloom yogurt at least once a week, you could easily maintain a yogurt culture that outlives you.

Do you have a story about making yogurt? Tell us about it.

Photo credit: Branden Byers