A Recipe for Disaster: Plant-based Yogurts
Author & Photographer: Wendy Zheng
My affection for yogurt is complicated. On one hand, yogurt is undeniably one of my favorite foods, with its smooth texture and refreshing tartness making it the perfect treat for anytime of day. On the other hand, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m lactose intolerant, but dairy definitely does not sit well with my digestive system. Although I’ve been able to find fantastic plant-based alternatives for cream cheese, ice cream, and milk, store bought vegan yogurt has consistently been a let down, its consistency either too runny or gloppy and its flavor one-dimensional and unpleasant.
Real yogurt’s trademark thick texture and tangy flavor are a byproduct of the conversion of lactose--a milk sugar that’s unseen in alternative milks--into lactic acid. However, numerous blogs tout the reliability and ease of homemade vegan yogurt, claiming that you can simply replace lactic bacteria with a vegan yogurt starter or probiotic, and cow’s milk with alternative milks to create a satisfactory replica of yogurt. In order to test these claims, I attempted to make four different types of vegan yogurt with almond, rice, soy, and coconut milk, and rated them based on two metrics -- how they tasted and whether they resembled yogurt.
To make the soy, almond, and rice yogurts, I heated up two cups of each kind of milk to 190°F to pasteurize them, and then incorporated a bacteria culture once the milk was cooled to 115°F.. For the coconut yogurt, I simply mixed a probiotic powder with untreated coconut milk. After introducing the culture, I incubated all the mixtures in an oven with the light on for 24 hours.
For the soy and almond varieties, I used store-bought soy yogurt as my starter, and for the rice and coconut versions, I used probiotic pills for the culture. It should be noted that I mistakenly picked the absolute worst excuse for vegan yogurt, Nancy’s Plain Organic Soy Yogurt, as my starter. This premade yogurt not only had the most unbearable texture as it was essentially a congealed soy milk atrocity thickened with rice and agar agar, but it also might top the list of one of the top ten worst things I’ve ever eaten with its stale, cloying flavor. I also did not take the extra precaution to sterilize my equipments out of sheer laziness, which could have affected the end products. With all this in mind, here are my results.
The Most Passable: Soy Milk Yogurt (Recipe from https://simpleveganblog.com/soy-yogurt/)
Going into this, I expected soy milk to have the most potential because it has a balanced proportion of protein and fat unlike the other milk alternatives, and this particular brand of soy milk didn’t contain any additives or thickeners that would interfere with the incubation process. Although I was very skeptical about whether the store bought vegan yogurt would culture the soy milk, the resulting soy yogurt had a delightfully creamy--albeit slightly loose--texture and a noticeable tang. The main downfall of this yogurt was the unpleasant flavor from the traces of the Nancy’s yogurt. However, overall, I would definitely consider making soy yogurt again as a substitute for real yogurt, especially with a more neutral tasting starter.
The Underdog: Almond Milk Yogurt (Recipe adapted from https://www.smallfootprintfamily.com/homemade-almond-milk-yogurt)
To me, almond milk is essentially white-tinged water, its extremely runny consistency and bland flavor making it one of my least favorite milk substitutes. However, the resulting almond milk yogurt, although by no means similar to real yogurt, was tolerable. As the recipe instructed, I added a bit of dissolved cornstarch to thicken the yogurt. I also added twice as much of the store bought yogurt than I did for the soy variation, making the final product’s texture something similar to Danimals or kefir. Despite the nasty undertones of the yogurt starter, the almond yogurt had the most yogurt-esque tartness. Although the almond milk yogurt was by no means good, it definitely surpassed my expectations, securing it as the second best rendition out of the four.
The Most Disappointing: Coconut Milk Yogurt (Recipe from https://minimalistbaker.com/easy-2-ingredient-coconut-yogurt/)
I was pretty optimistic that coconut milk’s high fat content would ensure a creamy final product and lend well to fermentation. However, something went haywire during the process as the coconut yogurt had an extremely gritty texture similar to unintentionally-hardened coconut oil. The actual flavor of the yogurt itself was jarring, its sharply acidic flavor tasting near spoiled. Although the yogurt still had undertones of coconut, this rendition was an inexcusable mutilation of perfectly delicious coconut milk into something absolutely terrible.
Don’t Try This: Rice Milk Yogurt
There’s a reason why no search results came up when I looked up how to make rice milk yogurt. Rice milk is essentially rice blended with water with the addition of some neutral tasting oil, meaning that there’s negligible fat and nearly no protein. Although rice milk tastes pleasant on its own and might be my second favorite everyday alternative milk after soy, its carb-based composition does not lend well to fermentation. In order to try to compensate for the thin consistency and light flavor of the milk, I added cornstarch and the equivalent of two probiotic capsules. However, the end product was still an absolute disaster. The rice milk had not only remained the same watery consistency, but it also obtained a rancid flavor that made it nearly inedible, making it objectively the worst yogurt out of the four.
My main takeaway is that unless you’re willing to make your own plant milk and follow a regimented incubation process to the tee, you shouldn’t make vegan yogurt. Even though there is a marginal chance that you might come out with something palatable, it’s much easier to buy a small tub of Silk, So Delicious, or Kite Hill to save yourself the risk of creating and tasting something utterly horrible.