Homemade Yogurt: Choosing a Starter


Heirloom vs. direct set culture

Heirloom culture

These are not isolated strains of bacteria, but vibrant communities of living organisms selected by nature. These communities contain greater amount of bacteria and more varieties of bacteria than direct set cultures. This makes them stronger then direct set cultures and heirloom cultures can survive batch-to-bath forever.

It’s possible for some yogurt bacteria in heirloom cultures to colonize in the human gut. This means once in the gut, they can continue multiplying again and again, as long as conditions are good.

Heirloom cultures require minimal maintenance. Similar to a sourdough starter, they must be kept in use. You can store them in the refrigerator for about one week.

Heirloom cultures are not suitable for commercial production (no shelf life, and a little inconsistent batch to batch). You can obtain the culture from friends, or do a one time purchase of the culture.

Direct set culture

Easy to use (no culture to maintain), but can be used only once (so you need to continually purchase new culture). Commercially available yogurts are direct set.

Thermophilic vs. mesophilic culture


Meso = middle
Thermo = heat loving
Philic = likes

Thermophilic culture

A culture that needs a low heat source to ferment (~110 °F-115°F)

Mesophilic culture

A culture that can ferment at room temperature (on countertop)

Heirloom examples

Thermophilic: Bulgarian

Mesopholic: Matsoni (aka Caspian Sea), Villi, Filmjölk

Colonizing vs. transient bacteria

Colonizing bacteria

Can multiply in your gut — as long as conditions in your gut are good. Found in most homemade kefir and possibly a few homemade yogurts that are related to kefir such as Caspian Sea and Villi.

Transient bacteria

Must continually consume to have benefits. Most yogurt cultures contain transient bacteria


For one time use (sometimes can go more)

Filler free probiotic capsules

For dairy yogurt, dairy based capsules are best. For dairy free yogurt, “Dr. formulated” capsules are best – they are usually plant based. Dairy based capsules usually have more strains of probiotics than dairy free capsules.

Store bought yogurt

Store yogurt can be used. The bacteria in the store bought yogurt usually require a low heat of 110F-115F to ferment. Probably after a few fermentations you will not like the taste of the yogurt any more. Most store cultures are unbalanced, and only work well a few times.

You can re-culture using our product, however we only recommend doing so once. Past the first time, the balance in culture has most likely shifted and would make the process of culturing again much more difficult.

White Mountain Foods

There are however some store cultures which my friends have been able to keep going. They likely were more balanced to start with:

  • ALDI’s – plain full fat yogurt
  • Stonyfield Farms – original, plain full fat yogurt with 6 cultures

Direct set starter

A powder which can be stored in your refrigerator/freezer until you want to make yogurt. Convenience.

For continuous use

Heirloom starter

Purchase or find a friend who wants to share. Heirloom cultures are sold both as a powder and as a live active culture.

Dried red chili pepper stem

Start your own starter! This has the potential to be very handy and healthy. Everyone seems to be saying to eat local these days. You need local seasonal microbes. For instance with honey, if you have allergies, it is best to find raw honey within a 50 miles radius. In general the microbes in your environment tend to be the most helpful for you. This could apply to yogurt making as well. There are various starter foods which will attract the local microbes – dried red chili pepper stem, lemon, fenugreek seed, tamarind. Trying to start yogurt with chili peppers is on my to-do list.

chili peppers
Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay
Blog post by Sandor Katz
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