Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Build Your Own Yogurt Maker, Sous-vide Cooker, and All-purpose Fermenter for $40

I make a half gallon of yogurt, twice a month.  I like making my own yogurt for many reasons, but it's a bit of a pain.  Since I make large batches, I can't use a standard yogurt maker.  I often get distracted and over-heat the milk, and the method I use to incubate the yogurt is wildly inefficient (my beloved Excalibur dehydrator).  I also need a constant warm temperature for various other fermentation projects, and that's often difficult to achieve with the tools I have.

I finally found a better solution: a temperature controller that accurately regulates the temperature of a slow cooker by turning an outlet on or off.  I simply set the temperature of the controller, place the temperature probe into the slow cooker, and plug the slow cooker into the temperature controller outlet.  The slow cooker then stays at whatever temperature I want.  Here's what the temperature controller looks like:

Once built, the temperature controller with or without the slow cooker can be used for a variety of other tasks (including regulating cooling devices).  Here are some ideas that come to mind:
  • Sous-vide cooker
  • High-capacity yogurt maker
  • Bread dough riser
  • All-purpose thermophilic fermenter (e.g., for tempeh, natto, koji)
  • Beer/cider/wine fermentation temperature controller
  • Kegerator controller
  • Freezer-to-fridge conversion
  • Egg incubator
  • Soil temperature controller for seed starting
Don't worry, I'm not turning into a food blogger.  But this sous-vide-cooked
chicken I made with my DIY temperature controller was pretty tasty.
I used this recipe from NomNom Paleo.
You can build the whole thing for about $40, including the slow cooker.

A few caveats before we get started:
  • If you're a sous-vide aficionado, this method may not satisfy you, because it doesn't circulate the water (requires occasional stirring) and it's slow to heat.
  • If you want to use it as a sous vide cooker, you'll need a vacuum sealer.  I like my FoodSaver, but other brands will presumably work fine.  These are often available on Craig's List.
  • Did I mention it takes a long time to heat up?  Slow cookers cook slowly and efficiently.  You can speed things up by starting with hot water.
  • The temperature controller is rated to 10 amperes (A) of current, which on a typical 120 volt circuit (United States) translates to 1,200 watts.  Everything except the temperature probe should be rated to 10 A or greater (you'll be fine if you follow my materials recommendations).  Don't use this setup to control appliances that draw more than 1,200 watts.  Slow cookers draw up to 250 watts.  
  • This project involves wiring, and I'm not an electrician.  If you have ANY concerns about the wiring, consult a licensed electrician.

For your convenience, I've provided links to Amazon.com product pages.  If you purchase using these links, you'll be supporting my work at no additional cost to yourself.  If you scrounge them up from your garage/kitchen or purchase them used, even better.

Here's what you'll need to purchase or scrounge:
  • Temperature controller with sensor.
  • Plastic project box (7" x 5" x 3").  Radio Shack sells them for $7.49.  You can also use this one from Amazon, but it's a bit more expensive and you'll have to put the temp controller in the front face rather than the top because it's not deep enough.
  • 8+ foot long three-prong extension cord (rated to 10 A or more).
  • Wall outlet with two plugs (standard 15 A duplex receptacle).  This is best purchased at a hardware store and should cost less than a dollar.  Here's the Home Depot page for the receptacle I used.
  • Wall plate for the outlet.  This is also best purchased at a hardware store and should cost less than 50 cents.  Here's the Home Depot page for the cover I used.
  • 3 twist-on wire connectors.
  • Electrical tape.
  • Rubber wiring grommets (one 1/4" and one 3/8").  I purchased these from Home Depot.
  • Slow cooker.  It must have an actual manual on-off switch, not digital controls!  The $40 price tag assumes you buy one used for under $10 like I did.  I got mine at Goodwill.  
These are the tools you'll need:
  • Screwdriver with small Phillips-head bits
  • Drill with various sizes of bits
  • Wire cutter
  • Wire stripper
  • Rotary tool (e.g., Dremel) OR some other way to cut rectangular windows into the plastic project box.
  • Adhesive.  Preferably a glue gun, but any adhesive rated for rubber will do.

1.  Cut the extension cord and retrieve interior wires.  You want to leave the male end intact because you'll be using it to plug in your box.  Leave as much intact cord attached to the male end as you think you'll need for the final product (I left 5 feet).

Next, remove the three interior wires from a 5-foot section of the female end of the extension cord.  Typically, they will be white (neutral), black (hot), and green (ground).  The wires are all functionally equivalent but it's best to use standard color coding in your wiring so it's more intuitive if you have to repair it later.  They should look similar to the photo on the left.

2.  Cut the following wires:

White: two 10" lengths
Black: five 10" lengths
Green: one 10" length

Strip about 3/8" off each end of all wires.

3.  Cut windows into the lid of the project box for the temperature controller and receptacle.  You want them both to be able to fit into their slots snugly.  Before you cut, make sure your placement allows enough space for both the wall plate and the controller (it's a tight fit).

The temperature controller has two orange sliders that you should remove before fitting it into its slot.  Disregard these for your measurements of window size.  Re-attach them after the controller is fitted and slide them up to fix the controller into its slot.

Place the receptacle in its slot.  Mark the lid where screws should go to fix the receptacle to the lid, and drill appropriately-sized holes.  If you used a 7" x 5" x 3" project box, it should look like the photo to the left when you're done.

Remove the protective plate on the back of the controller, exposing the wiring hookups.

4.  Drill holes into the front and back of the project box for the electrical wire and temperature probe.  These holes should be just large enough for you to squeeze in your 1/4" and 3/8" rubber gaskets (which will protect your wires from abrasion and give the box a finished look).

Insert your gaskets, verifying that they are wide enough to accommodate the thin end of the electrical cord and the probe.

5.  Wire it.  My electrical skills are approximately nil, so I relied on others to help me with the wiring.  There are many online tutorials on how to wire this temperature controller and similar units.  Here's the video I used.  His wiring works, although unlike him I would stick to standard color coding for the hot, neutral, and ground wires.

Here's how the wiring should look once it's complete.

6.  Fix everything in place.  Ideally, after everything is wired you should fix the power cord and temperature probe wires to the grommets as they exit the box on the inside.  This prevents them from tugging on your interior wiring.  A glue gun would work perfectly for this, although any rubber-rated adhesive should work.

Use the orange sliders to fix the temperature controller into its slot.  Screw the receptacle into its slot and screw the wall plate onto the receptacle.  Screw the lid onto the project box.  You're done!

7.  Use it!  The instruction manual explains how to switch between Celsius and Fahrenheit, how to set the temperature, and how to set the temperature range.

You should now have one plug that turns on when the temperature drops below the desired range (heating), and one that turns on when the temperature exceeds the desired range (cooling).  I recommend labeling each outlet accordingly.

You can use this temperature controller for a wide variety of projects.  Let me know in the comments what you use it for!

A note about sous-vide cooking

For sous-vide cooking, I recommend starting with hot water and using the system to regulate temperature from there.  You can also pre-heat the ceramic of the crock pot by putting a bit of hot water into it and dumping it before filling it with more hot water.  Crock pots heat slowly, even on high, so if you start with cold water you might have to wait around for two hours before your water bath gets up to temperature.

The larger your crock pot, the better it will work for sous-vide cooking, because the larger thermal mass of the water will buffer the temperature so that it doesn't drop as much when you add your food.

Also, since the crock pot doesn't circulate water to maintain even heat throughout the water bath, give it a stir and check the temperature before adding your food, and stir it periodically as it's cooking.

A note about yogurt making

You can both scald and incubate your yogurt using this setup.  When scalding, I recommend filling the crock halfway with warm water and placing your jars into it (not too hot or the temperature contrast may crack your glass) to speed up the process.  After scalding at 180 F, simply set the controller to 110 F and let it cool down.  Once it's reached 110 F, add your starter*.

I'm still experimenting with probe placement.  Last time, I put the probe in the upper layer of the milk.  It worked all right, but the temperature tended to overshoot by a few degrees sometimes, so I had to set it to 108 F.  It did end up making excellent yogurt.  Next time, I'll try putting the probe into the water.

* I have a little yogurt starter trick to share.  Those starter packets (e.g., Yogourmet) are so expensive that they essentially eliminate the financial incentive to make your own yogurt.  There is a better way.  I buy a quart of yogurt that I like (e.g., Nancy's), and I freeze cubes of it using a standard ice cube tray.  Each cube (~2 tbsp) is enough to start 1/2 gallon of yogurt.  The key to maximizing the viability of the culture is to freeze the cubes as quickly as possible, but thaw them slowly.  Once you've loaded your ice cube tray, place it into the fridge for 15 minutes to chill it, then place it into the coldest freezer you have.  Once frozen, pop out the cubes and store them in a ziplock bag in the freezer.  When you want to use one, let it thaw in a little bowl on the counter at room temperature.


Gretchen said...

Great idea, but it sounds like work. I'm lazy. Like you, I had a tendency to get distracted when scalding milk and it would boil over and I'd spent the next 10 days scraping gunk off my stove and pot.

Now I just make kefir from kefir grains. Kefir grows best at cool temperatures. When it's ready, you strain the grains out and put them in a new jar. Add unscalded milk, and that's it.

It's thinner than yogurt, so I sprinkle in a little guar gum to thicken.

I'll never go back to making yogurt. Also, the yeast in kefir grains removes more of the lactose.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Gretchen,

Nice. I used to make kefir, but got out of the habit. I guess it required too much regular maintenance for me, even though the overall amount of work was small. I like my yogurt system because I can take breaks for as long as I want, and not have to worry about buying milk or feeding a culture. Plus my fiancee likes yogurt.

It is work to make the temperature controller, but it's fun if you enjoy building things. I built it in about 5 hours and I'm sure someone with more experience could do it faster.

PeterNZ said...

I use this in combination with an old fridge. Get a thermostat switch which can be programmed to cooling too. I run this fridge as my cheese cave. I also use a water bed heating pad and use it for all sort of things like dough raising etc.

Anand Srivastava said...

Being Indian, we make our yogurt at home. Its not that difficult if you make it regularly. Save a couple of spoons from the last batch. First starter would be better with a natural yogurt like the Greek yogurt. In India, its quite possible to find good starter with some neighbors. Most Sweet shops also carry yogurt.

Use full cream for getting a thick yogurt. Of course buffalo milk in India has more fat so it tends to create thicker yogurt.

In North India, temperature controller is required for about 3 months. I use the oven at its lowest setting for that. Not very efficient, though. When we didn't have the oven, we used the rice container. We do normally prefer to have a 50Kg store of Rice :-). It was wheat before we realized the problems with wheat. It is quite warm inside if the Rice is kept in a closed box.

Unknown said...

A crockpot with the a rigged temperature control an also be used to brew a gallon jar of kumbucha tea.

jreiser said...

If you are lazy you can buy premade temp controllers. They are quite expensive the cheapest I've found is http://www.amazon.com/Dorkfood-Sous-Vide-Temperature-Controller-DSV/dp/B0088OTON4

Unless I stumble upon a cheaper one I will probably try Stephan's method.

Currently I use a induction range to cook many things but when I get the chance I think this will be a better solution for many of the foods I cook. Thanks Stephan!

Unknown said...

Interesting idea. Seems like something Alton Brown would have come up with. It seems you could take a ceramic coated cast iron dutch oven, place it on an electric hotplate, and use the temperature controller with that set up for quicker temperature response (if thats an issue for anything besides initial heat up).

Of course, electric hot plates are not safe to leave unattended.

RLL said...

Eggplant and Peppers are difficult to germinate without bottom heat.

Also, Sous Vide is about the best way to cook chicken breasts, they end up with the great texture of a good rare steak.

Also pasteurizing eggs is great for mayo and all the other things someone might want to do with raw eggs.

Anonymous said...

Wow looks cool. I've been wanting to play around with yogurt making, and this should give me the excuse. Should be fun to build the controller box too. Thanks for posting!

jeff said...

Huh. Surprised you don't just use the instant pot, as it has both a 180F and a 110F setting. Any particular reason not to use it?

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Anand,

Thanks. I don't make yogurt often enough to use the previous batch, but your method would work well if I did.

Hi jreiser,

Good tip, I hadn't seen that.

Hi John,

Good idea. You'd have to make sure it was less than 1200 Watts though.

Hi Jeff,

Good thought, but I don't have the latest version of the Instant Pot. Mine doesn't have yogurt settings. Maybe someday it will die and I'll get to have the new version, but at this rate I'll be ready to retire by then.

Plus, I need different temps for making other things, e.g. kome koji for homebrew sake (95 F).

Laura said...

I will definitely have to try this!

Joseph said...

This is is exactly why I have been interested in villi! I used to make kefir at home but find it too much of a hassle in a dorm room. With villi I can simply drop some starter culture (frozen) into a jar or jug of milk and let it set at room temperature. I personally prefer all my dairy products to be fermented. If only I had access to raw milk I could simply let it set out to sour or clabber. The Massai called fresh milk "green" or "unripe", they would pour the milk into a previously used unwashed gourd and let it sit for a few days before consuming. At this point it is called Amasai a sour, chunky yogurt like dairy product which still gets recreated and sold as Amasi/Enkosi in South Africa today.

Carl said...

We've been making our own Yogurt for about 3 years. I put a gallon of 2% milk in a glass bowl in the microwave for about 30 minutes on high. Till 192 Deg.F. Then cool it down in a sink of cold water to about 112 Deg.F.
About 30 minutes.
Then add 2 TBSP of the old Yogurt and mix well.
In our electric oven, we turn on the oven light ONLY and place the bowl of mixture into the oven for about 10-12 Hours.
The heat from the oven light alone is enough to ferment the Yogurt.
Then strain through Coffee Filters. I wish I knew what to do with all the Whey.

Stache said...

Hi! I've been using a temperature controlled crockpot for a few years now, and I really prefer my own yogurt to any store bought stuff. A tip for Stephan (or other Seattle-ites): there's a restaurant called Saigon Deli just off "The Ave" that gives you a tiny cup of yogurt as a dessert when you get an entree. They make it in house, and it's my favorite starter.

I've recently started playing about with koji. I'd love to hear any tips or recipes you have for koji fermentations.

Gretchen said...

Stephan, You can freeze kefir grains and then take a break. Or I sometimes put the fermenting grains in the fridge, where they work very slowly so I get a couple of weeks off.

Anyone interested should consult Dom's kefir pages, which will tell you more about kefir making than you wanted to know.


Unknown said...

Very timely. I have been trying to solve this exact problem. Thank you.

I use the Villi and Matsoni cultures which work at 75-80F, but ambient temp runs about 65F much of the year. Fumbling with turning the crock pots on and off is losing its charm.

Unknown said...

Are FoodSaver bags BPA free? Are they meant to be boiled?

I try to avoid heating plastics in general b/c I'm concerned about the byproducts they off-gas.

jewiuqas said...

Stephan, may I ask you, what the food contact surface of the slow cooker you are using is made of? For I also played with the idea for a while to use a kind of slow cooker for fermenting grains and milk, but all the models I could find on the market had their recipients either in stainless steel, or with a nonstick (Teflon) coating, so that I finally abandoned the idea. Stainless steel is OK when it comes to normal cooking times of a couple of hours, but is to be avoided for food storage. Some types of fermentation require a couple of days, but most of them 24 hours at the least. What is more, they require an acidic medium as a rule which only aggravates the nickel issue with stainless steel. As to Teflon, I wouldn’t use it even as a pet bowl.
The best solution I could find so far is a simple electric cooker with an adjustable thermostat for regulating the temperature. It has the advantage that you can choose your own dish (I have opted for an enamel coated pot). To adjust the temperature, you have to experiment a bit and make up a table or a graph showing how the knob has to be positioned to obtain some typical target temperatures.

agaviani said...

Dear Stephan! First of all I wish to say that I am a new, huge fan of your blog!
Yours is my favorite blog on the whole internet. You write in a very intelligent, scientific, smart, practical way, and about the most important of topics: those aspects of our health that we can most influence. After reading most of your blogs, I 'converted' to applying the conclusion of your insights. A a few questions for you. What do you use the dehydrator for? If one can't easily digest dairy kefir / yogurt, what ways do you suggest considering to get the probiotics? (I am using kimchi). What are some prebiotics that you would consider? Are there any tests (I mean with blood, urine, dna, etc.), accessible to non-researchers, that you think might be useful to perform periodically or una tantum? Thanks for the amazing posts!