Yogurt cultured by Chili peppers

I received this email today from Boaz Shuval, a fermentation experimentalist in Israel, about a fascinating experiment he tried:

One of my favorite fermentations is yogurt making, and I’ve been making my own since 2005. For years I have been using commercial yogurt cultures as starters, and have had to replenish them every few generations. In your book you mentioned the heirloom yogurt cultures, which intrigued me. Unfortunately, the commercial sources of heirloom yogurt cultures do not ship to Israel, where I live. Nor do I know anyone who has an heirloom yogurt culture here in Israel. Therefore, it was with great interest that I read the chapter [in The Art of Fermentation] about plant origins of yogurt.
You mentioned a great deal of possible natural sources for yogurt cultures, some of which, like ant eggs, I was not keen on trying. However, you did mention that in India chili-pepper stems may be used as a source for yogurt cultures. This was something I was willing to try. So, I bought a package of red chili peppers from the store. I heated one liter of whole milk to 180F, and let it cool gradually to 110F (I let it cool slowly, over 2-3 hours). I briefly rinsed the chili peppers, and cut the stems off a dozen. I place the stems in a container, and added the milk. I placed that in my yogurt incubator. After 10 hours, nothing had happened. I decided to let it continue fermenting. After about 13 hours, the magic happened, and the milk had gelled! In fact, it had over-fermented a bit, and split. I had a layer of whey at the bottom, on top of which floated a very thick curd. I cooled it in the fridge, and it tasted like spicy, chili-flavored yogurt. I used one teaspoon of this yogurt to inoculate a fresh batch of milk.
Again, I repeated the same process: heat to 180F, cool to 110F, incubate at 110F-115F. The yogurt set beautifully after about three hours. This is a really fast-setting yogurt culture. The result was a very thick yogurt (this time I stopped the heat on time, so it did not split). I should probably say that it is a yogurt-like product as I don’t actually know what’s in it. Flavor-wise, it tasted very good. It is quite sweet and not very acidic, even thought its pH level does go down to 3.5-4 (I used a pH strip to test).
This yogurt culture so far has reliably made 5 generations of yogurt. My routine now begin at about 6:00 PM, where I heat up my yogurt. I then let it cool gradually over three hours. If, at 9:00 PM, it has cooled too much, I will heat it a little to raise the temperature to 110F. I add a teaspoon of yogurt culture from the previous batch (this I remove after the initial cooling of the yogurt and set aside). I incubate at 110F-115F for three hours, until midnight. By this time, the yogurt has begun to gel, although the gel is quite fragile. I kill the heat from my incubator at this point, and keep it insulated until the morning. By morning time, the yogurt will have beautifully set into a firm curd, and be just slightly warmer than room temperature. I then refrigerate it for several hours, where it continues to firm.
I am very excited about this. Naturally, I was very doubtful that this would even work. I have been sharing it with whomever would listen. I have also given some culture to a friend. I wanted to share this with you, so you could share it with more people than I can. It also makes me wonder what other sources of plants are used to make yogurt. Perhaps different plants can make different flavors and consistencies of yogurt? If you know of some information on the matter, I would greatly appreciate it if you could share it with me.
Thank you again for writing your fabulous new book. It is indeed a fantastic source, possibly the best source, of information about fermentation. It has been the source for many fermentation experiments at my home.
All the (fragmentary) information I know related to this topic is in The Art of Fermentation, plus the experience described in this email. If others have experience with plants as a means of culturing milk, please post here as a response.

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43 thoughts on “Yogurt cultured by Chili peppers

  1. A reader who saw this sent me this brief though provocative email: “A friend of mine grew up in a small town in Greece. He told me that if they run out of starter for yogurt making, they get the bacteria from a goat turd; they place a goat turd in the middle of the heated milk.” Fascinating!

    • Re the ‘goat turd’ starter, there was an interesting programme which aired on Channel 4 in the UK last month called ‘Food Unwrapped’. In one episode, they investigated where probiotics in shop bought yoghurt came from and they went to a factory in Finland who supply yoghurt to about 60 different contries. After some digging (and some slightly awkward and uncomfortable looks from the factory workers), they discovered that their bacteria originated from the stomach of a ‘healthy American male’ and yes; obtained from his faeces. However, rather than dump the ‘turd’ into the milk and wait for the magic to happen, they isolated the bacteria from the faeces by centrifugal force in a lab. Lovely!

      Thank you to Boaz for the intriguing idea for a starter with chilli stems. I am trying this method at the moment. This morning, there was little sign of gelling (after 11 hours) but perhaps when I get home this evening it will have become a bit more yoghurty. Would be great if it works for me too.

      • I tried it! It worked! Used a heating pad on warm overnight. I only had 4 chillies off my plant but was enough for 1 litre of milk. (3%). Going to try with some fresh garlic from my garden.

  2. This is indeed fascinating. That is one experiment I am not itching to try… I have read somewhere that branches of the cornelian cherry tree (cornus mas) can be used to set yogurt. I don’t have access to that tree, but a friend gave me a cherry branch. I thought to myself that they couldn’t be that much different…

    Well, I heated the milk and cooled it to 110F, and placed some (washed) cherry branch pieces in there to incubate. The result was the oddest thing I have ever seen. After a few hours, the milk started to froth. A couple hours after that, the plastic lid came off of the yogurt container (I recycle 1 quart yogurt containers to make new batches). The milk proteins had coagulated around the branch pieces into what I can best describe as a sponge. It was quite porous with a rubbery texture. It had a very odd smell. All of the whey was expelled, and the sponge was literally floating on top. I did not have the courage to taste the odd concoction. I do wonder what I had managed to create… It was like nothing I had every seen before. But, for now, I am back to using my chili-yogurt (which is still going strong. Its flavor has stabilized and it is now pleasantly sour and very firm).

    • Ha! So very cool. I’m going to get my hands on some cherry wood and give a try! I wonder about other kinds of wood, stems and flora filled things…the wild grapes that grow here are always covered in yeats. I bet the grapevines would produce an interesting result.

    • Your experiment with the cherry cutting is intriguing. I wonder what the concoction would have tasted like had you tried it though I’m not sure I would have tried it either 😀

      I know that cornelian cherry and “regular” cherry are not the same species. Cornelian cherry is actually part of the dogwood family of trees/shrubs. My understanding is that it’s wood is so dense that it cannot float in water. In fact, I planted an “Elegant” variety cornelian cherry tree three years ago and it continues to grow, albeit, very slowly. It’s about 2 1/2 feet tall at this point and flowered this year for the first time. If I can bring myself to snip off a bit of branch I’ll be sure to report any results.

    • Hello! I am so happy to have found you! This year in our food evolution we leased a share at a local dairy for raw milk. As yogurt is my dairy staple, I wanted to start my own cultures, not from the commercial remnants in the fridge, and too impatient to wait for the Villi cultures just ordered to arrive. Voila! Our Cornelian cherry tree is more than ornamental. I used about 12 inches of twig, cut into smaller 1 to 2 inch pieces. I rinsed the whole twigs quickly before cutting. I heated the milk to 180, cooled to 110. Tossed in the twigs, incubated in a Deni yogurt maker for 18 hours to set. It was delicious, texture a bit grainy, alot of whey. Batch two and three 12 hours of incubation, much creamier, still alot of whey. Think it could be a shorter time, though.

      Thanks for sharing, it is interesting after mining for a few hours this was the only reference found about Cornus mas as a starter. Which led to buying Wild Fermentation and am enjoying it tremendously. I had a vague idea of homemade sauerkraut, remembering Grandpa sitting in his root cellar sampling his work from a 25 gallon crock… 40 years later, off today to make our very first jars of goodness. Thanks so much, Sandor Katz. You are amazing!

      • Batch 4 and 5. 7 hours incubation. No whey, until after dishing up first serving and storing the balance in fridge. Much like the commercial yogurt does. Very smooth and creamy. Delicious mellow flavor. Its getting better each batch. Using about 3 tbs of yogurt for 4 cups of milk.

  3. It would be fascinating to look at these cultures under a microscope or analyze them in some way to see what’s going on there….

  4. I just replicated the red chili pepper stems. I used fresh Thai peppers and tried not to include any of the red skin. It’s now cooling in the fridge. Very very firm.

  5. Not sure why the commercial yogurt has to be replaced after a few generations. Starting with Yoplait I have kept it going for literally dozens of generations.

  6. Wait! I thought peppers didn’t lactoferment so well (on their own)!?!? This being the case, why are they good for creating a starter? Something isn’t adding up.

  7. I also just replicated the pepper stem milk fermentation experiment and was successful. I was online researching appropriate salt-to-vegetable fermentation ratios when I came across this post. I’m making a fermented hot pepper sauce so I had plenty of stems to experiment with.

    I’ve made yogurt before using the commercial culture (yoplait, mostly), but I’m always interested in ways of beginning things from scratch so this was right up my alley.

    I followed your general yogurt making process last night and had an overly cultured product in 12 hours. At 11 hours it was just barely starting to gel, very very delicate. At 12 is was separated with an inch of whey on the bottom. I refrigerated it overnight, and tasted the “yogurt” this morning. It was surprisingly good; mild cream flavor, no sour aspect, and a hint of garden pepper flavor. It had separated even more over the night so I decided to make a non-salted lebnah (sp?) out of it by straining for many hours, and added the strained whey to my fermenting peppers. I figure whatever was on those pepper stems that fermented the milk was certain to help get the peppers really moving along.

    I’ve also just finished a second batch of yogurt using my initial pepper yogurt as the starter. Like you, it was ready in about 2.5 hours instead of 12. I then moved the container to a basin of cold water to wick away the year and quickly slow the fermentation before finally putting it in the refrigerator. I look forward to tasting this second batch. I also look forward to having the yogurt develop some acidity/sourness, otherwise it just doesn’t “feel” like yogurt.

  8. I just tried it too, with pepper stems from my garden, and it worked beautifully! The best tasting yogurt I’ve ever made, I think.

  9. I tried this too. After 12-14 hours, the whey separated and the ‘yogurt’ was floating on top. It had a sponge-like appearance, creamy texture, and an almost fishy smell. Is this normal? I’m wondering if mine has gone bad somehow. I used pasteurized buffalo milk. (Use this with Yoplait when I want very firm yogurt).

  10. I came across a single posting from someone who said her Indian grandmother used a dried tamarind and a dried red chili. I tried this variation and it also works. The original generation had a reddish stain from the chili and a dried husk aroma from the chili pepper. I am now on the 3rd derived generation and the color is normal. It does have a chili-bite to it yet. I’m not going to make a liter of yogurt from it until it loses the chili bite. It has a nice creamy texture and is practically solid.

    I am now on generation 6 of the starter I made from just using chili pepper stems. The aroma of bell pepper is gone. It has attained a lovely tart flavor and is still going strong.

  11. I also replicated this with jalapeño stems and had nearly identical results. I was fermenting the last batch of my peppers from my garden and it seemed a shame to throw away all of those stems. I’m so glad that I didn’t. Right now I’m making a mild (very little sourness but still a little heat) creamy yogurt cheese out of my second batch. I’m really happy with this process!

  12. I get my “starter” which is a real bacteria called bulgaris culture from Juventas Hebe. They have specialized in just growing and selling them in the small they are from. For what I understand they are online now but you can email them: hjuventasb@gmail.com

    They will mail you a small glass container with the instructions and the Lactobacillus delbrueckii which is the real thing!

    Ihope they have their page up now. They sold my grandma the whole kit with the wooden spoon and the cloth to prepare what they call Kefir o Kumis.

    Let me know how it goes.

  13. Thanks for posting this! I tried this but did not follow the steps exactly. The first generation didn’t come out well, but the second generation(using first generation’s culture) came out well!
    1. only used about 6 stems, didn’t rinse or anything
    2. only used 6oz soymilk
    3. microwaved soymilk until hot, then cooled it down, alternatively, could just microwave it until lukewarm
    4. covered stems in cheesecloth, stick in soymilk
    5. incubated using a heating pad for 24 hours, after which little clumps of gel formed
    6. then heated another 6oz soymilk and used a little piece of the clumps in it,
    7. incubate about 6-8 hours and the yogurt came out much better!

    Thanks for sharing!

  14. I am from southern part of India. In our town, if we ran out of yogurt or forgot to store some yogurt for the next batch, we use stems of chili peppers too. when they prepare yogurt in a large scale (like for a wedding party), they use whole dried red chili peppers along with the culture to speed up the process.

    I tried the green chili pepper stems with homemade soymilk and it made soy yogurt successfully.


  15. Thanks for this info! I tried it, w/ 3 fresh serrano stems in a cup of rich whole milk. Milk first heated to 180, then cooled to ~110. Dropped the stems in and closed the lid, kept for ~11 hours at 102* F. Solid, sweet curd, tasting faintly of pepper. 2nd gen has no pepper taste – solid, thick, yogurt-like, but only faintly tart. Almost like clotted cream. Anyone know what organisms are at work?

  16. Your info made its way to me about 18 months ago. I used chilli pepper stalks. Then had some family prob, forgot to put some aside… and had to start again. Couldn’t find organic chilli peppers so instead looked for sweet peppers with the longest stalks I could find. Guess what- bingo! Ever since then, using Harduf milk, I merely transfer from 2 tablespoons of yogurt from one jar to the new one. The yogurt culture has thickened, and I have a great slow-warmth incubation method. I just saw a method where a tamarind pod is broken and stuck into a jar of milk for some 12-14 hours to produce the starter and I’m guessing that even though carob is a distant relative to tamarind, that could work too.
    ממש אחלה, כל זה

  17. Absolutely tried this! We were gifted a BUNCH of jalapeños from a friends garden. It made a very firm “starter” however the next generation, isn’t nearly as firmly set after 6 hours… So I’m letting it strain some in the fridge. I’m using regular grocery store full fat milk. There is a chance I may have overheated the milk initially, the whole batch has an orange tint to it. Anyone ever have a color change in the milk?

  18. This page is filled with very cool info. I experimented with the recipe a few different ways. For some background on me, I eat a Specific Carbohydrate Diet so any dairy I consume must be fermented at least 24 hours. That means 24 hours at 119 degrees–no gradual final cooling stage. Also, I’m in the mid-Atlantic U.S., which may become relevant as I go on here.

    I used a crock pot, a meat thermometer, store bought pasteurized cow milk, and varying garden fresh jalapeno parts. We’re having an extremely mild October, mostly in the 60’s (F), in this region. I harvested what I presume to be the last jalapeno crop from the garden only several days ago.

    First, I followed Post #1, using about 2 dozen jalapeno stems with caps attached and 2 quarts of 2% milk. I increased the fermentation time to 24 hours. The acid in the caps obviously overrode any bacterial action of the stems, because I ended up with curds and whey. No one here likes whey so I strained off the curds, and fertilized a dead patch in our lawn with the whey. In terms of volume, the gross majority of the end product was whey. The curd was sour with a smokey hint of jalapeno. I hung it in a clean rag inside a refrigerator overnight, periodically drying the outside of the rag ball using paper towels. This made a very nice ball of soft cottage cheesy curd, with the consistency of goat cheese. It tasted excellent with honey and was extremely filling.

    Second, I repeated my version of the process substituting 2 Tablespoons of my curd cheese as starter culture and whole milk. Nothing happened this time. After 24 hours, I basically had warm milk.

    Finally, I rewashed everything (scalding this time), marched back out to the garden, and cut down an entire jalapeno stalk just above the soil line. I rinsed it in cool running water, and then trimmed the leaves off. I switched back to 2% milk, and mistakenly boiled the milk somewhere above 180, closer to 200. Not wanting to wait, I uncovered the pot, cooling down to 110 in a hurry. Then I snipped up the stalk into chunks just short enough to fit inside the pot. I wrapped the lid joint with aluminum foil and maintained 110 for 24 hours. This made beautiful Dahi, very similar plain American yogurt but with a slightly varied consistency. To my surprise it’s only slightly sour with little to no jalapeno flavor!

  19. I just came across a posting on the Chowhound website from someone who says they use ant eggs as their yogurt starter.

    Search for the term ‘ants eggs’ (but with no quotation marks) and then you should see the topic about Yogurt making where it’s addressed.

  20. I used 12 ahi pepper stems and 1 quart water with 2 cups non-fat dry milk. I only heated the mixture in the microwave for 2 minutes to about 100 degrees and placed in a yogurt incubator overnight. In the morning it was a beautifully firm and very mild flavored yogurt. Simple and delicious!

  21. One of the heirloom yogurt cultures we know in Turkey is chickpea culture.




    The other one is sorrel culture.


    Some rural Turks also use dew as a yogurt starter. It’s probably contaminated with Lactobacillus plantarum and some other species on plant leaves.

    Besides, the ant egg method you mentioned in your book is known in Turkey too.

  22. I went ahead and tried an experiment with home grown dehydrator-dried chili pepper stems (peppers a bit over a year old, mind you) in home made organic soy milk (w/ a bit of real salt and 1 tsp/ cup milk of organic white sugar).
    I actually did 3 different batches (3 cups each in qt jars) as part of the experiment: 1) with chili stems set into warm milk,
    2) with yogurt from a previous batch (generation 1 [G1] from freeze-dried vegan starter), roughly 1 Tbsp slop-over starter
    3) and one jar with both chili pepper stems and with yogurt from G1 made from commercial starter
    the qt jars were put on my yogurt maker (made for 7 little 6 oz or so jars but will incubate 3 qt jars at a time) and incubated for 6 hours
    the results were interesting.
    The chili-only batch definitely cultured too long, in my thinking. it was very thick, at least the actual yogurt part, but broken and cracked with a heavy amount of vegan soy whey in the bottom. I noticed it was not setting up at first, like the others, but then a short time later it was over-cultured.
    The other two looked pretty well set up, but much thinner, the combo of chili and G1 starter slop being a bit thicker of these two.
    I am wondering if the chili peppers may work well as a mesophilic yogurt culture, if they would work better set out on a counter top. my next batch I may try 1 jar with G1 of chili pepper starter at room temp, and one with G1 chili pepper starter heated in the yogurt maker base for a shorter time.
    Many more experiments to go.
    I also plan to see if I can figure out the chickpea heirloom starter mentioned above by Ertunc, and hope it will work in home made soy milk, but the video linked is gone and the sites in Turkish don’t translate so well to English.

    • my Generation 2 [G2] experimentation is under way.
      I have taken 3.5ish cups home made unsweetened soy milk from the fridge (lightly salted, usually about 1/4 tsp real salt per 3-4 cups), split this soy milk to 3 pint jars, so just over 1 cup each jar.
      The milk and cultures were still cold from the fridge, even the milk was not heated to 110 F, let alone 180 and held there. (part of the experimentation). They were not even brought to room temperature. (I should have heated one of the jars first as a better control subject, and brought it to 110 (or 180 F, held 20 – 30 min and cooled to 110), but I have been sick last few days, so laziness won out.
      All 3 jars had 2/3 rounded tsp. starter culture (the thick curd-like stuff from the initial chili pepper starter culture, [G1C], absent of most of the whey-like substance) from the
      I then added 1/2 Tbsp brown rice syrup (which has dextrose, a food for the microbes, it is similar to glucose), which is probably a bit heavy handed as just microbe feed, but not too worried about it.
      Two of the jars went into the base of the yogurt maker, covered with coffee filters banded to them and the yogurt maker dome lid teetering on top of the jars [G2C]. Yogurt maker set to 4 hours.
      The third jar was coffee filter covered and just put out on the table a few inches from the yogurt maker, as a first experiment in vegan heirloom mesophilic yogurt cultures, as opposed to thermophillic cultures, meaning ones I want ones that will culture at room temperature [G2C-M1]. I imagine it will take more time to culture, I plan to check it in 12-24 hours at a few points if I have time.
      The brown rice syrup and cultures were mixed in all 3 jars a little with a cleaned bamboo chop stick, in other words, not too well considering the milk and cultures were cold. ^)^
      I may, soon, also try to use nothing but the whey substance from G1C in a small amount of milk for both thermo and meso tests, and reserve the other whey for some vegan cheese starter culture, either a vegan yogurt cheese or a cashew nut cheese, smth like that.

  23. Indians , at least a majority of them use yogurts regularly as a third course to be taken with rice during all meals and especially with lunch. Most indian meals are not complete if they are concluded with curds or at least buttermilk. So the Indian method of yogurt making is time tested. They use heirloom yogurts. And use a teaspoon or sometimes just dip a spoon inbthe old one into freshly boiled milk for getting sweet smelling and tasting yogurt whichbisncreamier in texture. When people try to use too many chillies the fermentation occurs at a different pace and then the whey separates from the curd. The number of chillies for a good bowl in a reasonably hot weather should not be more than 2.

  24. This is fascinating reading. I have been making yogurt using commercial yogurt as a starter. But I want to make my own starter and have 3 green peppers in (heated then cooled) milk right now…following the directions on another youtube. Hope it works! If not, I’ll try stems and also lemon. Thanks to the people for recording their experiences here.

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