Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Is it Really Cheaper to Make Yogurt at Home?

"Is it really cheaper to make my own yogurt?" That is a question I get from a lot of visitors to my homemade yogurt website. It's a fair enough question, because many things simply cannot be made for less at home. Cream cheese, for example. Other items, like baby food, are clearly overpriced. But the "homemade vs. store-bought" argument is a specious one to me. Do the people who ask me "with all the heating/energy required, do you really save that much" put their own grocery bill to this level of scrutiny? Is it even possible to know how much of your paycheck went into producing the store-bought stuff in the form of agricultural and petroleum subsidies and tax breaks/credits for large-scale producers? Or how about the cost of disposing of the packaging waste? Regardless, I decided it would be a worthwhile exercise to calculate the numbers on my homemade yogurt process, to the best of my ability.

Prior to running these calculations, I advised users to look at the cost of the individual ingredients vs. plain yogurt itself. What you will typically find is that you can get a half gallon of milk for the same price as a quart of yogurt. Yet the only ingredients in a good quality plain yogurt are milk and active cultures. So why does the price double when milk becomes yogurt? Is it the active cultures? Certainly not. It must be all of that heating and energy cost, right? Let's have a closer look.

It's All About the Milk

For my homemade yogurt I use a half gallon of milk from a local dairy which costs me $3.69. Now these cows are grass fed on a family farm, and given no antibiotics or hormones. I doubt you could even find a yogurt on the market that uses milk of this quality. So plug in a suitable number for the milk in your area. Just remember that the better the quality of the milk you use, the better your yogurt will be.

Get Cultured

So if you are making a batch of yogurt using your previous batch as a starter, your cost here is exactly $0. But let's say that this is your first batch, or you are starting over because your starter has become weak. 3 Tbs. of Dannon plain yogurt will set you back $0.16.

All That Heat and Energy

So if the store-bought yogurt is actually a better deal - compared to making your own - the cost of heating the milk to 185 F and then incubating it on the heating pad for seven hours is going double the price of the milk and starter cultures. I have to admit that I had no idea how to calcuate either. So I pulled out my utility bills, and hit the interwebs.

Let's first tackle the natural gas to heat the milk to 185F. If you've watched my videos, or made yogurt yourself, you know that it takes about a half an hour to take the milk from room temperature to 185. I accomplish this by turning my largest burner on high for the entire half an hour. In the manual for my rangetop, I learned that the input for that burner on the highest setting is 12,000 BTU per hour. Great! But when I look at my gas bill, I am being charged in units of one hundred cubic feet (CCF) of gas. Fear not, this gas usage conversion involves a very basic formula. One cubic foot of natural gas contains about 1,031 BTU. Therefore I divide 12,000 by 1031 and get 11.63 cubic feet. But remember, my bill is based units of 100 cubic feet. So I need to divide that figure by 100, and arrive at 0.1163 CCF per hour for my burner. Since I am only using the burner on high for a half an hour, that is 0.058 CCF. Finally, my natural gas provider charges me $0.819 per CCF. Rounding to the nearest penny, that is $0.048 (less than a nickel). Not exactly breaking the bank there either. But, there is still the electricty to consider.

Many users of my site have written to me saying that they don't use a heating pad to incubate their yogurt. This is either because they don't own one, or they can accomplish it with a thermal approach involving a cooler and hot water bottles. I have even heard of using a solar oven, which is basically a box with a clear lid on it, set out in the sun. I find these techniques inconsistent and cumbersome, and prefer the heating pad. But what is this preference costing me? This one is dead easy, using this electricity usage calculator. My heating pad uses 50 watts and my provider charges me $0.11 per kilowatt hour, which is $0.0055 per hour. So over the course of the seven hour incubation, it is costing me $0.04, rounded to the nearest penny.

Survey Says!

So if you are keeping score at home, you already know how much it is costing me to make my yogurt. But, endulge me just the same:
Active Cultures$0.16
Natural Gas$0.05

So I can make a half gallon of super high quality yogurt, with no added ingredients, for $3.94 per half gallon, or $1.97 per quart. As I have already stated, I doubt you could find any store-bought yogurt using milk anywhere near the quality I am using. I suspect the best large-scale option would be Stonyfield Whole Milk Organic Plain Yogurt, which at present will set you back about $4 per quart. Another way to look at it would be to use your store brand milk, which is probably about $2.50 for a half gallon. That would bring your homemade yogurt cost down to about $1.38 per quart. Compare that with Dannon Plain Yogurt, which is probably about $3.30. Do you see the pattern there? Rendering milk into yogurt effective doubles the price when you buy store-bought. But where is the value added? All they are doing is heating the milk, adding cultures, incubating, and then chilling. When I do this at home, it adds exactly $0.25 or ~6% to the cost of the milk. So what about the other 120% associated with the store-bought stuff? It's called profit - or if you choose to make your own - savings. Your choice.


  1. I'm still learning yogurt making 101, but all said, production costs, plus profits minus overhead, packaging, and shipping, equals a commercial product where the primary concern is the corporate bottom line, and THEN, consumer health, and product selection.

    Every way we can save a dollar or two adds up.

    The main point however, is, the quality of the food you put into your body is a spiritual and quality of life investment that cannot be calculated. You are what you eat, and if you choose to, you can mitigate the impact of the commercial world, or you can let the corporate bottom line pump you full of chemically produced hormones, pesitcides, herbicides, artificial colors, artificial flavors, flavor enhancers, and preservatives.

  2. Wow. Thanks for breaking this down. We brew beer and that is basically the same cost of buying it at the store, so I've always been curious about yogurt. But even if it were more expensive, I'd still make my own b/c I just like the idea of it better. Thanks again.

  3. I would like to add that you conveniently forgot to factor in labor costs...something which a commercial entity would never forget. So if we assume that you would be paying yourself for your efforts you'd have to add that onto the price of your yogurt. Even if we assume you're making minimum wage ($7.25 per hour in NY state) and assume that only the active half-hour or so of stirring counts, then your time is worth about $3.62, which added to the cost of your yogurt brings us to $7.98 per half-gallon or about $3.99 per quart. So in this scenario you are breaking even at best...and I certainly think my time is worth more than minimum wage. Unless you think your time is worthless you are losing money.

    1. my time certainly isn't worthless, but yogurt making for me is fun. If I weren't making yogurt I'd be running, or swimming, or reading. Can you put a price on enjoyment?

  4. Kwizo,

    I didn't forget it, but omitted it because it is a specious argument. If your time is worth (at minimum wage) $3.62 for the active time in making yogurt, it is worth the same going to the store and buying it. Driving to the store, purchasing the groceries, putting them away, etc., are all labor costs that should be accounted for in the store-bought equation, according to your logic. So without the gasoline involved, that would put your store-bought yogurt up over $10 a gallon. Then there is all of the government subsidies and tax breaks extended to large scale producers of agricultural and petroleum products that came out of your paycheck before you ever got it. The real price of gasoline is probably more like $6-$9 gallon (like it is just about everywhere else in industrialized world). The makers of yogurt would be passing this along to you in the cost of the yogurt, were you not already footing the bill.

    Furthermore, do you apply your labor costs to all of your other purchases? If you buy a new TV for $400, do you tell your friends it was really $475 and running, because of your time to go buy it, set it up, dispose of the old one, etc., and of course watching it? The time spent in front of the box is surely billable hours, unless you think your time is worthless.

  5. Well there are also other costs that go into the production of the yogurt available at grocers. Chiefly, there are facility, distribution, and as noted above, labor costs. The facility at which you produce and store the yogurt has to be maintained. The distribution involves not only further energy costs, but also vehicle maintenance. Also, every step from the dairy to the dairy aisle involves labor at varying wages. You are not adding anything to your home maintenance costs by producing yogurt at home, nor are you going to have any added transportation costs for acquiring the milk versus the yogurt, so these costs are not part of your production process, hence some of the savings. I tend to agree with you that concerns about labor are moot from a cost perspective. If this weren't worth your time you could, of course, be buying commercially available yogurt, and thus hiring in the yogurt production labor. But this leads me to an even greater point about what you accomplish by producing yogurt (or ANYTHING) at home. You have no say in how the yogurt you buy is produced or distributed. You have no input on the conditions in which it is produced, or the means employed to maintain those facilities or vehicles. You have no say in how the laborers producing, transporting, and purveying the yogurt are paid or treated. And then there's the matter you already pointed out of all those wasted cartons. Producing your own yogurt helps to mitigate potential damage done by these processes to your environment and your community. I applaud you for your home economic endeavors, and thank you heartily for making available your method. You are the type of unsung hero through whose efforts the world slowly and inexorably becomes a better place!

  6. Author,

    Thank you for the kind words and your additional observations. I concur completely. I would also add that the quality of the product that I make cannot be found in any commercial setting that I am aware of. I dumbed it down so as to make it as close to apples-to-apples as I could. I use milk from grass-fed, locally raised cows. I even have the option of getting raw milk delivered from cows less than 5 miles from my home, on the day that it was milked (for $3 a half gallon). Further, I can tailor the tartness and thickness exactly to my liking. And the half hour working time is a bit of an overstatement. I made a batch while preparing and eating my lunch the other day. It didn't place any burden on me, or interfere with the enjoyment of my lunch. I used the hot water from the process to clean my dishes, and used the rest (when cooled) to water some plants in my garden.

  7. Thanks so much for posting this! People ask me the same question. I actually use my microwave to bring the milk to a boil. Takes 20 minutes for a half gallon. Then I use a "warming cooler" (old ice chest with a 25 watt bulb) to incubate it. Might be a bit more or less $ than your method, but clearly cheaper than buying yogurt in the store. And I can start the yogurt while I'm making breakfast, so I don't see any reason to charge for my "labor." And since I can get my milk in glass bottles and reuse my yogurt container, I'm not adding extra plastic into the recyling bin.

  8. The question of whether or not making anything at home counts as "billable hours" depends on how much you enjoy it.

    If you hate the process of yoghurt-making and have to sacrifice time that you'd rather spend doing free-time activities, then it's fair to count that as a cost - though it doesn't count as "billable hours" at a set wage level unless you are actually taking time off work to make yoghurt! (don't do that).

    But if you have spare time and you don't mind doing it, then it's neutral. A bonus chore, like ironing your underpants. If you have to set aside time but you actively enjoy it, then it counts as a hobby.

    I don't expect to be paid for time spent playing Scrabble or doing cross-stitch, nor do concepts like "billable hours" or "efficiency" enter the picture.

    So like any other make-your-own activity, the question is, do you enjoy it? If not, you might do it when you're really hard-up, sacrificing your free time to make some extra income, but you'll stop as soon as you can afford to buy it again, because your time is valuable for other things.

    But if you love it, you'll still be doing it when you're a millionaire, and that has nothing to do with cost.

    1. 'if you'll be doing it when you're a millionaire because you still like it' --yes! What a great way of putting it. I would still be doing this as a millionaire. It tastes so much better. Thanks for all of the great info on this site!

  9. I am new to making yogurt and since I eat a lot of yogurt, I figured it would save me quite a bit of money to make my own. However, I am finding that when I use 4 cups of milk, I end up with only about 2 cups of yogurt. (I do strain the yogurt to make a thicker more Greek style yogurt.) I love the idea of making it myself, saving money and having control over what I am eating - however, I have yet to make a batch that I like as much as Fage Greek yogurt, and if I am only getting a half a gallon of yogurt out of a gallon of milk, the savings it not significant enough to stop buying Fage. (The yogurt I love.) Any suggestions? Perhaps I am doing something wrong. My yogurt is much milder than store bought plain, and lacks the tart taste I love.

  10. Lamama,

    Well, Greek yogurt is indeed different. It is strained, and depending on which variety of Fage, it has cream in it, and not just milk. You don't indicate which Fage product you are trying to emulate, so I going to assume Fage Total Greek Yogurt Plain, which is a full fat product (milk and cream). A quick look online shows that product to be about $7 for 17.6 oz. Now, a half gallon of milk is 64 oz. So that is 3.63 of the Fage serving size (17.6 oz), or $25.45. In other words, the Fage product is really, really expensive. So even if you are buying a gallon of milk to make a half gallon of yogurt, so long as you are not paying $25 a gallon for milk, you are coming out way ahead.

    But in terms of the quality, it sounds like your yogurt prior to straining is not quite right. If it is not tart enough for you, and you are straining away 50%, it sounds like you need to let it incubate longer. A few other things: 1) make sure you are heating the milk (and cream) to 185 degrees first; 2) keep the yogurt on a heating pad or other heat source for the full seven hours; 3) completely cool the yogurt in the refrigerator before straining it. If you are doing all three of these things, then you need to increase the time you are letting it incubate. So for example, if you letting it sit for seven hours, let it go for eight. Then nine, and so forth.

  11. Great blog! Thanks for all the awesome info about making yogurt at home!
    But your yogurt cost calculation is too high, by about $0.42. You've made a small math error on the natural gas calculation by a factor of 10. Your burner is only using 0.0582 CCF and not 0.582 (0.1163/2=0.05815). So your gas cost is actually closer to $0.047 - or less than a nickel - making your total cost less than $4. Even better, huh?

  12. Shrewsbury,

    Thanks for the info. I have edited the entry per your correction.

  13. I think this is totally awesome. I can't thank you enough.

    Costs: A few more indirect cost reasons...helps solve sugar cravings and overeating (the bad candida yeast in system are hungry and want sugar/carbohydrates), weight loss, general fogginess/fatigue. Directly it helps save me costs on paying for probiotic supplements.

    As a case study, the ingredients that I would pay a 'premium' to have removed from my local Yoplait yogurt include: high fructose corn syrup, modified corn starch, kosher gelatin, natural flavor (mystery ingredient?), tricalcium phosphate, citric acid, aspartame (contains phenylalanine), potassium sorbate, red #40, and blue #1.

    The worst perpetrators that I would especially want removed (besides the chemicals that I don't even understand) would be the high fructose corn syrup and citric acid. The first helps feed yeast and the second is derived from yeasts. Both contribute to greater candida in the body which in turn further increases sugar and carbohydrate cravings, inability to lose weight, and general overall fatigue and fogginess.

    Look up candida for more info...not everyone has this problem, but I was surprised with a doctor visit when I tested very high for it and it is suspected as being heavily under diagnosed. Thinking back, I've probably had it 15 years!

    You want the yogurt for the probiotics which include bacteria which eat the candida (yeasts) in your system. Sugars and citric acid in average yogurts directly counteract that benefit!

  14. Home-made Yogurt - Thanks for your reply. I actually eat the 0% Fage, but have tried 3 batches using 1% milk, 2% milk and whole milk. I have also incubated the yogurt up to 10 hours (but that was in a covered pan, placed in the oven, with just the natural oven I am guessing it wasn't quite warm enough). I will try the heating pad method next. I can see that I am still saving by making it at home, just not as much as I originally thought (since, the amount of milk is really only making half the yogurt). I am buying the best organic milk I can find, which is close to $7/gallon.... I figure if I'm going to make it at home, I should benefit from using the best ingredients...which of course narrows my savings.

  15. I have now gotten my yogurt where I seem to be able to perpetuate the cultures from one batch to the next, indefinitely. I blogged about it, and have a link below, but basically, you can remove the .16 from the equation above in making your own yogurt. That brings the price down to 3.78 for a half gallon of a superior quality yogurt. That's just $1.89 per quart, and zero packaging waste.

  16. forget about cheaper. is it better for you?

  17. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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