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My first attempt at dairy-free yogurt earlier this fall was a disaster. Admittedly, I was feeling a little cocky since I'd had a run of really great batches of Greek yogurt. I was feeling so confident, I didn't even hunt around online ahead of time for tips. This was especially dumb since I've never needed to adhere to a dairy-free diet myself and was quite inexperienced. I simply dove in with my Tetra Pak of coconut milk and my vegan yogurt starter. The result: a nauseatingly curdled liquid that was immediately fed to the drain in the kitchen sink.
Appropriately chastened, I started reading. There are myriad ways to make traditional yogurt, and going dairy-free only increases the number of variables. I played around with sweeteners, thickeners, and styles of coconut milk to land on the version I liked best, and used a method for incubating that works for me. Your preferences may vary, of course, and I hope you'll share them in the comments.
Not All Coconut Milk Is Created Equal
First off, I have found the "milk" sold in those convenient Tetra Paks—often specifically labeled as a "beverage"—to be too watered down to make a good yogurt. Canned is a viable option, and initially I thought I'd go this direction—especially when I thought the idea of "fresh" coconut milk was going to require finding a coconut supplier and a hammer. Ultimately, however, I found that using unsweetened dried coconut flakes provided a workload I could handle while still delivering exceptional taste. It also allowed me to control how much water was added to the milk. The resulting yogurt was fresh and bright, thick enough to hold a spoon but not so gelled that it broke up in my mouth like jello.
Canned: Light vs Regular Coconut Milk
Before I decided to go the (partially) DIY coconut milk route, I tried out both regular and light versions of the canned option. For the record, coconut milk has a high level of saturated fat, and there is much debate over the health risks and benefits of this food. Assessing things purely on taste, I liked the regular well enough, but found the reduced-fat option to have an odd taste, quite chalky with very little hint of actual coconut.
Since the milk was already fortified with some thickeners, I got a solid set with just the addition of 1/2 teaspoon agar agar powder dissolved into a half cup of boiling water to four cups milk. A second batch fortified with two teaspoons of gelatin with the same quantity of milk produced a thinner though tasty yogurt, similar to a kefir. However, canned milk, even full fat, still had a somewhat chalky taste to me, which is why I ultimately settled on making my own milk with coconut flakes.
This is another area where I should have read before I leapt into non-dairy yogurt making. Unlike cow milk, alternatives require additional sugars in order for the cultures to have enough to eat during fermentation. With so many variables already in play, I decided to stick with traditional sugar. Honey and maple syrup also seem to be popular among cooks.
I was surprised to see that even though the yogurt shelves at my local grocery have exploded in recent years, there were no non-dairy options. At the larger grocery a few miles away, I could pick up a six-ounce cup of coconut yogurt for $1.89. At this same location, I could purchase a bag of thick, high-quality unsweetened coconut flakes (more like chips) for $3.49—enough for six cups of milk (and therefor six cups of yogurt). While that's not accounting for the other additives in the recipe, some of which require special sourcing, it's still not close to the $15.12 it would cost to purchase the same quantity commercially. Plus, you're controlling the ingredient list. Whether this is all ultimately worth the work involved is, of course, only something you can judge.
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