A Lesson in Making Yogurt in Kalofer, Bulgaria

One of our favorite things about Bulgaria’s tasty cuisine is its yogurt, which is appreciated worldwide because of its health benefits and creamy texture.

The people of the Balkans have been making yogurt for more than three millennia. Lactobacillus Bulgaricus, the bacteria responsible behind Bulgaria’s prized yogurt, is enjoyed as far away as Japan and China. In fact, Bulgarian yogurt dominates about 60% of the Japanese market! It’s widely believed that yogurt’s probiotics even help digestion.

In Kalofer, a village nestled in the mountains of central Bulgaria, our wonderful hosts, Tony and Stefan, taught us how to make yogurt (Кисело мляко, or kiselo mlyako) using sheep’s milk. The couple’s infant son, Iliya, also lent enthusiasm, making for a fun afternoon.

As good as commercial Bulgarian yogurt is, it can’t compare to the homemade variety that we made with Tony and Stefan — theirs was rich, tangy, and just creamier than its commercial cousins. When I asked the couple what foods they like to pair their homemade yogurt with (be sure to see their recipe below), Tony and Stefan said that they prefer eating it by itself. When Shawn and I discovered how delicious it was, we could see why they don’t want any other distracting flavors.

Realistically, we know that we won’t be able to eat this homemade Bulgarian yogurt all of the time, but that made this experience all the more special.

When it comes to eating commercial Bulgarian yogurt, Shawn and I enjoy blending it with walnuts or honey. Sometimes we’ll even add a dollop of the homemade apricot or pear preserves we’ve been given by Kalofer’s kind locals.

Whatever you choose to pair your yogurt with, Добър апетит! (Dobãr apetit!)

Skip ahead for Tony and Stefan’s homemade Bulgarian yogurt recipe.

Kalofer Mountains Bulgaria
Views of Botev Peak from our home away from home, Iliikova House. In this sleepy town you’ll often see sheep, goats, and cows freely grazing among the half-timbered barns and wildflowers.
Kalofer bulgaria Horse Wagon
It’s common to hear the clip clop of horses’ hooves in Kalofer, as residents transport items back home or to the fields surrounding the village.
Goats eating Kalofer Bulgaria
Goats graze in a home’s backyard, just one street away from our guesthouse.
Kalofer Church Bulgaria
One of Kalofer’s churches. The town is also host to a historic monastery and convent.
Kalofer Bulgaria Wildflowers
On the right, the women’s convent at sunset.
How to Make Bulgarian Yogurt 2
Prepping jars to fill with the cooked sheep’s milk and yogurt culture.
How to Make Bulgarian Yogurt Boiling Sheep Milk
To prevent scorching, Tony used a double boiler to cook the sheep’s milk.
Lactobacillus Bulgaricus Bulgarian Yogurt
Here, we wait for the milk to sufficiently cool before mixing in two spoons of commercial yogurt, which will provide the necessary Lactobacillus Bulgaricus & Streptococcs Thermoophilus bacteria.
How to Make Bulgarian Yogurt 5
Tony spoons out the surface cream from the boiled milk (it’s a bit like butter) and evenly distributes it between the jars.
Making Bulgarian Yogurt
Spooning the yogurt mixture into jars. On the right, Tony and Stefan’s son, Iliya, lends a helping hand.
Making Bulgarian Sheep Milk Yogurt
How to Make Bulgarian Yogurt
The jars are sealed after the sheep’s milk yogurt has been divvied up. (Note that these are recycled glass jars and that the lid from the past product reads ‘cow milk.’)
How to Make Bulgarian Yogurt 4
Tony bundles up the jars in two blankets to ensure they stay warm. The bundles will stand overnight for about eight hours. Afterwards, they must be refrigerated.
Homemade Bulgarian Yogurt Recipe
Enjoying the finished project the next day. It’s slightly tangy, delightfully rich, and creamy.
Kalofer guesthouse hosts
Kalofer bulgaria at sunset

Homemade Bulgarian Yogurt Recipe

Ingredients & Equipment:

  • 1.5 liters milk (our hosts used sheep milk).
  • Starter culture (our hosts used commercially-available yogurt containing Lactobacillus Bulgaricus & Streptococcs Thermoophilus). 
  • Double boiler, ladle, glass jars with lids, & blankets in which to wrap the jars

Preparation:

1. Purchase milk. Tony and Stefan bought sheep’s milk from a dairy farm in Kalofer. The traditional process is to BYOB = ‘bring your own bottle’. The cost for roughly 1.5 liters of sheep milk was 3 Bulgarian Lev ($2 USD or €1,50).

2. Boil the milk in a double boiler. Let milk cool until warm. An easy test, Tony explained, was to put a pinky finger into the milk. If your finger can rest inside for a few seconds without feeling as though it’ll burn, the milk has cooled enough.

3. Remove the surface cream, which is similar to a light butter, from the pan, dividing it into roughly-equal amounts and placing one dollop into each jar.

4. Use ready-made Bulgarian yogurt as a starter culture. Combine about 2 Tablespoons of room-temperature yogurt into a bowl, along with about one cup of the sheep’s milk. Stir.

Tony pointed out that people who regularly make Bulgarian yogurt have their own starter culture in a jar, but she used a commercial container of yogurt. If you’re not in Bulgaria, an online search will show companies selling Bulgarian yogurt culture starters.

5. Evenly blend the sheep’s milk and starter/sheep milk combination. Then spoon the mixture into the jars. Cover them with lids.

6. Wrap the jars in a blanket or two to keep them warm. Let the covered jars stand overnight – about 8 hours.

7. In the morning, it’s time to refrigerate — and later enjoy — the yogurt.

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • Kalofer, a village of around 3,600 people, is located roughly 65 km. (38 miles) from Bulgaria’s second-largest city, Plovdiv.
  • We loved staying at the Iliikova House (affiliate link) in Kalofer, because of Tony and Stefan’s warm hospitality, their home’s stunning forest views, and pretty garden courtyard.
  • Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Bulgaria.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and a co-founder of Eloquence. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta, as well as Heidelberg, Germany. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Though they are currently nomadic, they look forward to establishing a European home someday. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

21 thoughts on “A Lesson in Making Yogurt in Kalofer, Bulgaria

  1. I’ve not tried yogurt from sheep’s milk but have made it from goat’s milk. We use to have a dairy goat herd many years ago. This region looks lovely, Tricia and having a warm, friendly, family to host your stay makes it all the better.

    1. Hi Lynne, it would be fun to do a yogurt tasting and contrast goat-milk yogurt vs. sheep, etc. With all the animals here, I’m sure we could coordinate one.

      When you said that you used to “have a dairy goat herd many years ago” does that mean you and Ron, or your community? :) Was your yogurt-making procedure similar to this one? Where do you buy a starter culture back in the States?

      Indeed, we were quite lucky to have enthusiastic hosts to show us the ropes. We’re sad to be leaving tomorrow, but have a few more days in the area.

      1. Although we had jobs, we lived on five acres and with the encouragement of friends, who raised goats, we decided to raise dairy goats. Our children were in 4-H. I used starters from friends and confess to using a small counter top yogurt making machine.i made blocks of hard cheese and made herb refrigerator cheese, similar to cottage cheese. That was our favorite and easiest to make.

  2. Tricia, a great post as usual, I love, love yoghurt, especially just plain, or with a dollop of honey as you say. Do they also make the famous Bulgarian Feta Cheese, I wonder. On my list is to learn how to make soft cheese , like feta, and I found a local organic farm here, where they have classes to teach me. That Lactobacillus…. is so healthy for our digesting system, like for example when we have to take antibiotics. Happy Yoghurt tasting!!!

    1. Cornelia, since Shawn and I are also quite enthusiastic about cheese, I asked our hosts about it. :) They said they haven’t made it homemade yet. The Bulgarians love their dairy though. The most common is white brine cheese, similar to feta. We’ve used it to make Shopska Salad (a salad that’s popular in the region, similar to a Greek Salad because it’s studded with cucumbers, tomatoes, and cheese) and Chushki Burek (peppers stuffed with cheese and egg).

      How lucky you are to have found an organic farm with cheese-making workshops! Now that I’ve gotten introduced to making yogurt, I’d love to try crafting cheese. I had friends in Germany who purchased kits to make their first Mozzarella, and said the process was actually quite easy. Apparently once you get going with cheese-making, you can later buy one of the starter cultures at the Apotheke. I have never tried it, so I’m not certain if it’s indeed there.

      I’m eager to hear how your cheese-making goes. Have fun! :)

      1. Tricia , thank you for your quick respond on the cheese making. I am so familiar with the greek salad, though I haven’t made peppers stuffed with cheese and egg, I assume that it is a hard boiled egg. Unfortunately there is no place here like a Apotheke, where I could get the starter cultures, but I will find out about this at that organic farm. Sunny greetings from California to you both!

      2. I should do a post on the stuffed peppers too. The egg and cheese were actually blended together, then stuffed into the pepper before roasting.

        Sending warm wishes your way too! We’d had quite a bit of rain here, something that our hosts said is unusual for the summer months, but today’s weather looks very promising and sunny. We’re off to the fresh market. :)

    1. Bespoke Traveler, both are quite nice to eat here, but the homemade variety was much richer. It had such a complex taste that I wasn’t craving any honey or nuts to enhance its flavor. I’m not sure if this is because it was made with sheep’s milk, which tends to be higher in fat content? I also read that sheep’s milk is packed with more protein than cow and goat milk. Have you ever tried making your own yogurt?

      1. We’re planning on trying to make our own again in the coming days. Fingers crossed that it’ll turn out as delicious as it did when our new Bulgarian friends showed us the ropes. :)

    1. Juliann, I’m glad its tastiness came through in the set of images. :)

      I’ve since learned a few interesting yogurt-making tidbits from readers, some of whom suggested making yogurt with almond milk, even coconut milk, which should be more easily accessible back in the States.

    1. 21timetraveler, that’s a good point considering how many goats reside in Kalofer! :) We were actually just back in the United States visiting my husband’s family, and were delighted to see that our Greek yogurt (from Costco) was made with the same strain of bacteria as in Bulgaria (Lactobacillus Bulgaricus). It got me wondering how many yogurt brands in the U.S. actually use that strain?

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