Liquid Assets

An inevitable result of making cheese is having lots of whey on hand, which can be either a curse or a blessing depending on how well you can dispatch it in ways that are more useful and nutritious than pouring it down the drain. If you have pigs, you’re in luck; they love it and will reward you with excellent proscutto. Otherwise, after extracting fluffy, gorgeous ricotta–which is ludicrously easy compared to making whatever the first cheese was–you’ve got to use it up or the ghosts of your peasant ancestors will torture you with heavily-accented guilt and spectral finger-wagging. To spare you that Dickensian horror, here’s a list of some things I’ve been using it for.

This is by no means exhaustive, and that’s the point.

1. A liquid for stews, curries, and puréed vegetable soups. It’s pure genius for all of these, adding a dairy richness and sour tang (and lots of protein) with next to no fat. It’s also great for braising meats (for bonus points, sous-vide lamb or beef in whey with herbs).

2. Lacto-fermenting things. Add a little or a lot to jars of pickles when you fill them with brine, and they’ll ferment faster and have a deeper flavor.

3. Gravy. No stock? No problem.

4. Sprouting beans and grains. Add some whey to the water when you soak them, and the enzymes and acidity will give them a head start in germinating and breaking down the anti-nutrients in the bran.

5. Cooking grains. The amaranth I made last night was excellent, and polenta loves the subtly cheesy flavor it gets from cooking in whey. Ditto risotto.

6. Dressings, vinaigrettes, etc. It can sub in for buttermilk in almost any situation, to wit:

7. Pancakes and crêpes. Check out breakfast this morning: crêpes made with whey instead of milk and filled with seared leftover venison, mustard, and the pork-maple-birch caramel from the 15-mile meal.

8. Bread. I made this loaf per my normal method, substituting whey for water to see what would happen. A few things were different:

  • It rose a bit faster than normal.
  • It was a bit wetter than normal.
  • It browned faster than normal.
  • The crumb was airier than normal.
  • It tasted excellent, with a distinct and slightly dairy sourness.

Next time I’ll allow for the faster rise, since this was a bit past peak when it hit the oven, hence the rather flat profile. My guess is that the nutrients and microbes in the whey both feed and help the yeasts to generate gases, and that the added proteins are responsible for the more rapid maillard reactions on the crust. No theories on why the dough seemed so much more hydrated than usual. In any case the possibilities, especially for adding alliums and herbs and such to take advantage of that dairy tang, are exciting indeed. As an added bonus, I’ve created a loaf of bread that both gluten- and lactose-intolerant people can hate.

So, in case an immobilizing fear of excess whey (and the attendant ancestor guilt) is keeping you from making cheese at home, fear no more. Or buy one of those pot-bellied pigs for a pet.

Mmmmmmmm, mini prosciutto…

8 comments to Liquid Assets

  • Andrew

    Also great for oatmeal, steel cut oats, any whole grain breakfast cereal, especially nice with an overnight soak.

  • Great post! I have heard some, but not all of these suggestions. I just ordered more ingredients to try my hand again at making cheese (I still haven’t figured out the 30-minute mozz) and I know I’ll have all that whey. I love the idea of using it for crepes). So hopefully I’ll have plenty of use for these ideas!

  • Leah

    I get my whey from making/straining yogurt. The uses I employ are listed here, along with a few others I didn’t think of, thank you so much for this post!

  • Peter

    Andrew: Yes, yes, and yes; the fermentation adds a lot of flavor.

    Sara: If you have a microwave, it’s really easy. If you don’t, it’s still pretty easy.

    Leah: Happy to help; I’m excited to start making yogurt myself.

  • I am just about to start on making some cheese… and currently have whey from straining yogurt. It seems to me that the yogurt whey would be different than cheesemaking whey – don’t know why, maybe since there are active cultures in the yogurt? Have you ever tried the yogurt whey in bread? I may do that next go around…

  • El

    Whey. Heh. The chickens get mine as my husband has no love for pigs (living ones, that is). They like their grains soaked, much like Andrew’s steel-cut oats. Otherwise, yeah, using it as the liquid in the bread is how I use mine. I do confess I let a bit go down the drain. My septic system surely appreciates it.

    Yogurt’s beyond easy. Just last week I gave a demonstration to my kid’s 1-3rd grade class so they can make their own, in the teach-a-kid-to-fish mode of our school’s mantra. I incubate it in a cooler.

  • Peter

    Rebecca: There are active cultures in both, but they’re different cultures. I’m sure the flavor will be great; I haven’t tried baking with yogurt whey.

    El: I’m going to incubate it in my water bath.

  • [...] (I like to place a bowl underneath the colander, saving the whey for all kinds of uses!) [...]

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I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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