The Why of Whey

Hippocrates praised it for its healing medicinal qualities. Swedes turn it into a popular carbonated beverage. Scandinavians reduce it to produce mesost, a caramel-scented cheese.

In this day and age, fads and trends rush in and out of our lives. En vogue one day and in the bin the next, our finicky habits also apply to our diets. Whey, the natural liquid byproduct of cheesemaking, has not lost its place at our collective table, it has only lost a bit of its luster.

When acid is added to milk it breaks into curds (the solid) and whey (the liquid). Simply breaking the milk produces fresh cheeses effortlessly made at home, such as ricotta. An even easier method of obtaining whey is to strain yogurt for a few hours over cheesecloth.

Often overlooked, whey is as valuable as curd. Ripe with protein and uniquely sour, powdered whey is commonly used as an addition to smoothies and in supplements, but it is completely underappreciated for its value as a cooking medium.

Modern restaurants around the globe are using whey in their inventive cuisine. Whey evokes the memories of a creamery, the countryside, and a cuisine based off the land.  Restaurants such as Copenhagen’s Noma are using it in popular dishes like Potatoes, Lovage, and Whey, a recipe found in chef René Redzepi’s top-selling cookbook, NOMA: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. Also among its pages, the chef from what many consider to be the best restaurant in the world describes a dish he calls Yoghurt and Whey, Peas and Celery. In both dishes, Redzepi is utilizing the whey resulting from strained yogurt as both a cooking medium and focal point of the dish. He cooks the potatoes in a mixture of whey and butter for the first dish, and uses whey and infused oil as a broth in the second.

Broaden your scope and whey can find its way into myriad dishes in your own kitchen. It can be transformed into a simple and healthy soup by adding cooked pasta and late summer baby vegetables and herbs—a play on traditional minestrone. Switch out whey for the milk in a bread recipe to add flavor and subtle caramelization. Skim the “cream” off the top of your whey and it can be churned into flavorful and delightfully sour whey butter to spread on your whey-infused bread. Slowly simmer buttermilk (as opposed to the usual cream and milk) until it breaks on its own accord, and you’ve made buttermilk whey and buttermilk ricotta.

Making your own whey at home (and the accompanying fresh ricotta) is incredibly simple. On a stovetop, bring two quarts of farm fresh milk and one quart of heavy cream to a boil. Whisk in five tablespoons of white vinegar and salt, to taste, and turn off the heat. Allow the milk to “break” for approximately 20 minutes. Next, simply strain the mixture into a bowl through a clean kitchen towel or cheesecloth. In no time you will have made approximately two quarts of whey and two pints of fresh ricotta cheese.

Like anything else in life, the raw materials you start with should be of the highest and freshest quality you can obtain. If you’re not fortunate to have a farmer next door who produces fresh milk, we suggest Hoover Dairy. They sell wonderful milk out of their farm shop in Sanborn. Five Points Bakery also sells fresh milk at their Rhode Island Street bakery and cafe. If you make regualr visits to the Southern Tier, a subscription to Lapp Farm Dairy’s certified and unpasteurized milk program will make each journey worth the effort.

So next time you want to try something new at home, ask yourself, whey not?

Hoover Dairy

6035 Ward Rd., Sanborn; 731-3822

Five Points Bakery

426 Rhode Island St.; 884-8888;

Lapp Farm Dairy

3505 Cassadaga Rd., Cassadaga; 595-3210

Edward Forster is a professional chef cooking and living in Western New York.