Cheesemaking - what to do with all that whey?

Posted on Tuesday, June 11, 2013 | By Nicole Easterday |

You've conquered your demons and made cheese- good for you!!  (If you haven't yet made cheese, join one of our classes in SF & Oakland or check out our home cheesemaking kits - you won't regret it).  Now you find yourself with a pound of delicious homemade cheese and three quarts of whey!  What to do with all that protein-rich goodness?

First, some things to know about whey: Whey is milk with the fats and solids pulled out (the solids are now in your cheese).  It's primarily water but also contains lactose (milk sugar) which is water soluble and ends up draining off with the whey - for the lactose-intolerant, beware.

However, the most valuable ingredient in whey is the whey protein. Milk contains two types of protein - casein and whey proteins.  Most of the casein ends up in your cheese and most of the whey protein ends up in the whey, as you would guess based on the name.

In the early days of large-scale cheesemaking, cheesemakers would have to be creative to find uses for their whey.  Early on-farm cheesemakers fed it directly back to the animals as a protein source, of course, but once cheesemaking became industrial and moved off the farm, the industry had to find another way to dispose of all that "waste".

Because whey is an excellent source of protein the cheesemaking companies began marketing their leftover product to companies which make protein-enriched products such as protein shakes and bars. Before too long, the protein industry became so huge that it nearly overcame the cheesemaking side of the business.

Today, there's such a large demand for industrial whey protein (check ingredient labels on health foods and you'll see it everywhere), that marginal cheese has become the by-product and whey the primary product for some large-scale cheesemakers. That said, you're probably not going to sell your three quarts of whey to a protein bar manufacturer. Why would you when there are so many uses for it at home? The end use depends upon whether the whey is salted or not and there are way more options for the unsalted variety but here are some general ideas: 

Salted: Whey contributes to a richer homemade stock

  • Super Rich Homemade Stock- Save up your bones and/or veggie trimmings (you can keep them in the freezer for a few weeks until you have enough).  When you have what you need, cover the bones and trimmings with whey instead of water, bring to a boil then simmer on low a couple of hours to extract the flavor.  Strain out the bones and trimmings and reduce the liquid until it's about half or even a third of its starting volume.  Be sure to tasted for salt since reducing it will increase the saltiness.  Freeze in ice cube trays and use as needed in place of bouillon or stock.  DELICIOUS!
  • Baking - Use in place of water or milk in bread or pastry recipes.  Be sure to omit the salt.
  • Protein Shakes and Smoothies - Big industry isn't the only one able to take advantage of this protein rich product.  Add a little to your shakes and smoothies for a protein boost.
  • Powdery Mildew Assistance- If you're a gardener, especially near the coast or in wet climates, you've battled powdery mildew, that icky whitish-gray powder that settles on your cucumber, pea and squash leaves.  No need to buy expensive treatments at the garden store - spray on some whey and the acidity will change the pH of the leaves, discouraging powdery mildew.
  • Lower Garden Soil pH - Do you grow plants that prefer soil with a higher acidity like blueberries or tomatoes?  Strain your whey incredibly well with doubled up cheese cloth or butter muslin then pour it into the soil.  The acidity will benefit your plants!
  • Lacto-Fermentation - If you're a junkie for fermented goods like I am, you might appreciate the ability to speed up the process that whey gives you.  Instead of adding salt to produce you intend to ferment, you just add the whey - fermentation will occur much more quickly than you're accustomed to so keep an eye on it.  You can add salt to taste if you like.
  • Feed to the Animals - Obviously not everyone can take advantage of this use, but we mix whey in with feed for our backyard chickens for a protein boost.  It's especially useful during moulting when they need a little extra protein.  Unfortunately, there isn't much calcium left in whey, as it's all helping to maintain the structure of your cheese at this point. I've heard of people feeding whey to their dogs as well, though we do not - I suspect that, like milk, it's not advisable to feed whey to adult cats.
  • Drink Up! - The acidic tang of whey may be a bit of an acquired tasted but I actually find it refreshing.  Cultured whey has pro-biotics that can help balance the microflora in your gut as an extra bonus to the protein.  (see Booze it Up below)
  • Bathe in It? - Now this I have to admit I haven't tried, but I've been assured by a true Swiss Miss who studied cheesemaking with the pros in the alps that it softens your skin like nothing else.  Worth a shot??
  • Booze it Up! - There are so many ways to get creative with whey.  Inspired by my awesome homesteading buddy Heidi Kooy of Itty Bitty Farm in the City, who brought a whey-based lemonade to a potluck, I turned my extra whey into a martini I dubbed "Lemon Meringue Pie".  Vodka, limoncello (if you have it), lemon juice and whey mixed together made a lovely, almost (but not quite) creamy drink reminiscent of its namesake.  Equally tasty with lime - try it!
  • Ricotta - Many people ask about making ricotta from leftover whey.  If you made cheese using a culture then you must do this -it's the ultimate re-use. You still end up with some whey to use up, but you get some additional cheese from it. Keep in mind, however, that if you made simple cheese by adding acid (like citric acid, lemon juice or vinegar), you won't be able to get ricotta out of just heating the whey - you'll need to add an acid like vinegar or lemon juice to get the tiny ricotta curds.
  • Freeze for later - You can always freeze your whey for later.  I recommend splitting it into smaller, manageable batches and freezing separately.  It will keep in the freezer for up to 6 months, possibly longer.

I know I've barely scratched the surface here on whey's uses. 

How do you use up your extra whey?