The Kitchen Artist's Whey Second Life for a By-Product

By Laura Silverman / Photography By Laura Silverman | January 01, 2017
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If, as editor and essayist Clifton Fadiman once mused, cheese is “milk’s leap toward immortality,” what then of the watery yellow substance left behind? Aside from recalling that Miss Muffet ate it along with her curds, most people have only the vaguest notion of whey, beyond its protein powder form which is routinely added to health shakes. Whey is the liquid resulting from milk that has been curdled to make cheese or yogurt; it serves as an abundant by-product with which dairy purveyors must contend, so abundant that there has been talk in the past of processing whey into a biofuel. In a world currently embracing sustainable practices and nose-to-tail eating, it’s only fitting that whey should take a turn in the limelight.

The whey from hard cheese and yogurt production is sweet, but the kind produced from making soft cheese like ricotta is more acidic and can cause an overgrowth of algae that is potentially detrimental to aquatic ecosystems if it is dumped into our waterways. So lots of whey is sold, or sometimes given, to animal farmers. The pigs at Raven & Boar in East Chatham are fed grains soaked in whey from local cheese producers, including Twin Maple Farm in Ghent. There is also a growing movement to educate consumers about the taste and nutritional benefits of whey. At last year’s Bitten food conference in New York City, Homa Dashtaki extolled its virtues—rich in probiotics, enzymes, protein and calcium—and vented her frustration that it still has not really caught on with the general public. Her company, White Moustache, makes delicious strained yogurt and now sells its whey, in ginger and honeylime flavors and also as a plain brine in 3.5-gallon buckets for poultry (it’s a marvelous tenderizer).

My Whey

If you make yogurt or soft cheese at home, you won’t need to buy whey. Obsessed with paneer, that soft white cheese used in Indian cooking, and deprived of Indian restaurants where I live in Sullivan County, I had to whip up my own. The process is similar to many recipes for ricotta, though true ricotta is made by curdling whey from milk that has previously been curdled (“ricotta” means “cooked twice” in Italian). When you curdle whole milk with lemon juice or vinegar, you are actually making a kind of fresh cheese that the Indians call “chhenna”: masses of cloud-like white curds that split from the whey. The curds can be whipped by hand or in a food processor to make a smooth and creamy cheese, or they can be drained until firm—in a strainer lined with cheesecloth or in a hanging bag made from a linen kitchen towel—and you have paneer. More importantly, for the purposes of this piece, you are left with plenty of whey.

Other cultures (Persian, Eastern European) have long appreciated whey as a refreshing and healthy drink. Try it chilled, flavored with fresh lemon and lightly sweetened. Or, as it’s served at El Rey Luncheonette in Manhattan, infused with fennel and tarragon simple syrup in a non-alcoholic riff on pastis, an anise-flavored aperitif. Whey is faintly milky with a wonderfully velvety mouthfeel that translates very well to cocktails, where it imparts the body and structure of egg white but with a silkier texture. This makes it a key ingredient in milk punch, a 17th-century sailors’ recipe that combines pineapple, spices, rum and other spirits into a smooth, potent and amazingly clear cocktail. Whey is also divine shaken with gin, simple syrup, lemon juice, a few drops of orange blossom water and lots of ice in a drink I call the Gin Blossom.

gin blossom

Every Which Whey

Whey keeps in the refrigerator for weeks and has endless applications in the kitchen. An essential component in lacto-fermentation, the naturally occurring bacteria in whey help produce delicious pickles and sauerkraut. A couple of tablespoons added to the water for soaking beans breaks down the enzyme inhibitors and complex sugars that can inhibit digestion. Whey can be used in place of milk or other liquids in baked goods to enhance tenderness, and it’s ideal as a base for smoothies and soups of all kinds.

At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where chef Dan Barber routinely makes magic with neglected ingredients, thinly sliced onions are slowly braised in whey until they collapse into a soft, sweet heap that’s excellent alongside roast chicken or piled onto a thick slice of grilled bread. Virtually anything braised in whey is enhanced with a smooth texture and savory undertone, including grains, meats and vegetables. Try simmering small potatoes in whey, then tossing them in butter and roasting until crisp. They crackle then melt in your mouth.

On the sweet side, whey can be combined with sugar and cooked down into a caramel sauce or combined with honey and frozen for a hauntingly delicious sorbet. Once you welcome whey into your life, you’ll be crying tears of joy over spilt milk.

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