Those of you familiar with the cheese making process know what happens to milk when we make cheese. Broadly speaking, when me make cheese, we call upon the activity of bacteria (to chew up lactose and turn it into lactic acid, thereby lowering the pH of the milk), acid (direct addition of substances such as citric acid, tartaric acid, or vinegar (acetic acid)), rennet, or some combination of all of the above to cause the milk protein (casein) to unite with the milk minerals (mostly calcium) to create calcium caseinate (curd). The curd is then separated from the liquid portion (whey) and then is compressed and aged to create cheese, which we then serve to our family and friends, or eat it all ourselves. But we’ve forgotten about that liquid portion of the milk – the whey. What are we supposed to do with that?
Many years ago, the answer would have been “dump it down the sewer.” But then in the 1970’s the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency came along and said, “Bzzzzzzzzzp! Wrong answer! This caused much consternation and head-scratching among commercial cheesemakers as they attempted to figure out what they were going to do with this stuff if they couldn’t toss it. Then someone discovered that if you spun the whey down in a centrifuge and concentrated it down to 85% protein, you now had a substance that they named whey protein concentrate. If you further concentrated it down to 90% protein, you had a substance that they named whey protein isolate. Food processors then discovered that you could use these substances to make a diverse array of products such as sports beverage mixes, baby food formulas, baked goods, salad dressings, emulsifiers, etc. Food processors liked using these substances because whey lacks the strong beany taste of soy protein. As a result, these food processors didn’t have to spend money on flavorings to cover the beany soy taste. Whey is also a good source of the branched-chain sulfur-containing amino acids methionine and cysteine, as well as many of the other essential amino acids.
You, the home cheesemaker, however, probably do not possess a centrifuge. But there are still many things you can do with that whey.
Drink it – pour yourself a glass of whey and mix in a powdered beverage mix (lemonade, Kool-Aid, Tang, etc.) You now have a flavored beverage that is healthier for you than if you used just plain water. Remember that the whey still contains protein and minerals. Just be careful if you use Kool-Aid; you don’t want that smiley pitcher guy to come crashing through your walls. (Note: those of you under forty may have to ask your parents or grandparents to explain that one to you.)
Bake with it –the 30-Minute Mozzarella Kit from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company comes with a recipe for Italian Feather Bread. One of the ingredients used in the bread is whey. The bread is very tasty, by the way; I recommend making it.
Feed it to your plants – remember that whey contains protein. Protein is made up of amino acids. Amino acids contain amine (NH2) and carboxyl (COOH) groups. Plants will use the amine portion of the whey as a source of nitrogen. One hundred gallons of whey contains approximately 1.22 pounds nitrogen (N), 0.40 pounds phosphorus (P), 1.46 pounds potassium (K), 0.29 pounds calcium (Ca), 0.05 pounds magnesium (Mg), 0.42 pounds sodium (Na) and 1.00 pound chlorine (Cl). In addition, certain plants such as azalea, rhododendron, and blueberry require more acidic soils (pH 4.5-5.5). They will not grow if soil pH is higher than this. Whey is an excellent substance for lowering the pH of alkaline soils, with the whey from making cottage cheese being most effective.
So use it, don’t lose it. It’s the whey to go!