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On wasteful wheys

One thing I noticed very quickly while researching cheese recipes was the number of FAQs that dealt with the issue of what to do with leftover whey. When you make cheese, you separate almost all the fats, sugars, proteins and other good stuff into the curds, and then lift those out of the watery whey. You’re left with a big pot of hot, greenish-yellow water that has flecks of curd still floating in it and which smells sweet, warm, and slightly milky. And, it seems, cheesemakers around the world are tearing their hairs out trying to figure out what to do with it.

I don’t really get that. Once I’ve got my cheese, I’ve got the goods out of the milk, and I’m satisfied with that. Sure, you might as well use it in some bread or soup if that’s what polishes your pebbles, but I do not feel even slightly bothered by emptying it onto the compost bin. What you’ve got there is essentially water with some trace nutrients. I don’t fret about keeping the steam when I’m reducing a soup, so why fret about keeping the water from the cheese?

However, I like a challenge as much as the next bloggerini, so I’ve been trying my hand at making ricotta. Four litres of milk will yield around 400-450g of cheese, depending on the sort of cheese and how much you accidentally drop down the sink, so you’re usually left with upwards of 3.5 litres of whey. If you’ve used a bacteria culture to separate your curds and whey (instead of an acid like lemon juice) the curds are made up mostly of the protein casein, which makes up about 80% of the milk’s protein. The other 20% is albumin and globulin, which get left behind. They’re what you turn into ricotta.

The first batch of whey I made yielded a tiny about of cottage cheese, which I think is more about my under-developed skills in ladling out the curds. After scooping that out, I tried heating and acidified the whey and got…hot whey. Down the sink it went.

The second batch of whey I acidified and heated yielded bupkiss. Aromatic steam. I optimistically lined my colander with cheesecloth and poured, but I was kidding nobody. There were no curds in there for the cheesecloth to catch.

For the deal-breaker batch (as in “If this doesn’t work, I’m giving up my ricotta pursuit”), I did a little more research and learned that allowing the whey to sit for around 24 hours allows a bit of additional fermentation, which increases the acidity of the whey and makes curd formation a little more likely. So I did that. (M asked me some serious questions about my decision to leave a giant pot of sour milk water on the bench for more than a day, but was reassured once I explained my motivation. Dude was pretty scarred by the borscht incident of 2007.) I heated this batch of whey to 80-something degrees (Celsius), added two dessertspoons of apple cider vinegar, and left it to stand for twenty minutes. When I came back, there they were! Ricotta curds, with their trademark cloudy, fluffy, delicate appearance. I ladled a few out, then grew bored and poured the rest into my cheesecloth-lined colander. Success!

Allow me to qualify my success: from around 3.5 litres of whey, I got around ¼ cup of ricotta. That’s enough for a few slices of toast, or to mix into a pie or dollop onto some warm figs — but it’s not enough to really get me excited, you know what I’m saying? I think, in the future, I’ll make ricotta when I feel the urge, because I can and because I like it. But it won’t be part of every batch of cheese. It’s not a major waste-saving measure, and after all, the whey is just as good for the compost as it is for me.

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