The What and Why of Whey (and the humble story of Ricotta)

I remember wondering what the hell little miss muffet was doing eating curds and whey. First of all, I was an immigrant kid who did not speak much English and these were very peculiar, scientific-sounding distinctions to me at the time. Secondly, even after I was explained to, that did not sound delicious. Did she have her curds in one bowl and whey in the other? Surely she was not eating a creamy bowl of cottage  cheese; cheese is the curd, who needs the whey? My sentiment towards whey was that it was akin to the bath water that the curd baby swam in. But as it turns out, whey is not to be tossed out in good conscience. 

To be perfectly clear, whey is what remains when one separates the milk solids (curd) out of milk either by cooking (as in the making of panir) or letting stand with the addition of kefir, yoghurt or another cultured product. The curd is usually the desired item in this equation, going on to become cheese through the process of cooking, pressing, aging and so forth, depending on the cheese. What is left behind is a clear sweet liquid the color of coconut water. 

Sally Fallon wrote in her book, Nourishing Traditions, that “Modern cheese makers consider whey a waste product, but in earlier times it was used to produce a variety of other fermented foods and beverages.” She goes on to explain the process of using whey as a starter culture for lacto-fermented veggies and fruits, a pickling process that excludes the vinegar we are accustomed to and is thereby superior for health. Fallon also praises whey as a soaking liquid for grains and a starter for many beverages.

Farmer and sheep-cheese-maker extraordinaire Karen Weinberg of 3-Corner Field Farm in Shushan, NY explained to me yesterday that in addition to making ricotta (more on this in a bit), whey is used on her farm as a supplemental source of calcium in animal feed, and, for the same nutritional benefit, as a fertilizer for the soil. When I ask if any of it is discarded she says to me, “This is not New York City. We don’t throw anything away.” 

When recently buying ricotta at the greenmarket, I was told by the vendor that the exorbitantly priced tub of creamy curd was “made the traditional way—from 100% whey.” As it turns out, most of the “ricotta” we buy at the supermarket or Whole Foods or whatnot is made from milk, like other cheeses—pretty much precluding the specialness of this light cheese traditional to Sardinia, Tuscany, and Latium. Depending on who you speak to, ricotta means “reconstituted,” or “recooked,” and is literally the remaining milk protein (albumin) separated from the whey through a process of additional fermentation (either through cooking with the addition of buttermilk or by leaving to sit in room temperature for up to 2 hours), creating a fine curd which is then strained out. Voila. My favorite cheese on. the. planet. 

The same cheese-maker that introduced me to this distinction explained this: the three tiers of ricotta are cow, sheep, and buffalo, cow being the cheapest and least special and buffalo being the most prized. When I ask if he has tried buffalo, “It’s like silk,” he swoons. And when I open the straw tub of sheep ricotta I have brought home from his stand, the same description comes to mind. It is nothing—nothing—like the ricotta I have known. It is creamy, fine, silky, light and overwhelmingly rich at once. And when I grate the wedge of pecorino that I bought at the same stand on my salad, I think that these two cheeses that could not be more different came from the same batch of milk and minimized the waste produced. It created some extra revenue for the cheese-maker and added a lot of love to my day. Respect. 

In our culture, the only mention I ever see of whey is on scary cylinders of protein powder. Maybe it’s just me, but that stuff does not look like food. 

When I was a little girl in Russia, my mother used to make tvorok, a kind of homemade cottage cheese, out of raw milk on the farm where we spent the summers. I will leave you with this (approximate)  recipe: 

        4 cups milk

        1 cup kefir

        1 tbsp sour cream

Blends ingredients in a bowl, cover with a light cloth and leave overnight in room temperature. In the morning, heat over low heat until it starts to curdle. Then pour into cheese-cloth and hang over a bowl for 4-5 hours or until it has reached the desired consistency. Eat alone, with a spoon of almond butter or a splash of honey, or spread on a slice of rustic bread or pancake like cream cheese. And… get creative with the whey!

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6 responses to “The What and Why of Whey (and the humble story of Ricotta)

  1. Well done Kathy, really good blog entries. I like this one especially because I’m a bit of a cheese lover myself.

    Although its not really that popular, I’ve heard ricotta made from goats milk is very nice. Whilst not a big fan of goats cheese myself, it is quite popular in Europe because of its full tangy flavour.

    Unfortunately in the UK it seems cottage cheese is more prominent on the shelves with ricotta usually being resigned to restaurant or “premium” ready meals. Sad really.

    Dan W

    P.S. I added you to my blogroll @ http://www.danwarrenuk.wordpress.com

    • Dan!! I’m so glad to see you here. Yes, I have had goat ricotta too and it was good but really strong it flavor. I know goats milk is supposed to be the most appropriate for human consumption because of its small, easily digested molecular structure. But to be honest I really prefer sheep dairy 🙂

      Do you have good farmer’s markets in Brighton? (That is, assuming you are still in Brighton). I really miss the UK. But they really need to put ricotta on the shelves! Actually, in Italy it was never a food reserved for the wealthy, on the contrary. Ricotta for all!!

      Love to you Dan.

      • Actually i moved out of Brighton for a while but to a nearby town/city. I will be returning shortly to attend Uni

        We have some exceptionally good food markets in Brighton. Unfortunately they are the preserve of those with deep pockets.

        I might be wrong but it seems that the majority of farm produce in the UK generally tends to be more holistic or artisan. Most of the food we eat is imported. I’m sure the same is true of the US but to a lesser extent. I think that the US still relies on mainstream, internal, farms and that they would occupy the majority. From my experience in the UK it seems to be the opposite. Notable exceptions are the meat and dairy sectors, we still have lots of “aggro-farmers” pumping out mass produced crap.

        Recently UK farmers have come under a lot of public pressure to adopt more ethical approaches and many farms have gone out of business as a result, therefore we rely on imports from countries who are more “morally flexible”

  2. I love your writing. And I love cheese!

  3. Thanks Merete! I hope you are enjoying some cheese from the market. You have a great variety out there. Love!

  4. That is really fascinating Dan, I guess I always romanticized Europe for preserving more of a farm culture than the States. The thing with the US is, even when a food is not imported per se, (though many many things are), they will travel via truck across country all the time. A majority of our produce comes out of California, for instance, and is then shipped 3000 miles to the eastern seaboard, along with the entire rest of the country. Which is pretty much the equivalent of shipping food around Western Europe. Still, ideally local food would be much more affordable. There really is something wrong with farmers’ markets being for well-off people only. It should be tilted in the other direction. After all, the cost of shipping does not apply, and neither the supermarket middle man. There are a lot of changes on the horizon in the US regarding farm policy and hopefully in the UK too. It sounds like some changes are happening!

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