When you regularly make cheese and other dairy products at home, you’ll be impressed by two things: the amazing creations you can make from a few ingredients and the amount of whey you generate. When you turn milk into cheese or yogurt, you separate the solids, or curds, by cooking and draining off the liquid, or whey. Commercial manufacturers of Greek yogurt generate so much whey it’s created environmental problems. If you make your own cheese and yogurt, you likely want to be at least as conscientious as the big brands. Corporations are testing large-scale solutions, but at home you have many small, easy, and tasty alternatives to pouring that whey down the drain.
Deciding how to use your leftover whey starts with the type of whey you’ve created. When you separate curds from whey, butterfat and most proteins remain in the curd. The whey contains water, milk sugar (lactose), starter bacteria (which is why some people use it in vegetable fermentations), and some proteins and minerals.
If you’re making hard cheese, clear fresh whey—no more than 3 hours old—can be immediately turned into a second cheese, such as whey ricotta; gjetost, my favorite type of goat cheese; or mysost, its cow’s milk cousin. Soft cheeses won’t set properly for additional cheese, but their whey can be swapped out for the liquids in many other dishes. Acid-based cheeses, like Lemon Cheese, as well as Fresh Yogurt, produce whey with a sharper bite, so they have fewer uses but can still end up in your next meal.
When whey forms, you can pour it off and work with it immediately; otherwise, cool the whey and get it into the refrigerator within a couple of hours to retain its sweetness. Leftover whey can be refrigerated for up to a week and frozen for months for use in soups and breads.
Fresh Yogurt whey looks and tastes like a thin, tangy version of the yogurt you’ve just drained, at least at first. The longer the separated whey sits, the sharper the flavor. And the more thoroughly you drain your yogurt, the clearer and tarter your whey will be.
Here are just a few ways I like to use yogurt whey and how I handle the draining step:
- Smoothies. My first go-to for yogurt whey is smoothies. The other smoothie ingredients will thin out and flavor the drink, so it’s easy to build the beverage up from yogurt whey. For a thicker base, drain the yogurt through a wire-mesh strainer for just a few minutes.
- Baked goods. Yogurt whey can be swapped into many baking recipes, replacing full-thickness yogurt, buttermilk, sour cream, and sometimes even milk. I typically substitute yogurt whey and buttermilk cup for cup after draining the yogurt for 20 minutes or more. To replace other dairy with yogurt whey, you may need to experiment with proportions and adjust the liquid-to-flour ratio for consistency in the final treat.
- Sauces. Yogurt-based sauces for pasta, meats and seafood, and vegetables are becoming increasingly popular for their healthy flavor boost. Yogurt whey works in many cases. The sauce won’t be as sweet or thick as one made with plain drained yogurt, so you may want to cut back on other flavors, like lime and lemon juice. For thicker sauces, try a combination of yogurt and yogurt whey.
When cheese curds are fully set, the whey is nearly yellow-green and transparent, rather than milky. If you’re making cultured cheese, this sweet whey can often be used to created a secondary cheese, like ricotta. Acid-set cheeses are tangy rather than sweet, making them less ideal for this repurposing. But they can still have a place in your kitchen besides the sink drain:
- Soups. Replace stock with cheese whey for any of your favorite soups, or swap it for milk or cream for a lighter yet slightly tangy cream soup. You can also use the liquid as the base for cooking rice or beans.
- Breads. Most doughs use water or milk as their liquid base. You can replace either with cheese whey in most bread recipes—yeast or sourdough. I see little effect in the final bread when I substitute cheese whey for water in pizza dough or pita bread. But Sourdough English Muffins and fully risen loaves, like Sourdough Rye Bread, will have a softer crumb if you swap cheese whey in for the water.
- Sauces. One of my favorite ways to use the whey left over from making almost any type of cheese is to cook it down until it thickens into Whey Sauce. Stir this sauce into cheesy soups, replacing some or all of the recipe’s milk and cheese, or go all out and make the Cheesiest Mac and Cheese.
Twice as Tasty
All month, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite cheese-related recipes, from making cheese to using it and the leftover whey. Next week, discover some recipes ideal for yogurt whey. Later this month, I’ll offer some easy upgrades to basic homemade cheeses and recipes that put them to use. We’ll also get you stretching and pulling curds into quick mozzarella that’s ready to eat in just 30 minutes. You’ll feel just like Little Miss Muffet as you eat both curds and whey.
Want to play with more variations? I teach cheese- and yogurt-making techniques in workshops held in your own kitchen among friends. Click here to learn more.