Finding More Ways to Whey

Taking a quick break from my briny brain*, I thought I’d share a recent project we were working on in the kitchen: frozen whey. That is, ice creams, sorbets, and gelatos made from, and predominantly flavored by, whey.

Whey is a byproduct of cheesemaking and the protein-rich (think “Muscle Milk”) liquid that makes milk, well, liquid. When making cheeses, the first step is to separate out the solid curd from the whey, usually using some combination of heat and acid, or enzymes (which produce acid) and time. The whey is strained out of the curd then, depending on the cheese, seasoned, possibly pressed, and sometimes aged.

For every gallon of milk you can expect about 1 quart of curd to 3 quarts of whey. As such, we often have an excess (think liters) of whey hanging around at the school. Even more than usual recently - and for the foreseeable future - as Ian has become Camembert obsessed. Cheese, obviously, is great, but what to do with all that whey?   

Rather than dump it, we save and most often use it in place of stocks for soup. The result is a deliciously complex broth, the whey adding some of the mouthfeel and richness of dairy without the heaviness. But with Spring here, warmer weather around the corner, and seemingly no end to the excess, we needed to find new ways to use our whey.     

Then, while perusing Fergus Henderson’s The Complete Nose to Tail (for an entirely other, more meat-centric query) I came across his recipe for buttermilk ice cream. Aha! Why not follow a similar tack with our whey?

We began testing immediately. Since we had so much, and since its subtlety might be completely eclipsed by additional milk or cream, we decided also that we wanted a product whose dairy component was all, or mostly, whey: creamy-base and flavoring agent in one. After some cursory research, I sketched out recipes for four test-batches of different ice-not-creams to determine which would be the best fit for our whey: sorbet, French-style (custard base), Philadelphia-style (no egg), and Sicilian-style (sub cornstarch for egg). Finally, a majority of our whey, produced while making ricotta, is slightly lemony (the acid used to separate out the curds), so I amped that up a bit with some additional zest in each batch.

Incidentally, a base so simple as “the liquid part of milk” gave us a lot of insight into understanding the core differences between these styles of ice creams. Sorbet and the eggless Philadelphia-style were virtually the same without the dairy distinction of milk or cream, and both ate much like an Italian ice, light and slightly crystalline. French-style added a necessary richness with the inclusion of egg and a buttercup hue befitting the lemony brightness. Still, it wanted a bit for fat as a richer base generally contributes to a creamier texture (think custard versus ice cream). That is, with one exception: our winner, the Sicilian-Style Gelato, compensated for the lower fat base by introducing cornstarch as a thickener, resulting in a surprisingly creamy and ice crystal resistant final product. The lemon, and relative absence of fat, bring out the grassy sweetness of the dairy and fittingly reflect the long and winding road this ice cream took from pasture to plate.

Total pleasure without the guilt. And I don’t mean the guilt of fat (one should never feel guilty about consuming fats). Elevating an often wasted byproduct to the delicious is a big part of our mission here on the farm. Experiments such as this - though not always successful - remind us that sustainable and waste-reducing eating can be exciting, delicious, and indulgent.

So bring it on. More milk, more cheese, more whey, more ice cream. Wisconsin’s proud.

*We’ve also been experimenting with using whey in our ferments, but that’s another story.