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Whey of life

Homemade ricotta can be drained in a strainer lined with cheesecloth.
TRR photos by Laura Silverman

February 24, 2016

There is something magical about the transformation of milk into cheese. As Clifton Fadiman once mused, “Cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality.” We many not all be equipped with the necessary time, bacteria and expertise to make a sophisticated product like Parmesan, for example, but whipping up a batch of fresh cheese turns out to be quite easy and rewarding.

The process generally begins with adding bacteria, rennet or acid—or some combination of these—to heated milk. This curdles the milk, separating it into fluffy white curds and the watery yellowish liquid known as whey. (If you have raw milk, you can simply let it sit out on the counter in a warm spot for a couple of days and the natural bacteria it contains will cause it to separate.) The size and texture of the resulting curds differ according to the coagulant: lemon juice, vinegar, and buttermilk produce large, crumbly curds; rennet produces moister curds with a slightly milkier flavor.

From there, it’s all about the draining. This can be done with a strainer lined with cheesecloth or a hanging bag made from a clean cotton or linen kitchen towel. The amount of whey that is released from the curds affects how firm the final cheese will be. Weighting the curds for several hours turns them into paneer, the compact fresh cheese that stars in a number of Indian dishes. The curds can also be whipped or “creamed” by hand or in a food processor to make a smooth paste.

While most of us are familiar with the myriad uses for cream cheese and ricotta, all that leftover whey can be confounding. Don’t be tempted to toss it out, because not only is it full of protein, minerals and probiotics, it’s got many useful applications in the kitchen—and it’s even great for feeding the chickens and fertilizing crops!