No-Waste Cheesemaking

Don’t throw that whey away! Transform it into these three food products, and offer what remains to your plants and animals.

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by Wren Everett

Once upon a time, all across the world, self-sufficient peasants were quietly making a living among their animals and plants. Their lives may not have been the stuff of legends, and we don’t have a thorough record of their daily doings … but how I wish we did! Because in their undocumented past were cycles of growing and harvesting, curing and putting up, and ingenious methods of redefining the wastes from these processes and turning them into assets instead. Generations of tradition streamlined these processes and made them logical, instinctive, and beautiful. And then, industrialized modernity wiped most of them away as fast as you can say “Wrapped in plastic for your convenience!”

My personal quest as a homesteader and peasant-in-training has been trying to rediscover what those hundreds of thousands of hardworking people once knew nearly instinctively. Nothing illustrates this endeavor more succinctly, perhaps, than making your own cheese and not wasting anything along the way.

I’m completely unsatisfied with the recommendation in many cheesemaking books that says to “discard whey.” When you garden and raise your own animals, and then take the fruits of your labor and put them on the dinner table, the idea of waste – even something as seemingly innocuous as whey – should take on a personal, grievous significance. If you’re seeking self-sufficiency, anything that’s simply “dumped” is really a missed opportunity.

If you start digging past modern recipes and hunt down rustic methods of cheesemaking, you’ll discover that whey is a valuable material – hardly something to be tossed. I hope my method for making mozzarella, therefore, is an echo of those old ways. It gives you not one, but three food products. And if any whey remains, it has a destiny in your garden and coop!

1. First, a Fast Mozzarella

If you’ve never made cheese before, this quick mozzarella is a great place to cut your teeth. It builds confidence, and it doesn’t require a starter or an aging period – two unfamiliars that may discourage first-timers. (Method adapted from The Art of Natural Cheesemaking by David Asher.)

person poking a cheese curd layer cheese curds in whey cut in to a grid cheese curds mixed in whey

Tools and Materials

  • Thermometer
  • Long knife
  • Slotted spoon
  • Large stockpot that can easily hold 1 gallon
  • Cheesecloth
  • Colander
  • Bowl big enough to hold colander

Ingredients

  • 1⁄4 cup apple cider vinegar or balsamic vinegar, or 1⁄2 cup lemon juice
  • 1 gallon cooled raw milk or
  • refrigerated whole milk
  • Rennet
  • 1⁄4 cup salt
  1. Dilute vinegar or lemon juice in 2 cups water.
  2. Add cold milk to stockpot. Slowly pour the acidified water into milk.
  3. Gently heat milk to 90 F, stirring all the while.
  4. Now, prepare rennet according to package instructions. Add to warm milk, stirring slowly. Turn off heat, but don’t remove stockpot from stove.
  5. The milk will gel over the next 15 minutes or so. Test for readiness by inserting a (clean!) finger into the curd and gently lifting up. If curd fractures apart cleanly, it’s ready to cut.
  6. Cut curds in a grid pattern. At this point, the whey and curds will start to separate.
  7. Turn heat back on very low, and keep milk temperature as close to 90 F as you can, stirring occasionally. The curds should start to take on a cooked-egg texture.
  8. Place cheesecloth into colander, then place colander into bowl. Strain curds, allowing whey to collect in bowl.
  9. Meanwhile, heat up 2 quarts water in big pot to around 150 F. As it heats, in a separate bowl, dissolve salt in 2 quarts cold water. Ignore the growing chaos in your kitchen – this is worth it.
  10. Place a small amount of curd into hot water, and wait a minute or two. Pull it out and try to stretch it – it should stretch easily into a fine thread when it’s ready.
  11. Cut the mass of knitted-together curds into fourths – each will be a separate ball of cheese.
  12. Put sections into warm water bath for a few minutes, then pull them out with a slotted spoon and try to stretch them. Once they feel pliable, gently pull them into a rough rectangle, then pull one side thin. Roll it like a burrito, tucking the ends together, and try to fashion a ball. Don’t worry if it’s ugly – it’ll taste good no matter how it looks.
  13. Dip the balls into hot water again, then mold and smooth them again.
  14. Place cheese balls into the brine to cool, and plan on eating within the next day or so.

Now, you have your first product – a sweet-tasting mozzarella that melts perfectly on pizza or offers a wonderfully toothsome, juicy chew when layered in a classic caprese salad.

Hold on to every drop of that whey you caught – we’re not done with it yet!

2. A Refreshing Whey Beverage

Reserve the bulk of your whey for the next step, but try a glassful for yourself as a treat. Chilled, you can drink this refreshing beverage as is, or sweeten it with a spoonful of honey.

Put the rest in a closed container. For those of us raised in the era of refrigerators, this next step will seem counterintuitive: You’re going to leave this whey on the counter, at room temperature, to ferment overnight.

3. Ricotta from Fermented Whey

fermenting whey

Overnight, the whey will have fermented and, as a result, acidified. This is the key to making your third product – ricotta cheese!

Those familiar with Italian will probably understand that the name of this delectable delight means “recooked.” The logic behind that name is about to become obvious as you pour the fermented whey into your large stockpot and turn the heat to medium.

Once it reaches boiling, remove it from the heat and allow it to rest for 10 minutes or so. During that process, you’ll see the naturally acidified, fluffy curds form. These will be more delicate than the curds formed when you made mozzarella, and they’ll need to be handled carefully.

Get your whey-catching setup ready again, with a large bowl beneath a cheesecloth-lined colander, and ladle the curds onto the cloth. Cover the draining curds with a clean towel so nothing falls into them as they drip for an hour or so. Then, you should have some deliciously sweet ricotta cheese to use in stuffed-pasta dishes and cheesecakes, or to secretly scoop by the spoonful when no one’s looking.

Now, your exhausted whey may not yield any more cheese, but it’s not done! If you bottle up the remaining whey and refrigerate it, it will function as a buttermilk substitute. It’s perfect for reacting with baking soda to give baked goods and pancakes that spongy lift.

But if you’re not in a pancake mood, take that whey and head outside.

ricotta in a jar

Surplus Whey to the Coop and Garden

Chickens slurp up whey with a will. I imagine the acidic, beneficial-bacteria-laden liquid offers the same sort of tonic to poultry that apple cider vinegar does to us.

Or, if desired, try soaking your dog’s dry food in whey to add a probiotic boost. I’ve yet to meet a canine that won’t devour whey-soaked kibble! Cats, on the other hand, may or may not eat whey, as anyone who caters to the fickle whims of their felines may already expect.

Even if you don’t have animals on your land, your plants will appreciate the nutritious benefits of being watered with whey. Heavy feeders, such as squash and greens, will get a hearty boost from being watered with the rich blend of balanced micronutrients that are still suspended in the opaque liquid.

As you’re seeing, cheesemaking can be woven into the cyclical fabric of the land, turning grass into milk, milk into cheese, and whey back into land fertility. Of course, this mindset isn’t limited to cheese. Tofu-makers have scrubbed their equipment with soy whey for centuries. Homesteaders of the past carefully collected watermelon rinds and fermented them into mouthwatering pickles. Meat trimmings from butcher shops were collected and rendered into soap. Those who have the eyes to see opportunities need never look far to find ample resources.

As you seek out your own self-sufficient practices, I hope you likewise uncover more pearls of peasant wisdom. And as these resources are used for all they’re worth, the end result won’t be just a full belly, but also satisfaction and gratitude!

Wren Everett and her husband live as happy peasants on their Ozark homestead. In her quest to live as self-sufficiently as possible, Wren searches through the past to rediscover and preserve forgotten skills.