How to Make Amazing Whey for Lacto-Fermentation
Whey: Doesn't the name remind you of the old nursery rhyme? "Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey." When I was a little girl, I used to think whey MUST be something delicious and sweet! Hahaha! Oh, the things children think! Little did I know! So, what is whey? Whey is that thin, runny liquid on top of many fermented acidic dairy products like yogurt and some cheeses. Whey is a pretty fascinating liquid, and turns out, it's pretty useful too!
If you want to get into fermenting your own foods, then you'll want to become friends with whey! You'll definitely want to learn about where to find the best kinds and how to make it! It's one of the best starters you can have on hand to get a lacto-fermented batch of veggies, fruits, beans, or even meats going! Whey is easy to make, and will last for two or three weeks in your refrigerator.
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What Exactly is Whey?
Now that you know whey is that thin, runny liquid on top of yogurts, cottage cheeses, etc., let's take a look at the actual composition of whey.
Whey is made up of proteins, lactose (hence lacto-fermentation), and some vitamins and minerals too. There may be a little fat, especially if you use whole milk yogurt. Whey is very good for you! In fact, In some countries, especially Northern European countries, whey is actually included in many drinks and sold in stores as well. It's excellent for your gut micro biome, as are raw fermented foods of all kinds.
Note: Since whey is still considered a dairy product, if you are lactose intolerant, you should probably avoid it, unless just a little dairy in ingredients doesn't bother you.
The reason whey is often used as a starter culture to ferment vegetables and other things is because of the type of bacteria found in it. Lactobacillus is one of bacteria needed to get a ferment going, and whey contains several strains of this bacteria. These are the "good" probiotic bacteria that promote gut health. You'll want to use yogurt with live strains of the bacteria, so find the least processed plain whole fat yogurt you can.
Do You Really Need Whey to Ferment Vegetables?
The simple answer is "NO," you don't need whey. However, you do need some type of starter culture. A starter culture is going to consist of a variety of good bacteria and yeasts. Possible starter cultures could be liquid from a previously fermented batch of raw vegetables, or even wild yeasts and bacteria that are naturally found in all environments, or whey. Some people even use water kefir or kombucha. (I've used kefir and kombucha, but it's not the best way, in my opinion. I prefer to use whey or liquid from my fermented veggies.)
Now there are many opinions about which kind of starter is best, and even if whey is actually useful at all for fermenting vegetables since it's a dairy culture. Let me just say that in my experience (years) of fermenting foods, whey makes a terrific starter culture. I may change my mind at some point, but in the past years I have made some excellent ferments using whey to help get things going.
With that said, though, I don't use whey every single time. I tend to mix it up, depending on what I have on hand. For example, right now, I don't have any whey in my refrigerator. But I do have some liquid left from another culture. So--for now I'll use that. However, I don't like being without whey, so I'll be making up some more in the next couple of days!
How to Make Whey for Lacto-Fermentation
Ingredients & Tools You'll Need to Make Whey:
1. Large carton of whole fat plain yogurt. I like to get mine from Whole Foods or a Sprouts-type store because they generally have a larger selection of yogurts from grass fed healthy cows.
2. A large bowl
3. A large strainer
5. Storage Jar
Directions for Making Whey:
1. Get your tools set up.
Using your large bowl, place the strainer on top and line it with cheesecloth (several layers) OR one layer of paper towel (the paper towel will keep even more of the milk solids out and your whey will be clear and beautiful.
2. Pour all the yogurt into the lined strainer.
Cover it with another layer of paper towel to keep little interested parties out, and place in a quiet, cool place for several hours. The "drip" process can take a long time. I usually leave mine overnight on the counter, and when I wake up....lovely whey!
3. Now just pour your whey into a clean jar and refrigerate.
This batch (and most of the batches I make using really good yogurt yields about 2 cups, give or take a little.
That's it!! Isn't that crazy easy? Your whey is ready to use in any of your lacto-fermented recipes! Most recipes call for about 1/4 cup of whey, or perhaps only a couple of tablespoons--not very much. So, this whey will last awhile, unless you are a serious fermenter, like me. The general rule is 2 weeks in the refrigerator, however, I have used it after a much longer time than that, and it's been just fine. I go by the "smell" test. If in doubt, though, throw it out---just to be safe.
Do you use whey in your ferments to help get things going? Have you ever made your own whey?
Hugs & Self-Reliance!
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Harmon, W., The Complete Idiots Guide to Fermenting Foods, 2012.