Whey to Go

Whey is too good to throw away as it contains good bacteria and lactic acid
In Jude Blereau's kitchen

It's the most unlikely things that capture people's imagination - during my recent adventures in Melbourne , it was how cool whey actually is. I had hoped it might be my pastry or plum tart (my vanity) but no, it was how valuable a tool whey can be. When pondering my article for this month, I opened my email to find an email from a client, asking about yoghurt. Fair enough, I yield my high ground of pastry and plum tart to the unlikely hero of the day - we will talk about whey, and from that yoghurt and kefir.

It all started when the wonderful Cath Claringbold hated the thought of throwing away the whey after making labne. She used it as the liquid to cook a divine quinoa dessert (along the lines of a rice pudding), and I had mentioned something along the lines of, "Oh, never throw that whey away, it's such a valuable source of good bugs, I use it to soak my grains and legumes" and off it went, with a life of its own. Good on it, it's been totally ignored for the past 50 years or so, so it deserves as much acclaim as it can get.

Let's look at what whey actually is first of all. When milk is cultured, as in yoghurt, kefir or cheese making, the watery part of the milk separates. Whey still contains some of the proteins and much of the lactose (so it's not lactose free) but what makes it valuable is that it also contains good bacteria and lactic acid (a byproduct of the good bacteria). This is how I use whey in my kitchen:

* Soaking grains and beans: Both whole grains and beans have phytates - organic acids present in all seeds, whole grains and legumes - which block the uptake of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and especially zinc. As little as 7 hours of soaking in acidulated water (lemon, yoghurt, kefir, whey or buttermilk and warm is good but not essential), allows lactobacilli and other helpful organisms to break down and neutralise most phytic acid in whole grains and beans. I prefer using yoghurt, whey, kefir or buttermilk as they already have lots of good bugs and this bumps the process along. But wait, there's more!

During the process, acid and lactobacilli break down gluten and other difficult to digest proteins. In effect, they can help to pre digest the proteins. Soaked grains are far easier to digest. I don't always remember to soak my grain or grains - it just depends where I am at. Please don't stress about this as it's one of those choices where you just do the best you can on the given day. I would, however, recommend soaking the hardier grains, in particular, barley, whole oats and wheat - it does result in a far softer end result - and a more realistic cooking time.

* Digestive Aid: Whey has commonly been used in traditional cultures as a drink to aid digestion, upset tummies, vomiting and diarrhoea.

* Skin Care: A splash of whey on your face may help sooth blemishes and pimples, and has been used in skin care throughout time.

* To Preserve: Because it's such a rich source of lactic acid (one of the original preserving agents) it's used for making lacto- fermented vegetables and drinks. You can make some of those lacto-fermented vegetables (think kimchi or sauerkraut) by just adding salt, but you can get more peace of mind by adding a bit of whey which gives you the immediate presence of bugs, and said lactic acid.

The easiest way to get it (see the pun there!!) is from yoghurt or kefir. So, let's talk yoghurt. Good yoghurt is not thick - it is generally fairly runny, with some more thickish bits around, and when you spoon into it, the whey will begin to seep out and break the yoghurt down a bit. Most commercial (even organic) yoghurts are thickened with milk solids (and the dodgier ones, gums as well). The more traditional way to thicken it is to place it in muslin (originally called cheese cloth) and hang it, letting the whey drip off. You can thicken the yoghurt as much as your heart desires, and this is then called labne.

If you have kefir, you can do the same thing with that - drip it and thicken it up. Kefir is a name given to another little group of good bugs and yeasts and is commonly called a "grain'" though not in the sense we know grains at all. It looks like a tiny, fleshy cauliflower almost. It will do the same thing as yoghurt bugs - eat the milk sugars and protein to grow, produce lactic acid and reproduce itself. The best way to get your hands on kefir grains is to ask around - you shouldn't have to buy it, as when you have it, ultimately you will end up with too much and have to give some away. I wouldn't recommend the powder.

As a final word, do not use whey powder or whey protein. Now, I'm sure there are lots of people who love it. I don't, and believe proteins can be damaged in the processing. Go for the real thing. Home made yoghurt or kefir is so delicious, as is the labne - perfect for the cooler weather, and easy to make. Just don't throw away the whey!

See Jude's Yoghurt and Labne recipes in our Recipe archive this month.