The Fermentation Prelude: How to Extract Whey from Raw Milk   3 comments

An entry in The Household Economy

My full whey station set up, spread out on the kitchen table. The glass in front has beer in it. Not sure how that snuck into the picture.

My earliest homesteading activities involved food. I think this is common and appropriate; food is basic and elemental, inspiring and accessible. It makes sense within our culture to homestead via food because food is still so capable of connecting us with the earth on a basic level. Despite the incredible success of the industrial system to take over and pervert food within our society, we still respond to it on a very basic and emotional level. Food triggers memories within us, connects us to friends and families, and reminds us of what it is to be human. Many of us still garden, even if we also eat industrial, processed foods. And many of us still preserve food–sometimes from the bounty of our own gardens and sometimes with produce from the store. Either way, that’s a very basic connection and one that many of us still maintain.

The reason my early homesteading involved food is because one of the main books that inspired my interest in homesteading was Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon–and Nourishing Traditions is a book about food, through and through. It’s an alternative cookbook aligned with the Weston A. Price philosophy of eating and rails mightily against not only the industrial food system, but a good deal of mainstream health and diet beliefs. It deals in traditional foods and contains quite a bit of information and many recipes involving the fermentation of foods, demonstrating various ways of lacto-fermenting vegetables and fruits, championing homemade condiments and sauces that are lacto-fermented, and recommending using lacto-fermentation as a way to help break down grains before eating them.

Nourishing Traditions (and another book, Real Food by Nina Planck) altered much of my thinking about food. One of the manifestations of that new thinking was to start drinking raw milk and, in general, eat more raw dairy products. I tracked down a source of it (not the easiest thing in Oregon, as there are strict laws governing how you can legally obtain raw milk, requiring that you purchase it directly on the farm) and before long I decided to engage in what I consider my first real homesteading activity: obtaining whey from raw milk.

Whey is essentially the liquid aspect of milk. It’s what’s left over when milk is curdled and strained, separating out the proteins from the liquid. When obtained from raw milk, cultured milk, or yogurt, whey contains active cultures and bacteria–it’s a living substance. It is, in fact, an incredible healthy and robust living substance and, as such, it’s the perfect additive to various foods to kickstart the lacto-fermentation process. In lacto-fermentation, these bacteria basically start eating whatever food is immersed in them and then excreting lactic acid as a waste product. That lactic acid, in turn, builds up and ultimately preserves the aforementioned food by creating a brine that is too acidic for putrefying bacteria to live in. In other words, this is how you naturally pickle vegetables. Rather than putting them in a vinegar solution and then boiling them to kill off any bacteria, you use lactic acid-producing bacteria to create a living environment that is inhospitable to putrefying bacteria, thus keeping the food from spoiling as long as it stays in that environment. The benefit of this process is that the food is significantly healthier for you. It’s easier to digest and laden with living cultures that will assist your digestive system.

This process also works without whey, simply by putting whatever you’re attempting to pickle in a salt water brine, which slows down the putrefying bacteria long enough for the natural lactic acid-producing bacteria in the air to get into that brine and do the work described above. Whey just gives this process an incredibly effective head start by putting the bacteria into the brine right from the beginning. It also allows this process to happen in other environments that don’t work with a salt water brine (such as making homemade mayonnaise and then preserving it with a bit of whey so that it will keep for months in your refrigerator rather than just a few days.)

The front jar is milk after it's separated and the back right jar is full of strained whey.

All that being said, today I found myself with somewhere around three gallons of soured raw milk sitting out on the counter. This milk came about a few different ways. Some of it was from a large pail of milk I had inadvertently acquired just before taking a week long trip to Portland and it had soured before I returned home. Some was from a cheese-making experiment that did not quite work out. And some I just didn’t drink before it soured because I hadn’t been in the habit of drinking milk. (I had a couple months there when I wasn’t receiving it.) The beauty of raw milk, though, is that because it’s a living food filled with active bacteria and cultures, it doesn’t actually go bad when it sours. It just changes. It doesn’t taste as good, but it’s perfectly drinkable–if anything, it’s healthier for you. But since I don’t particularly like to drink sour milk, I decided to extract the whey from it instead, with the intention of embarking on future fermentation projects.

The whey being strained through the towel and into the pot. The towel catches most of the milk solids and allows the liquid whey to pass through.

The first step in getting whey from raw milk is to leave the milk out at room temperature for a few days until it separates. I just put it out in whatever jar or container it already was in and tuck it away into some corner, making sure not to completely forget about it. Within one to four days, the separation should have occurred, which you can usually tell happened if you have your milk in a glass jar. As you can see in the picture, the milk will often separate enough so that there is a layer of clear(ish) liquid visible. Sometimes that layer doesn’t appear, though, and so after a few days I’ll open up the jar and stick a spoor or knife down into the milk to see if it has solidified. If it seems to be something of a gelatinous mass throughout, it should be ready. (Note that you can use a plain, live-culture yogurt if you don’t have access to raw milk. You don’t have to put the yogurt out in advance, either. Just use fresh yogurt in place of the raw milk and follow the rest of the instructions as normal.)

The separated milk after being dumped into the strainer lined here with a towel (or you can use cheese cloth.) Not the prettiest, admittedly.

Next, you want to set a wire mesh strainer over a large bowl, then line the strainer with a couple layers of good cheese cloth or a towel. I used cheese cloth the first time I separated whey, but I found it allowed more of the milk protein through than I preferred. I later switched to a thin, organic cotton flour bag towel that drains slower, but otherwise works great.

Once you have your strainer and towel set up, you can dump your jar of curdled milk into the strainer. You should have an initial rush of whey that drains through into the bowl and then you’ll be left with the more solid mass, from which whey will drain for a couple hours if you let it. I typically let it drain for awhile and then later tie the towel’s corners to a wooden spoon so that it forms a small bag hanging from the spoon. You can then hang this over your bowl and let more of the whey drip out for however long you’re willing to wait.

Here I am holding up the cloth bag of separated milk. You can see the whey streaming out into the pot.

Now you’re almost done. Once all or most of the whey has dripped from the bag, you can simply pour the whey into a mason jar and store it in the fridge. The whey should keep for many months, ready to provide an assist any time you need to lacto-ferment something or soak some grains. Or you can just drink the stuff–it’s extremely healthy for you and will give a great boost to your digestive system. As for the leftover curdled milk proteins in your little cloth sack, that’s basically fantastic cream cheese! It’s a little different than what you would buy in the store. It has a sharper taste and isn’t as smooth of a consistency, but I’ve spread it on a bagel and found it to be fantastic. It also is far healthier for you and, like whey, is full of good cultures and bacteria that will give your digestive system a nice charge.

The leftover milk solids (protein and fat.) This is nutritious stuff, but I don't have the desire to deal with it today. So out it goes into the woods, where a whole host of other creatures will enjoy and partake in its nutritious bounty.

Unfortunately, my various milk products that I separated the whey out of today were all pretty well-aged. As such, the milk proteins were funkier than I prefer and I knew that if I kept them and threw them in the fridge, I would never get around to eating them. So I decided to dump it all, which I at first felt guilty about. It seemed like such a waste of some very nutritious food. But, of course, there’s no need to waste that food even if I don’t eat it. I took it out into the woods on our property and found a secluded spot to dump it. While I won’t be eating this good food, it will feed literally millions–if not billions–of other creatures. Tons of microbials will munch on it over the next few days, a variety of bugs and insects will surely get into it, and I imagine a few little critters will have their share, as well. There’s plenty of life on this land–the food won’t go to waste.

After dumping the milk solids, I still had myself quite a bounty: over a gallon of whey. Luckily, it’s the height of summer and there’s plenty of food around that can be fermented. Over the next weeks and months, I plan to make pickles and sauerkraut, to ferment squash, make kimchi and chutneys, to lacto-ferment roasted red peppers (I did this last year and they were amazing), make live culture homemade condiments, probably soak some grains, and more. This is part of the beauty and excitement about extracting whey from raw milk: it’s a prelude to still other projects. It’s a laying of the foundation. It seems, then, appropriate that it was my first real homesteading project. It led me to further projects and set me on a fermenting path I’m still on today.

The project's results: over a gallon of fresh whey from raw milk, ready for use in various fermenting projects.

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3 responses to “The Fermentation Prelude: How to Extract Whey from Raw Milk

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  1. The idea of using goat milk to make pickles is messing with my mind. I won’t get my goats bred for a few months, but the whole dairy cheese butter yogurt thing is intimidating enough with out adding pickles! Dennis

    • Heh. It’s super easy, actually! But if you want to hold off, you can always just use a basic salt water brine to begin with and then experiment with whey once you become a bit more bold.

      Really, using whey for lacto-fermenting veggies isn’t that necessary, but it does do a nice job of kickstarting the process, in my experience. There are certain other things I think it’s better for, in that it seems a bit irreplaceable. Making homemade mayonnaise that’ll last for months, for instance. Or a fantastic cherry chutney recipe out of Nourishing Traditions that I tried last year, and that’s still hanging out in the fridge. (I kind of forgot about it!)

  2. Pingback: How To Make Raw Butter | Of The Hands

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