FREE Video: Whey — What It Is & How To Get It

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You see whey frequently in lacto-fermentation recipes on this blog or in the class, so it is important to cover exactly what whey is, which forms will work for fermentation, and how to get it. This week’s free video is an excerpt from my fermenting class — enjoy!

Below are some of the notes eCourse members received — check out Lesson 3 inside the class for a more in-depth video as well as more in-depth notes.

What Is Whey?

Whey is what spills out of dairy when it is fermented (soured or cultured). Beneficial organisms proliferate throughout dairy, consuming the milk sugar (lactose) and producing acids which curdle the milk. This souring can progress so that the milk separates into distinct curds and whey, or you can press or hang the curds so that the whey spills out. You can get whey from buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt, kefir, chevre, and other cultured dairy, including all kinds of cheeses.

Why Use Whey In Fermentation?

Quite often, we inoculate a fermentation in the beginning with a starter culture (a colony of beneficial organisms). This kick-starts the fermentation and prevents spoiling organisms from getting a foothold. Whey is quite often chosen as a starter culture (but there are others; see below), so it is important that it contains beneficial organisms. Some whey does, and some does not.

Which Whey To Use?

The highly processed whey protein powder that is sold as a nutritional supplement is not the kind of whey we would use in fermentation (nor is a real, whole food). Additionally, sometimes people make cheese at high temperatures or heat dairy after it is fermented. Whey from this dairy is no good, because the beneficial organisms have perished.

Anytime you’re wondering if a certain whey will work, ask yourself this question: from the time the milk was cultured, was it heated much beyond 100 degrees (or so) Fahrenheit? If yes, you can’t use it for fermentation starter culture. If no, you can use it as a starter culture because it retains beneficial organisms.

Most of my cultured dairy and cheese recipes don’t go over 102 degrees Fahrenheit — and most of these stay around room temperature — making their whey suitable for fermentation.

How To Get Whey

When making low temperature cheeses, whey will spill out from pressing or hanging curds. However, it is probably easiest for most people use the whey from making kefir or yogurt cheese, or the soft cheese of the Fundamentals eCourse. You can also use store-bought plain kefir or yogurt, as long as they contain active cultures. Here’s how:

  1. Line a colander with two pieces of 90-count cheesecloth or a pillow-case weight piece of cotton cloth.
  2. Put the colander inside a pot or bowl that holds it.
  3. Pour the cultured dairy into the cheesecloth-lined colander. Tie up the ends and tuck them inside the colander. Let the whey drip out for about a day, or hang up the bag so gravity can speed up the process.
  4. Scrape the cheese out of the cheesecloth and use as you would cream cheese.
  5. Pour the whey into a clean jar and store in the refrigerator for many weeks. Or freeze for many months.

The whey will last a long time. It is normal for a few milk solids to slip through the cheesecloth with the whey. Over time, they can get moldy floating at the top of the whey. Strain them off as necessary, and usually the whey is fine. It should smell fresh; let your nose be your guide.

Non-Dairy Substitutes For Whey

You can kick-start your lacto-fermentations with non-dairy starter cultures, too. Here are your options and how much to use.

Leftover Fermenting Juice. The juice of previously fermented pickles, sauerkraut or other ferments is rich with beneficial organisms. Use at the same rate as whey. However, keep in mind flavor matching; a pickle juice is probably not going to taste very good inside a fruit ferment.

Finished Water Kefir. Use at the same rate as whey: about 1/4 cup per quart of ferment.

Water Kefir Grains. This is an idea shared by Christine, eCourse member. She uses 1 tablespoon extra water kefir grains per quart of ferment, and scales up from there. Similarly (although not dairy-free), you can use 1-1/2 teaspoons of extra dairy kefir grains per quart of ferment.

Body Ecology Veggie Starter. This is an option in the class supply kit from Cultures for Health. Mix one packet into 1/4 cup of water; use in place of whey for one quart of ferment.

Abiasa Aromatic B Starter. This is included in the class supply kit from Homesteader Supply. Though a cheese starter, the organisms in it are the same as the Body Ecology starter, and it seems to be an economical option. Mix 1/16th teaspoon of the culture with 1/4 cup of water; use in place of whey for one quart of ferment.

What if a recipe doesn’t specify a starter culture and you want to use one? Generally, 1/4 cup of liquid starter works for one quart of ferment. Scale up accordingly. If a recipe calls for another amount, by all means follow the wisdom of the recipe author. However, like many aspects of traditional cooking, starter culture usage is not an exact science and a range of amounts will probably work.

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  1. says

    I found out…the hard way of course…that if there is any little bits of cream left in the whey it will go bad much faster than pure whey.

  2. says

    Thanks Wardee! That explains a lot. It was WHEY informational. :-)

    Question – if you can’t use the leftover whey from heated items to ferment, can you still use that whey for something else? I have a quart of whey in the fridge right now that I got from making cottage cheese.
    Looking forward to Monday’s webinar!

    • says

      Stacy — You can definitely use heated whey, just not as a starter culture. Uses include: add to animal water, water plants, use for soaking beans/grains, use as liquid in bread dough or soups, add to salad dressings… P.S. You’re WHEY funny! :)

  3. Brittany says

    I have a lot of whey leftover from making ricotta, which had to be heated to 180. So obviously that’s no good for lacto-fermenting. Can that whey still be used as an acid medium for soaking beans and such? Or is there another use for it?

    • says

      Brittany — Yes! It doesn’t have living organisms so it can’t be used as a starter culture, but it is still acidic so you can use it as an acid for anything that benefits from an acid. You can even use it to water your plants or garden — I think most people dilute it with water in this case.

  4. says

    Hey, I think everyone got the point you were making, but just so you know you stated the rule backwards, I think.


    It should be: was it heated – if not, you CAN use it … if YES, you can’t…

    Anyway, just a little thing, but might be confusing for some.

  5. says

    Hi Wardee,

    Thanks so much for this post — it was really helpful.

    I’m just trying lacto-fermentation for the first time and I’m really excited. I’m doing lacto-fermented dilly beans which calls for a salt brine instead of whey.

    I was wondering, though… I think these are going to be really salty when they’re done. If I rinse them before I serve them, have I just rinsed off all of the beneficial bacteria and defeated the whole purpose of lacto-fermenting? Are the salt-brine lacto-ferments just meant to be super salty? I’m assuming that if I cut back on the salt to water ratio that it won’t ferment right, but we’ll be drinking a lot of water afterwards :).


    • says

      Farmer’s City Wife — What people usually do is soak salty ferments in fresh water for a bit to draw off some of the saltiness. Also, once the fermentation is done, you can pour off some of the liquid and replace with fresh water. What salt to water ratio are you using? Normal is anywhere from 6 to 8 tablespoons of salt per half gallon of water. They are meant to be salty, yes, as salt protects the ferment from spoiling organisms in the beginning when the lactobacilli population is still immature. But too much salt can inhibit lacto-fermentation, and there’s the matter of taste as well. One way to reduce salt is to use some whey or other starter culture in place of some of the salt in the brine.

  6. Fermy fun says

    I’m confused. You say to use only whey not heated above 105 but than say we can use yogurt or kiffer from the store that is obviously heated above 105??
    Why is that?
    Also trying to find out if the salt/vinegar method is the same as the whey method?? I do both but the whey fermented foods get that kinda yucky bubbly whey flavor while the salt/vinegar combo foods are perfectly balanced and not as fizzy as the whey ones.
    Sometimes I think the whey cooks the food too much, is that possible? My whey is very fresh (cow milked that day)and definitely raw, could it be too fresh and alive maybe? Pickles/sauerkraut/Kim chee get slighty mushy with whey but never with the salt/vinegar combo?? Even left out one day.
    I’m embracing the nourishing traditions lifestyle but having a hard time embracing the whey! Help!

    • says

      Fermy — Store-bought cultured yogurt or kefir are heated prior to culturing (for pasteurization). Then the culturing happens at acceptable temperatures and it isn’t heated again. It can be used because it contains living organisms. (Not all yogurt or kefir are guaranteed with active cultures; you must be sure of this before using it.)

      Salt/vinegar picling is not the same as using whey/salt. The vinegar is usually too acidic. Also if the vinegar is raw it will have its own organisms that produce vinegar rather than lactic acid.

      If you don’t like the results with whey, do your pickling in salt brine without whey. There are many people who prefer the results. Could be that you have very happy whey and it is speeding up the fermentation process. Fermentation is a form of cooking — but with organisms not heat.

  7. rebecca says

    Can you make whey with just raw milk? Do you have to use yogurt? If you use raw milk don’t you just let it sit out overnight or something and then strain it? Would this whey be okay for fermenting or just for soaking oatmeal, beans, etc.? Thanks.

    • says

      Rebecca — The way to use whey from raw milk is to leave it out to clabber — or sour spontaneously. Once it gets thick like yogurt, you strain it through cheesecloth just like in the video.

      You can’t get whey from raw milk until it has been cultured. Hope this makes sense!

  8. says

    Please help . . . I just recently made sauerkraut and was in such a hurry that I didn’t notice that my whey had a couple of little white fuzzy glops floating at the bottom (about the size of small lima beans). I had just scooped out the whey from the top of the jar to put in the sauerkraut when I noticed. I don’t want to through out all my sauerkraut, but I’m not sure how to tell if it is okay or not. I am still new at making sauerkraut and knowing what good sauerkraut should taste like. What would you do?

    Thank you so much for your time!

    Carrie >

    • says

      Carrie — I would carry on. I think it will be fine. I suggest you strain the whey to get those fuzzy white globs out. The rest is fine. :)

  9. Ann says

    Hello, thank you for the video! I am new to fermentation so please excuse my confusion. I have a yogurt starter which requires that the milk be heated to 180 then allowed to cool and add the yogurt starter at 80 degrees. It then ferments for 24 hours. Since the culture is added at 80 degrees is the whey ok to use as a starter?

    Also, you stated that not all yogurt or kefir are guaranteed with active cultures; you must be sure of this before using it. How can we be sure of this? According to the yogurt starter I am using it contains active cultures and if the culture does not have any active bacteria it will not produce yogurt after the fermenting time has elapsed. Is this true of all starters?

    • says

      Ann — Yours is fine. Regardless of how hot the milk was heated (or not) before culturing, as long as it is not heated above 100ish degrees F during or after culturing, its whey is fine. The key is the culturing. Is it heated during or after that? If yes, you can’t use it for fermenting. If no, you can use it.

      All starters that produce what they’re supposed to produce (yogurt starter makes yogurt, kefir grain makes kefir, buttermilk starter makes buttermilk) contain active cultures. You’ll know it because they work. :) Or you’ll know it if the label says so and you have no reason to believe the active cultures were damaged through high heat, long time on the shelf, etc.

      I hope this helps!

      • says

        I also have yogurt starter that instructs you to heat the milk up to 180 degrees and to let it cool to 80 degrees before adding the starter. I heat the milk to just 99 degrees and add the starter, let it sit in warm place (not over 100 degrees) overnite. It turns out fine, altho maybe a bit runnier than if you heated it up to the 180.

  10. Ann says

    Ah, ha! Got it!! My starter is added after heating and temp. cooled to 80. I’ll get started right away. Thanks for your help.

  11. Mariah says

    Do you think you could add whey to your compost piles? I know you said you could add it to plants and just got to thinking about beneficial ways to increase plant health. What do you think?

  12. Janell says

    Can whey be used in shakes in place of the powdered protein? My muscle building 17yo son is no longer using the powered protein mix in his milkshakes/drinks. I ordered whey from our local raw milk farmer. I got a gallon. I also ordered 2 gal of raw milk. Newbie question – is whey a good protein supplement? How much should he drink? Is there any harm in drinking to much? Is there more protein in the whey than in the raw milk? Any one have a good “high” protein real shake recipe. I also ordered some real/pastured eggs.

    • says

      Janell — He can certainly drink whey and he will get protein, but I don’t know how concentrated it is compared to whey protein powder. There is less protein in the whey than in the raw milk — when you curdle/make cheese/yogurt out of milk most of the protein becomes curds/yogurt/etc. and some protein is left behind in the whey.

      There’s no harm in drinking it, but he should pay attention to his body just in case. I’ll share your question on facebook and see what kind of feedback we can get about what he should do for protein shakes, real food style. I’m sorry I don’t know much about that.

  13. Jenn says

    I made yogurt in the dehydrator yesterday, but i set it at 107ish and it turned in to mp urds and whey. Does that mean I killed the culture or can I still consume both the curds and the whey as cultured dairy (not allowed dairy otherwise). And what to do with the curd? I saw on an Indian site the technique of blending the curds with some of the way to re-yogurtize it but is this true? Thanks!

    • says

      Jenn — You can definitely blend it to make it smooth again, though it might not turn out perfect if it is too far gone to curds & whey. There’s nothing wrong with curds and whey — that’s what cultured dairy does given long enough or higher temps.

      You didn’t kill the culture. Go ahead and eat it as cultured dairy. :)

  14. Jake says

    I am having some issues with culturing. I tried clabbering some sour goat’s milk and my result in both the whey and solids were very sour. It smelled and tasted like vomit – sorry about the description, but that is what it smelled like. I tried adding sweetener to the cheese, but it still tasted awful. I also made yogurt – heating the milk to 100 degrees and adding the culture and then letting it sit for 24 hours in a warmed cooler. It tasted OK, but the texture is very slimy. Is that OK, or should I not eat it? I’d really appreciate your help. Thanks!

    • says

      Jake — That sounds off to me, like some competing organisms got in there and altered the results. If the milk was already sour, that is probably what happened. That’s something I would probably feed to the chickens. 😉

  15. Dinis Correia says


    You mentioned fermented beverages: does this mean I can use kombucha (it’s non-fruit juice flavored)?


    • says

      Dinis — You mean as a starter culture for a ferment? I would not use Kombucha because it’s organisms produce more than lactic acid and your ferment would not turn out right. Or *might* not turn out right. Hard to say for sure. You could try it.

  16. says

    Hi Wardeh!

    I am so excited I could nearly cry!!! I have been just over a year from my times of ‘drowning in whey’ so when I saw that my local newer store ( all local produce meet etc and the rest is sourced from amazing places with great creds etc such as Mountain Rose Herbs) that they had raw jersey Cow milk I didn’t dare believe ti till I saw it!

    While it is 9.99 a gallon and they only had the half gallon and quart size on the shelf I bought both half gallons right up!

    I let the lady know I would be back and to keep me in raw milk! She was so overjoyed :-) they carry two other kids of dairy That are great alternatives and what I saw everyone that hit the dairy case purchase but we know whats good for us 😉


  17. Rose C says

    Wardee, I have been told that if I use ACV and whey that the ACV will prevent the whey from making probiotics in what ever I am fermenting. Is this true? This comment has confused me. Please help. Thank you and have a great day.

  18. samantha says

    I tried to make curds and whey from raw milk by clabbering it at room temperature. It separated and I dripped it but the whey is not clear and yellow. Its white and cloudy. I’m worried about using this whey at room temperature to soak oatmeal. Should I just soak in the fridge?

    • says

      Samantha, cloudy and whitish whey is okay. I would suspect it needs to be purified by straining through a fine cloth. Or perhaps when stored in the fridge it will separate and settle down.

  19. says

    Hey there, I’ve just started experimenting in ferments. I noticed alot of recipes call for whey, so I decided to make my own with some organic yoghurt that I had in the fridge. I let it strain over night till I had 1/4 a pint jar of whey. It was yellowish and smelled a little sour, kinda yoghurt-y. I thought this was normal and didn’t question the smell at all. I proceded to put it into my homemade mayo and a batch of fermenting collard greens. Now, after reading up on whey I am a little concerned about the smell and am now wondering if I just ruined a good batch of mayo and kraut. The mayo tastes a little funny, and smells a bit sour but it is my first time making and fermenting mayo so I figured it was ok? I like it, even though the taste is a bit strong, the family tried it though and won’t go in for seconds…no one got sick though! The kraut I just made 30 mins ago so im not sure how that will come out, but now I’m pretty concerned that I just wasted all of that effort by ruining it with some sour whey. Thoughts?

    • says

      Julia — The whey sounds fine but if your family doesn’t prefer the taste or texture you can always ferment with just salt or salt brine. Are you sure they’re reacting to the whey and not to the ferment itself? Do they normally like the homemade mayo?

      • says

        It was my first time making homemade mayo and I decided to also ferment it. I think it may be the extra virgin olive oil they don’t like the flavor of, having only ever had mayo made with soybean oil. I also think next time I would try a recipe without apple cider vinegar, since thats also a distinct flavor. I still like it! And my ferments aren’t stinky, just sour smelling, which I am just assuming is from the flavor of the yogurt being pretty tart itself. I suppose that although I am bravely diving into the probiotic/fermented diet my family is going to be a little bit harder to convince. I will go ahead and continue to enjoy what I made, I just wanted to make sure the sour was normal.

        • says

          Julia — The evoo and the ACV are probably more likely the cause of the strong taste. The whey will add sour but fermenting also creates acids so ferments are usually sour no matter what. I’m glad that you like it, at least! :)

  20. Munch says

    Hi Wardee,
    I’m interested in the possible link between fermented foods, symptoms of food intolerance/allergy and menstrual cycle. I was diagnosed with IBS in 2009 after experiencing symptoms of food intolerance for 15 years.
    I discovered today that I crave fermented foods during pre-menstruation. I also experience several days of painful headaches prior to onset of period. I have read elsewhere that fermented foods contribute to migraines. Do you have any comments about this as I feel confused about whether eating fermented foods will assist in reducing symptoms of food intolerance that become more severe when I am pre-menstrual?
    Thank you, Munch

  21. Mary says

    You can also use a good quality probiotic capsule, or rather, the contents of it… I was grousing to someone that I was not all that happy with my whey ferments (as well as not wanting to put dairy in _everything_, since I already consume a lot of raw dairy), the brine ferments were inedibly salty, and I plain don’t like water kefir, so I was just going to have to suck it up and buy one of those expensive powdered vegie cultures. She mentioned that she uses Megaflora probiotic capsules since they have many of the same “bugs” as the expensive veggie culture powders, substituting the contents of 1 capsule mixed with 1/8 cup tepid water for each 1/8 cup whey. The fruit ferments were the first things ready, so… First test was lacto-fermented applesauce, since I was still up to my eyeballs in apples – tasted exactly like cider left in the fridge about a week too long, sharp, a little prickly on the tongue, and just the very faintest whiff of alcohol (hard cider). A no-salt version of NT’s Orangina fizzed like mad! I made a no-nuts variation on your 5-spice apple chutney, using English “mixed spice” instead of the 5-spice (I used that a lot in this year’s apple canning) and although it didn’t get fizzy or very tart with 3 days on the counter, the apples softened a lot, the watery liquid became very syrupy and the Fido jar went “FSSSSST-POP!” when I opened it, so I deem it a success. I’m going to make up another batch with pears and dried cranberries, but I think it’s going to be a staple since apples are available all winter long. (I’m not complaining about it not getting sour, it’s a nice break from all these other puckery ferments!) I expect this would work with any good quality probiotic capsule you know to be “lively” and that has some of the same bacteria as the culture powders.

  22. Eleanor H says

    So as I was listening to this video a question formed in my mind. I was taught to heat my milk to 180ºF then allow it to cool back to 95º – 100ºF before adding the culture. Now here’s my question… If I keep reusing culture from the batch before does that mean my yogurt is actually dead? and my whey would be no good for culturing? We do make sure to keep it at room temp for at least 8-12 hrs. Thank-you for any help on this. I hope I was clear enough. :-)

    • says

      Eleanor — you can heat your milk and cool it. As long as it is *cultured* after that, your yogurt has culture and therefore your whey does too. You can keep using your yogurt as a starter for the next batch.

  23. Kim says

    Hello~ so I ferment my own kraut and jalepenos, make yogurt and do water kefir. I want to branch out into cheeses and sourdough. My question is I read somewhere to use non stainless steel items (colander, bowl, spoons) as the stainless damages the grains. Is this is the case? I only have stainless colanders because I dislike plastic. The netted colander I use for the water kefir wouldn’t be strong enough to hold the dairy to make the cheese. Since I didn’t see you mention it anywhere, I wonder if this is important.

    Thanks so much for your help!

    • Mari says

      No, food-grade stainless steel (solid, not plated) is the *only* metal you should use because it does not react with the fermentation acids. However, you still want to line your colander with real cheesecloth – that’s ordinary cotton muslin, which you can buy in any fabric store for about two bucks a yard instead of paying exorbitant prices to the cheesemaking supply companies, not that holey junk sold as “cheesecloth” in grocery stores and kitchen-gear shops – before you pour your curds (or yogurt or dairy kefir if you want to do yogurt or kefir cheese) in.

  24. Dawn McKinney via Facebook says

    I get 25 gallons of whey every week from my friend who owns a dairy/creamery. Right now, I just feed it out to my sow and piglets. :)

  25. Catherine says

    When using whey in a fermented beverage, how long can it sit out to ferment? I have an airlock, if that makes a difference.

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