Wednesday, June 27, 2012

How to Preserve Vegetables in Whey!

Original batch using large cucumbers, onion, garlic, and dill
This is what they looked like after 4 weeks still crisp
This is a later batch that was made with again large cucumber, onion, garlic, and dill
The last batch was made with mini cucumbers cut length wise, onion, garlic, and dill (bowl top right)
How to Preserve Vegetables in Whey

Vats for Whey Storage

Vats for Whey Storage

“In 1104, Mt Hekla erupted for the first time in the recorded history of Iceland. The eruption destroyed, for instance, an entire district of at least 20 farms in the valley Þjórsárdalur in Árnessýsla.”
Fig 1: One of the side rooms was used for dairy storage (left). Large wooden vats, partially set into the earth, were found here. By being partially below ground, the contents of the vats would be kept cool. Additional insulation was provided in this room by stones placed between the rafters and the roof (right). The vats held dairy products, such as skyr, and they may have held meat pickled in sour whey. The vats are over 1.4m in diameter (55in) and so could hold a substantial quantity of foodstuffs.

Vats for Whey Storage

Fig. 2 “At Stöng, a more prosperous farm, the floor plan was more elaborate. In addition to the main rooms of the house, two additional rooms were stuck onto the side of the main building. The floor plan at Stöng is shown above. The locations of the support columns and the extent of the benches are indicated in the plan, as well as the location of the fire pits for the two rooms. The house was 28m (92 ft) long.”[2]

Vats for Whey Storage
 Fig. 3 Storeroom/Dairy (VI): “The storeroom/dairy was used for food storage, for dairy products in particular. Skyr and sour whey were collected in large vats which were sunk into the ground.”[3]


Over the course of time and from culture to culture each has found unique ways to use the limited resources they had.  This was extremely true in the production and preservation of food stuffs.  With out some type of preservation the amount and type of food available during non growing seasons would be very limited.  The type of food preservation I will cover here is the use of whey (the by product of cheese making) as a source of Lactic Acid for food preservation called Lactic Acid Fermentation.

Demonstrate an understanding:

Whey was used in many secondary applications other than cheese making, whey’s naturally higher acid content worked well in the application of food preservation.  In Icelandic & Nordic Cuisine whey was left after the making of Skyr and was used to preserve fish & vegetables.[4]  Please reference figures 1, 2, and 3 above please note the dairy room attached to all three farmsteads. The excavated areas where the large whey vats were located.  Clearly not only Skyr was an important staple of the Icelandic diet but the large vats that held the by product whey also speaks to its importance in the Icelandic diet for food preservation.  Here are three farms from the smallest to the largest all have dairy rooms and vats for the storage of whey.

There is little in the way of written records about Scandinavian food traditions. But archeology and Nordic Sagas do give us clues.[5]  Changes in the climate, and dwindling wood sources made it harder for the people living in Iceland to use previous methods of food preservation.  Previous methods required using wood to heat sea water for salt to cure their foods.[6]   Because salt was now more costly and expensive they drew on the resources that they had on hand.

“Archeological digs in medieval Icelandic farms have revealed large round holes in storage rooms where the barrel containing the lactic acid was kept. Two medieval stories tell us of man who saved his life in a burning house by staying submerged inside the acid barrel.”[7]
[8] Fig. 4 “Cooked meats were preserved in vats of sour whey (súrr). The lactic acid in the sour liquid prevented the meat from spoiling. Large vats found in some Viking age house sites held preserved meat in sour whey, as well as other stored dairy products. The photo shows a reconstructed dairy vat at the house at Stöng in south Iceland. Comparing the size of the hand bucket on the table to the dairy vat partially set into the ground gives a sense for the size of these vats and the large quantities of stored foodstuffs they could hold.”
Archeological and chemical analysis of clay storage pots dating from prehistoric times through the Middle Ages from southern and eastern Sweden have shed more light on food preservation.[9]  Sevn Isaksson used lipid residue analysis to identify what was preserved in these pots.  Among the residues identified were lipids from ruminant animals and milk fat.  Also detected along with the fatty acids was the presence of phytosterols from vegetables.  Further evidence was detected by two isoprenoic acids from the decomposition of chlorophyll, indicating the presence of green vegetables.  Also present with these green vegetables, milk lipids were detected by the presence of a broad distribution of triacylglycerols.[10]  Basically what I wanted to show here is through chemical analysis of pottery remains vegetable matter & milk matter from the same potsherds was identified that were consistent with lactic acid fermentation.
Cucumbers could be found in England as early as the 14th century; the variety was small and may be closer in style to our modern Gherkin as describes by Pliny the Elder, in his The Natural History of Pliny.[11]  It is believed that cucumbers were originated in northern India and then was possibly spread to other areas with the Roman army.
According to Ian Kusz who wrote “Medieval and Ancient History of the Cucumber” had the following to say: “Cucumbers were grown in India 3,000 years ago, in Sumeria, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, 9th Century France (Charlemagne was a cucumber eater), early 1300's England (though they were later lost, and re-introduced in the mid-1500s), Spain at least by 1494 (the Spaniards transported them to Haiti that year via Christopher Columbus), 1535 Montreal (according to Jacques Cartier), South Dakota by 1500 or so, New England at least by 1630, and reportedly in Ancient Thrace. Tzatziki was eaten by the Turks in the 1500s, and passed along to the Greeks; add that to your period cucumber dishes.”[12] Patrick Cauldwell did research that covered many aspects of Viking cooking and noted the importance of whey as a way to preserve foodstuffs in the Icelandic diet.[13]
In my 1st & 2nd batch I used regular cumbers as it was February and that is what I had on hand and combined them with red onions [my choice to add more color], garlic, dill, and spices [cloves, and brown & yellow mustard seeds].   The next batch I used Mini Cumbers as these were the smallest I could find at this time and the closest to what is described below.
Working out the details:
One of the things I needed to determine was how much whey to use in a quart jar of pickles. The first attempt was ¼ cup and seemed not enough, the second attempt was full strength (presented at Regional A&S) because it seemed that full strength was what was being used at Stöng in south Iceland.  What I finally worked out was a 50/50 mixture of whey and water, with spices for our modern taste pallet and combining elements found in the “to keepe cowcumbers in pickle all the yeare” from 1609.  After some input from the judges and discussion I continue to refine my preservation process and working recipe.   I also wanted to answer several questions that arose from the regional A&S about the side effects of whey on the digestive system.  I found that whey was also used as a natural laxative if given full strength.  A 50/50 mixture seemed to have enough lactic acid to preserve the vegetables without adverse side effects.  I have also presented the original preserved pickles that you may compare the two to each other if you wish.
Source #1:
[77] To keepe Cowcumbers in pickle all the yeare.[14]

Take foure gallons of Conduit water and put vnto it three quarts of bay salt,
two handfuls of Sage, one handfull of sweete Marioram, and foure handfulls
of Dill, let these boyle til it come to three gallons, and then take it off, and
when it is almost cold, put in a hundreth of Cowcumbers into that liquor,
into a butter barrel & keepe them al the yeare, but looke that alwaies the
herbs lie vpon them, and thus done, it will be a most excellent sallet with
oyle, vineger, and pepper.

This pickle recipe for cucumbers is dated as being published in 1602~1608 in England. You can also find references to pickling in the Digbys.[15] This is also a very good example of spices added to a food being preserved. While I am fully aware that this pickle recipe does not use whey it is one of the few pickling cucumber recipes that was written down.  In Germany traditional Sauerkraut was made with whey, salt, and water.  Rumpolt references using Sauerkraut in at least two of his recipes.  Again it appears that from various writings making sauerkraut was considered common knowledge to every farm stead and therefore not written down. I also like this recipe as it does not contain vinegar that was one of the other commonly used bases for food preservation.[16] The pickled cucumbers and herb are intended as representative of items that could be found in the common garden during the middle ages.  Even on an Icelandic farm stead what they could not raise they traded for and had extensive networks covering the known world at the time.

Cloves were known in Europe as early as the 4th Century.[17] Cloves in the 16th & 17th Century were worth their weight in gold.[18]


50/50 mixture & **Whey to cover your choice of vegetables (or fish)
[**this whey is a combination of goat & cow milk from my cheese making]
5~6 whole cucumbers [cumcumis sativus] cut into ½ then quartered (or enough to fill your jar firmly packed)
1 Tbl Sea Salt
4~5 Whole Sprigs of Fresh Dill [anthum graveolens] (or to taste)
2~3 heads of Garlic [allium satuvum]
¼~½ of a Red Onion [allium cepa] cut into slices (again depending on jar size and personal taste)
2 Tbl Whole Mustard Seeds [sinapos alba]
¼ tsp. Toasted Black Mustard Seeds [use these sparingly as they can be pungent]
2 Whole Cloves [syzyaium aromaticum]


1 glass jar with lid
pot to sterilized jar in
cutting board
measuring spoons
Plastic Wrap
Butter Cheese Cloth


Sterilized jar and lid, cut cucumbers and onions into slices.  Clean the Cloves of Garlic (cut into slices or leave whole).  Layer into the jar snugly in layers the slices of cucumbers, onions, garlic, dill, and whole cloves. Strain your whey through a piece of fine butter cheese cloth.  Add salt and mustard seeds.  Fill the jar ½ way with the whey and finish with water.  Place a piece of plastic on top of the liquid, apply the lid.  Turn the jar top to bottom several times to get rid of any air bubbles.   Leave at room temperature for 2~3 days turning once daily.  Then place in your refrigerator for an additional 1~2 weeks.  Cucumbers are ready to eat.

Fig. 5 The Whey                                             

Fig. 6 strained whey into jar

Fig. 7 packed jar                                 

Fig. 8 finished product (the plastic is to keep pickles below the level of the liquid)


There is an extensive amount of archeology that supports that whey was used for food preservation.  There are many cultures that use whey in this manor such as the Chinese, Germanic cultures, and Scandinavian – Viking cultures.

Making the first batch I found that the ¼ cup of whey did not work and very well.  I had a number of people sample them and then adjusted my working recipe accordingly.  I found that I needed to add a little less salt, I added more dill, and less onions, and more whey for a jar.

In my original working recipe I only used ¼ cup of whey and the rest was water & salt (this was increased from 3 tablespoons found in similar modern recipes for lactic acid pickling).  The next batch was fully whey to see if the higher acid content affects the crunch of the pickle.  I found that the cucumbers did have a nice crunch but the flavor of the onion overwhelmed the dill and garlic.  The last batch seems to have reached a good balance of both but had a Probiotics effect on sensitive systems.  By reducing the whey to a 50/50 mixture, lowering the amount of cloves & onions, and increasing the dill the resulting pickles seem to have achieved a good balance. 

I hope you enjoy the pickles.

[1]Early longhouses found in Norway, only one example has been found to date in Iceland: at the longhouse at Aðalstræti 14-16 in Reykjavík,

[2] The floor plan of the house at Stöng,

[3] The floor plan of the house at Stöng,

[4]Icelandic cuisine,

[5]Klapste, Jan & Sommer, Petr, Processing, Storage, Distribution of Food – Foodstuffs, their preparation and storage in Iceland, Turnhout Brepols Publishers, Vol. 8, 2011, pg. 173~186, e-book online date 8.29.11,

[6]Icelandic cuisine,

[7]Icelandic Cusine, Food Preservation,


[9]Hansson, Ann-Marie. On Plant Food in the Scandinavian Peninsula in Early Medieval Times.  Theses and Papers in Archaeology B:5. Stockholm: University of Stockholm. 1997.

[10]Isaksson, Sven, “Vessels of Change”, Current Swedish Archeology, Vol. 17, 2009, page 131~137

[11]Cucumber,History Roman, The Natural History of Pliny, Book 29, Chapter. 23,

[12] Kusz, Ian (a.k.a. Ian of Oertha),"Medieval and Ancient History of the Cucumber",2007(updated 2009),

[13] Cauldwell, Patrick (a.k.a. Hrafnir Fiachsman), Viking Cooking: a theoretical reconstruction from the archaeological and written record, 2007

[14]  Holloway, Johanna,  2011, Medieval Cookery, A Closet for Ladies & Gentlewomen, 1602 (printed 1608),
[15] MacDonell, Anne, The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened by Kenelm Digby, 2005, pg.83 & 160, (e-book)

[16]Holloway, Johanna H., An Elizabethan Book of Recipes for Confections & Banqueting Stuff, 2011, original source 1602(8),

[17]Creighton University School of Medicine, 2005,

[18] Spices, UCLA, 2002,


  1. Drying is the critical factor in preservation of food products. The removal of moisture helps prevent bacterial activity and spoilage. Salt can be used to accelerate the removal of water and hence its widespread use as a traditional preservative. Modern day methods of water removal include freeze drying which will both remove the water and significantly reduce the weight of the food. Smoking the meat imparts extracts from the smoke (phenols, etc.) that helps to retards the growth of spoilage bacteria. Today preservatives are typically added to retard bacterial growth .