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Miss Muffet was really onto something. Suddenly chefs, home cooks, even bartenders are embracing the subtle tang and versatility of whey – the milky liquid left over when cheese curds form.

Traditionally, the protein-packed substance has been used to make ricotta or to feed animals; the whey from traditional Parmigiano Reggiano is famously fed to pigs destined to become Prosciutto di Parma.

In its powdered processed form, whey's more dubious distinction is as the first ingredient in the "cheese sauce mix" included in a box of Kraft Dinner. But in places where the popularity of DIY cheese-making is on the rise, people are discovering new ways to use – rather than toss – the abundant by-product.

Chef Steve Wall, owner of Ottawa's new restaurant Supply & Demand, makes a decadent ricotta dumpling called gnudi from homemade cheese he makes with a combination of milk and buttermilk. He decided to braise pork shoulder in some of the whey and loved the results. "Pork and milk sounds strange," he says, "But after 12 or 14 hours, it's a dark, richly coloured broth that has a lightness and natural acidity to it."

On Food52, a popular social networking site for cooks and foodies, members share tips for cooking with whey, including a recipe for curds and whey biscuits, and roasted ricotta whey polenta. Chefs who have whey left over from their own cheese-making efforts can use it as a poaching liquid, a marinade for meat, or as a replacement for water in yeast bread, pancakes or mashed potatoes. At Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, whey even has a place at the bar; it is mixed with lemon juice and rhubarb syrup to make a so-called Dirty Rhubarb, sometimes spiked with gin.

Whey butter, made by Ontario's Stirling Creamery, recently joined the company's collection of high quality barrel-churned butters, giving consumers an option beyond salted and unsalted. Joe Donato, co-owner of the Centre Theatre in Trenton, Ont., swears by the creamy taste of whey butter and recently made the switch from Stirling's regular sweet cream butter. "Our popcorn is known as the best around."

"It's actually an old-fashioned product that was once known as farmhouse butter," says Stirling's director of sales Greg Nogler, "The story goes, it was so good farmers kept it for themselves."