My Southern grandmother loved her buttermilk. She would drink a big glass of it at night before she went to bed. Or, for a snack, she would crumble some cornbread into a bowl of ice cold buttermilk and eat it like cereal. The word "buttermilk" sounded so appealing and it looked so thick and rich that I begged a sip from her glass expecting it to taste like liquid popcorn or a butter-flavored milk shake. But, oh, blech, it was sour and, to my baby taste buds, which had yet to develop a taste for the finer fermented things in life, registered as nothing more than spoiled milk. She laughed at me for having Yankee leanings that prevented me from knowing good Southern food when I had it, but also admitted that the store-bought kind was not nearly as good as what she had growing up. I never did develop her hankering for a chug from the buttermilk jug. But I adore buttermilk for its super powers in both sweet and savory cooking. And its story is pretty cool, too.
A Bit of Buttermilk History
Buttermilk is actually a byproduct of the butter making process. It's the liquid part of the cream that is left behind when the butter solids coagulate during churning. Its name brings to mind decadent buttery slurps but, other than a few floating specs that didn't get caught by the churn, buttermilk has very little fat (more on full fat "buttermilk" later). Enjoyed directly after churning, buttermilk has a light, lactic taste, like a richer tasting version of skim milk. When eaters were still in the habit of making their own butter, they would often enjoy the sweet buttermilk right out of the churn - a gift for the milkmaid's effort.
If they couldn't or chose not to drink the buttermilk right away, it was often left on the counter overnight to "ripen." Without refrigeration, the buttermilk sours slightly, but not in the way that we think of milk "spoiling." Essentially, beneficial bacteria - lactobacillus, such as those found in yogurt - ferment the liquid. This step changes the texture of the liquid, thickening it a bit. It also converts the natural sugars in the milk into the lactic acid, which is what gives buttermilk its tangy flavor and makes it more shelf stable then fresh milk. The result is a low-fat, probiotic-rich beverage that is delicious, healthful and made entirely out of a dairy byproduct that otherwise would have gone to waste.
Another type of buttermilk, cultured buttermilk, is cast off when making cultured butter - the tangy, nutty butter that is the standard in Europe. Milk, fresh from the cow, is left at room temperature for a day or so to allow the cream to rise and to ripen, as described above. This slightly aged milk is then churned into butter. The same lactobacilli have worked on the milk to convert its sugars into acid, giving the butter a bit more character and the remaining buttermilk a sharp, acidic flavor.
Most of the buttermilk that you find in the grocery today bears little resemblance to the old-fashioned byproduct of the butter churn. Butter manufacturers process the buttermilk that they produce into a dry powder called "milk solids," an additive that is used in packaged foods. Even if they were to bottle their buttermilk, pasteurization, which holds the milk at a high temperature to kill off any pathogens, also kills off the beneficial bacteria that create that lovely cultured flavor.
To create buttermilk for retail sale, pasteurized milk is now inoculated with cultures to mimic the flavor of authentic buttermilk, with salt and sugar sometimes added as well. Thickeners are incorporated to make it creamier. The majority of cultured buttermilk that you find on the grocery shelf begins as skim milk and has a low-fat content.
A small handful of craft butter makers in the United States are now bottling their own buttermilk. It's a way to maximize profits off of a second harvest item and preserve a culinary tradition. Buttermilk is seeing a renewed popularity as DIY cooks spread their wings, artisan butter producers are expanding their markets and Southern cuisine has entered the spotlight.
How to Fake That Buttermilk Tang
Caught with a recipe that calls for buttermilk and none in my fridge, I have used a little kitchen trick to make my own by adding a little lemon juice or vinegar to milk to curdle it. Some cooks use cream of tartar, as well. While the soured milk will bring acid to recipes, which has its benefits, it doesn't do anything to improve flavor. I wouldn't use it in any quantity where it wouldn't be masked by other ingredients. When I do use it, it's only in small amounts and only in a real pinch.
Some eaters keep powdered buttermilk on hand. It adds the acid of liquid buttermilk but, because it is a dry product, doesn't contain the live cultures that many eaters value. It can be added directly to dry ingredients. You can reconstitute it with water but it will not have the viscosity of liquid buttermilk.
The Benefits of Buttermilk
Buttermilk in all of its forms can contribute a lot to your recipes. It enriches their flavor, adding a bit of the clarifying high note that lemon juice would bring. And its chemical properties are transformative. Many recipes, however, only call for a small amount. Here are some recipes that benefit greatly from the use of buttermilk. You can mix and match to get you through your carton. (Or, pro tip: freeze your buttermilk for future use!)
Buttermilk in Baked Goods
The acid also acts on the gluten in wheat-based foods, making the crumb more tender - think of biscuits that are more like a pillow than a puck. Try buttermillk in your biscuits, pancakes and waffles.
As a Fry Coating
Desserts with Buttermilk
As a Milk Substitute
You can add buttermilk to recipes in which you would normally add milk, such as mashed potatoes, where it will bring a little zing.
Recipe: Buttermilk Shake
One of the easiest ways to use up leftover buttermilk is to blend it into a shake. You don't have to like the taste of buttermilk straight out of the carton to enjoy this thick, creamy (but still low fat) treat. Like yogurt in a smoothie, buttermilk takes on a background role. Fruit, cool and delicious - even your kids will love it. For a frozen treat, pour into popsicle molds.
2 cups fresh or frozen fruit such as strawberries, bananas, mango, raspberries, blueberries, pitted cherries, peaches or nectarines
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon natural sweetener such as honey, agave or maple syrup
Ice cubes (optional)
Combine the fruit, buttermilk and ice (if your fruit isn't frozen) in a blender and puree until smooth. Divide between two glasses and serve.