Growing up, I remember visiting my grandmother and on a hot day watching her take a big swig out of a glass of butter milk. In typical child fashion, I was thoroughly disgusted that she not only willingly sipped but seemed to savor the sour, lumpy contents of her glass. Bleh!
While I’ve not followed her lead and slurped my butter milk, I have taken a shine to what it can do to recipes, for example, why have plain pancakes when you can have buttermilk pancakes, or just plain poundcake when you can enjoy the buttermilk lemon version?
So what is it exactly? Even as a kid I knew it was not just milk + butter but some strange combination to give it its quirky texture and taste.
Apparently the original version of buttermilk was more akin to what I had envisioned. The tart version we “enjoy” today is deliberately soured. Also, for the purposes of today’s buttermilk, any association with butter can be tossed out the window. It is now a misnomer.
The original version of buttermilk has been around, well ever since folks have made butter as its a byproduct of the process. As you might imagine, prior to refrigeration milk did not stay fresh and sweet for long, wand was quick to curdle or “sour.” To make it more confusion, buttermilk could refer to
- old milk that had soured
- sour byproduct of churning sour milk into butter
- sweet byproduct of churning fresh milk into butter
No wonder it was not popular given how hit or miss your chances were of getting what you expected.
How did it gain its appeal?
Early on, the appeal of this beverage, whether sweet or sour was lost on most folks. For most people in the English speaking world, dairy by-products were left for the poor who needed all the nutrition and calories they could get. Everyone else generously fed it to their farm animals. However, at some point, American saw an influx of immigrants from parts of the world that saw the appeal of sour milk. Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, were sited as they were inclined to be lactose intolerant and the bacteria make it more digestible.
Everyone else waited until 1907 to jump on the bandwagon, when a Russian biologist, Elie Metchnikoff determined that the relative longevity of the Balkan people was directly contributed to their consumption of sour milk. Health-conscious Americans started going crazy for sour milk, thinking this was the fountain of youth. This attraction proved timely as naturally-occurring sour milk was becoming increasingly rare, thanks to modern refrigeration. So commercial dairies jumped in to fill the void by culturing the milk themselves. They labeled it buttermilk starting in the 1920s, and was very similar to what can be found in the grocers today. Dairies used low-fat milk because it was cheaper than whole milk, but still took on a thick, creamy body when cultured.
Now here’s a cultural divide, while not the most common of ingredients north of the Mason Dixie, folks south of the line love this beverage – buttermilk biscuits or buttermilk fried chicken, red velvet cake anyone? Farms were structured a bit differently in the South where most small farmers made their own butter (source: Debbie Moose, author of Buttermilk). Given the more extreme heat, this buttermilk fermented quickly and frugal Southerners developed a taste for the resulting liquid and a multitude of recipes that quickly became classics.
Consider for example the challenges of making classic yeast bread given the heat and humidity of the South – any famous Southern breads come to mind? No? How about biscuits, corn bread and other quick breads that use baking salt and baking soda as the leavening agents? Ah ha!
This popularity really took off with the development of baking soda and baking powder in the late 1800s. Cookbooks started calling for the sour version of buttermilk in recipes for bread made with baking soda. It became a key ingredient as baking soda proved more reliable and faster to use than yeast, but it wouldn’t work unless mixed with an acid (sour butter milk). In the 1860s, Church & Co. (the forerunner of Armand Hammer) began distributing instructions for making baking-soda cornbread, biscuits, muffins, pancakes, and waffles using sour milk as an activator.
Buttermilk tips + facts
- Substitute buttermilk for regular milk in equal measure. If you do so and the recipe calls for baking powder swap it out for baking soda. The ratio I’ve used is about a ½ teaspoon baking soda per cup of buttermilk. If the recipe calls for only baking powder, replace enough of the powder with baking soda to meet this requirement.
- Swapping a little buttermilk for some of the liquid in the batter of baked goods prevents the blue discoloration you often get around cherries and berries such as blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries.
- A bit of buttermilk makes for tender pie crusts, fluffy pancakes and moist cakes.
- Makes a great marinade for poultry and fish.
- Because buttermilk is cultured, like yogurt, it will keep longer in the refrigerator than regular milk. However, it does not freeze well.
- As buttermilk is cultured and fermented, it curdles easily when heated, more so than milk or cream. Avoid stirring it directly into very hot dishes, such as hot soups.
US annual per capita annual consumption of buttermilk is only about 1 ½ pounds a year, or just under 3 cups, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
Resources + Ideas:
Minneapolis Star and Tribune – Buttermilk: Not Just for Grandma Anymore, Nancy Stohs, February 13, 2013:
Fine Cooking: Lemon and Buttermilk Poundcake
LA Times: – Biscuits: Now that’s flour power by Paula Woods, August 12, 2009
Tasting Table Recipes – Buzz Tart from Buzz Bakery in Arlington, Virginia
Buttermilk ideas from Saveur