Buttermilk, my underappreciated friend


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.

waffles, made better with buttermilk

waffles, made better with buttermilk

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.


Southern Comfort

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.

lemon buttermilk poundcake

lemon buttermilk poundcake

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

Update me when site is updated

18 comments for “Buttermilk, my underappreciated friend

  1. February 18, 2013 at 11:29 PM

    A lovely post! Buttermilk is so delicious and versatile (an ally in the kitchen).



  2. February 19, 2013 at 6:28 AM

    I haven’t had buttermilk in a long time. I’ll have to pick some up again.

    I always love your informative posts! 🙂

  3. February 19, 2013 at 1:45 PM

    A lovely buttermilk post! I love buttermilk & its tangy yummy taste! I don’t drink it much lately because I eat a lot vegan foods!

  4. February 19, 2013 at 2:58 PM

    Thank you LouAnn for this informative post! I’ve seen buttermilk in several recipes, and I didn’t have an idea what it was or how it was different from cream or butter or milk. Unfortunately we don’t have it at markets here, but I remember my grandma would use it when making bread.
    zerrin recently posted..Sesame Halva in Oven

  5. February 20, 2013 at 12:10 PM

    Good article–many people don’t realize that (today at least) buttermilk is a cultured milk product like yogurt. I occasionally go on buttermilk baking binges. When I use a lot, I culture my own.
    I Wilkerson recently posted..Scandinavian Sauteed Cabbage

  6. February 20, 2013 at 7:21 PM

    I love using buttermilk in baked goods, but I always have to have a list of recipes to make when I get some in so I don’t let it go to waste. I don’t think I could use up any extra by drinking it like your grandmother did. 🙂
    Lori recently posted..Sautéed Purple and Lacinato Kale Salad with Almond Dressing Recipe

  7. Amy
    February 21, 2013 at 2:53 PM

    What a great post and primer on buttermilk! I am crazy about Bulgarian buttermilk from Berkeley Farms, which sadly my supermarket no longer stocks. I can find it in some smaller neighborhood markets and always buy it when I see it.

  8. March 10, 2013 at 2:59 PM

    Buttermilk is a fairly recent addition to our grocery shelves so I haven’t baked with it much.
    Wizzy recently posted..This is why I am not a vegetarian.

  9. March 13, 2013 at 6:18 AM

    A friend of my Dad’s leaves a liter of milk on the countertop to go naturally sour, but when I tried this, it went off rather than a good sour. DO you perhaps know why?
    Crystal recently posted..Salobrena, Spain

  10. March 31, 2013 at 8:50 PM

    Great post and information on buttermilk. Is it really drinkable? I can hardly imagine/swallow that straight. But I do love to add it in my recipes for baking though. 😉
    Amy Tong recently posted..Chinese Tea Eggs (糖心茶葉蛋)

  11. April 13, 2013 at 6:06 AM

    When I lived in Holland, I noticed…strangely,they drink their buttermilk! Karnemelk its called – perhaps your Grandma had Dutch blood. Their buttermelk isn’t as thick as buttermilkeverywhere else, but it is also suitable for baking.

    I love buttermilk in baked goods – bread, cakes, pancakes, waffles and to ‘soak’ chicken ahead of breading. Thanks for the info
    Kitchen Butterfly recently posted..How to Grow Meyer Lemons from Seed

  12. April 17, 2013 at 5:04 PM

    I don’t think I could drink it straight. But I LOVE baking with it. It always makes cakes so much moister. A true godsend.
    Carolyn Jung recently posted..Staff Meals Part II: Danny Meyer’s Roasted Asparagus Gratin

  13. May 11, 2013 at 8:21 AM

    a loveyl post

  14. May 26, 2013 at 9:03 AM

    Great information! I am not a fan but not sure why since I do like kefir and yoghurt. But, baking with it is a terrific idea as I’m certain it will make everything so moist.
    Tammy recently posted..Asparagus Aspersions

  15. June 24, 2013 at 12:11 AM

    It’s also a great meat tenderizer 😉

  16. June 26, 2013 at 7:47 AM

    I love buttermilk. Nice post and thanks for the infomation.

  17. OysterCulture
    June 30, 2013 at 6:59 PM

    Rosa – Agree!

    Andrea – What are you thinking of making with it?

    Sophie – Glad you make an exception here!

    Zerrin – I am curious what your grandmother made with it if it is not common in Turkey.

    Amy – Thanks for the compliment – I’ve seen a lot of Bulgarian buttermilk and its funny that its hit or miss for you. Hope you find a new source soon.

    I Wilerkson – Its always a binge sort of thing for me, all or none – I’ll have to culture my own.

    Lori – me neither, I just find recipes to use it up.

    Crystal – have no idea, with my luck it would go off too. Have you tried adding a bit of acid such as vinegar or lemon juice to sour it?

    Wizzy – never to late!

    Amy – it is drinkable, just not by me =) or most people I know. I’d rather bake with it.

    KB – now I am intrigued, will need to check into the version in Holland the next time I am there.

    Carolyn – me too

    Jiang – thank you!

    Tammy – I never drink it just bake or cook with it, and it cannot be beat!

    Jackie – I agree – love to make chicken kebabs with it

    Food Recipes – You’re welcome

  18. Sharon Bradfield
    August 31, 2014 at 5:57 PM

    Very disappointed to discover that Save Mart in Sacramento no longer carries Berkeley Farms Bulgarian Buttermilk. It is by far the best. Can you tell me where else in Sacramento I could purchase it. It is worth a trip across town. The Save Mart on Folsom is where I shop. Please tell me you will restock it or tell me where to get some. Thanks!

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