A second look at a culinary commodity that's fallen out of favor but was once a staple in every household.

      What is buttermilk, anyway? Originally it was simply the liquid left over after whole milk or cream had been churned into butter. The churn's motion caused the butterfat to separate from the milk or cream and solidify into butter. The liquid that remained was called buttermilk.

Different kinds of buttermilk are produced as a result of butter making.
  • Sweet cream buttermilk--which tastes much like regular skim milk--is the liquid residue from fresh ( or "sweet") milk or cream that has been churned into butter.
  • Tangy-tasting sour cream buttermilk, a by-product of butter, is made from raw, unpasteurized milk or cream that has been allowed to sour naturally or has been soured intentionally by the addition of a bacterial culture.
  • Cultured Buttermilk--which is formed during the process of making cultured butter.  Cultured butter is regular butter with a bacteria culture (Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis; Lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris; Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis biovar. diacetylactis; Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. cremoris (Leuc. citrovorum) added to it to give it taste. This culture provides for a butter that is rich with a fuller, slightly tangy flavor.This culture will eat up any lactose that remains in regular butter. So cultured butter has less lactose than regular butter.

The natural buttermilk remaining in the churn can be thin or thick, depending on the process used in making the butter itself. And the taste of any buttermilk will also be affected by the source of the milk: cows, goats, sheep, horses, camels, or water buffalo.

In earlier times, when buttermilk was a staple in every household that churned its own butter, people found many uses for this nourishing liquid. Some of it was made into buttermilk cheese. Excess buttermilk was fed to farm animals. But much of the buttermilk was either drunk by humans or used as an ingredient in cooking. Even today, buttermilk is served as a drink with meals in many countries, from India to the Middle East. Some people consume it as an aid to digestion. And in Muslim countries such as the United Arab Emirates, buttermilk is the drink used for breaking the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

The commercial buttermilk sold in grocery stores today is cultured buttermilk, a different product from the old-fashioned "churn buttermilk." Cultured buttermilk is made from pasteurized milk--usually low-fat milk (1--2 percent butterfat) or skim milk (0.5 percent butterfat)--to which one or more strains of benign bacteria are added. The bacteria convert part of the lactose (milk sugar) into lactic acid, which produces the buttermilk's slightly sour flavor. As the bacteria multiply, they also cause the milk to thicken. (Yogurt is made in a similar way but with different bacterial cultures.)

The resulting product is thicker than milk but thinner than yogurt or sour cream, with a less sour taste than either of them. Some dairy companies also add flecks of butterfat to their cultured buttermilk, to make the product more "credible" and attractive to customers. Cultured buttermilk can be consumed as a refreshing, nutritious drink by itself, or used in cooking just like old-fashioned buttermilk.

Powdered buttermilk is commercial cultured buttermilk from which the liquid has been removed. Powdered buttermilk (reconstituted with water) is best used as an ingredient in baked goods; it is not recommended as a beverage, or for use in uncooked dishes such as ice creams or sherbets.

If you like the taste of plain yogurt, you'll probably also like the taste of buttermilk. But even if you don't care to drink buttermilk, you should still consider using it as a cooking ingredient. When it was discovered that the acid in buttermilk reacts with baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) to produce bubbles of carbon dioxide, buttermilk became the preferred liquid of many cooks for making light, tender, highest-rising biscuits, scones, soda breads and other quick breads, pancakes, waffles, muffins, and cakes.

Buttermilk can also be substituted for whole milk or skim milk in many recipes, from baked goods to soups, sauces, puddings, and frozen desserts. In some recipes, it can also be used as a substitute for sour cream. Buttermilk makes an excellent tenderizing marinade for many meats--and you can soak fresh venison overnight in buttermilk to reduce the meat's strong, gamy taste.

Despite its fat-sounding name, buttermilk is low in calories (about eighty calories per eight-ounce serving, if made from skim milk). It has the same amount of protein and vitamins as the milk it is made from and is an excellent source of calcium. For that reason, buttermilk is a boon to dieters: Drink a glass of it midmorning or mid-afternoon to stave off hunger pangs between meals. You can also make a tasty low-calorie "fruit smoothie" by combining one cup of very cold buttermilk in a blender with a handful of frozen fruit (strawberries, raspberries, peaches, etc.). Blend until smooth, then taste and blend in a spoonful of honey, if desired.

If you turn into a true buttermilk fanatic, you can even make an entire meal based on buttermilk, with recipes from around the globe. Start with an American appetizer of raw vegetables with buttermilk dip, followed by cold blueberry-buttermilk soup from Europe. Then serve a spicy Indian vegetarian main dish of okra with buttermilk, accompanied by white rice. For dessert, offer a choice of high-calorie buttermilk pie or buttermilk pralines, or low-calorie buttermilk sherbet--all classics from the American South.

And the next time you finish drinking a glass of pure buttermilk, look closely at the patterns on the glass. Maybe then you'll understand why a songwriter once described the streaks of cirrus clouds in winter as a "buttermilk sky."

Buttermilk dip
Use this as a tangy, low-calorie dip for raw vegetables (such as bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, celery, cauliflower, and green onions) or for cooked artichoke leaves.
1 1/2 cups thick buttermilk
1 large garlic clove, pressed
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1 Tbsp. finely chopped capers
1 Tbsp. olive oil
juice of 1 small lemon
Mix all ingredients together thoroughly, and let dip sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving. Makes 1 1/2 cups.

Buttermilk pie
       A favorite dessert from the American South, where buttermilk is used as an ingredient in many baked goods, from biscuits and corn breads to pastries and cakes.
One 9-inch unbaked pie shell
3 eggs
2 cups sugar
3 heaping Tbsp. Flour
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup melted butter, slightly cooled
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 450*F. Have ready a 9-inch unbaked pie shell in a pan. Cover piecrust with plastic wrap and set it in the refrigerator while you prepare pie filling.

       In a medium-size bowl, beat eggs well. In a smaller bowl, stir together sugar and flour until they are well mixed and no lumps remain. Add dry ingredients to beaten eggs. Stir until mixture is well blended. Add buttermilk, melted butter, and vanilla extract, and stir until ingredients are thoroughly mixed.

       Pour mixture into unbaked pie shell. Bake at 450*F for 10 minutes, then (without opening the oven) reduce heat to 375*F and bake for another 35--40 minutes, or until pie filling is firm and top is brown. (Check after 10--15 minutes of baking at 375*F. If edge of crust browns too rapidly, cover loosely with aluminum foil for remainder of baking time.) Let pie cool thoroughly before serving (the filling will continue to firm up as pie cools).
Makes one 9-inch pie (6--8 servings).

Buttermilk sherbet
       Also known as a granita or an ice--because of its crystalline texture--this low-fat sherbet can be served as either a "palate cleanser" between courses of a large meal or an elegant summer dessert.
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp. vanilla extract
6 cups buttermilk
Garnish: fresh mint sprigs
In a large, freezer-proof bowl (tempered glass or stainless steel), mix together well the sugar, lemon juice, and vanilla extract. Set aside for 5 minutes. Stir mixture again, then add buttermilk, stirring until all ingredients are thoroughly combined.

       Cover bowl with aluminum foil and place in the freezer until the mixture is frozen 2 inches in from the side of the bowl. Remove from freezer and, working quickly, scrape down the frozen part and beat the mixture with an electric mixer or large whisk until the frozen part is incorporated into the rest of the mixture. Repeat this process--freezing and beating--twice more. After the final beating, transfer sherbet to a 2-quart plastic freezer container, and freeze completely.

       Fifteen to 30 minutes before serving, transfer container from freezing compartment to refrigerator, to soften the sherbet slightly. Serve in stemmed glasses and garnish with sprigs of fresh mint. Makes 8--10

Creme fra'che from buttermilk
       Creme fra”che is slightly fermented heavy cream, with a tangy, somewhat nutty flavor. The French use it as a garnish for foods both sweet and savory, as a topping for fresh fruits and berries, and as a cooking ingredient in sauces and soups.
1 cup heavy whipping cream (100 percent cream, no additives)
2 Tbsp. cultured buttermilk
Rinse the inside of a clean glass screw-top jar under very hot tap water until the glass feels warm; drain water from jar. Combine cream and buttermilk in jar, screw on lid tightly, and shake contents vigorously for 30 seconds. Let jar sit, tightly covered, at room temperature (60--80*F) for 24--48 hours, or until cream is fairly thick.
       Stir cream gently, replace lid, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours before using. The crme fra”che will thicken further as it cools. Store up to 2 weeks in a tightly covered jar in the refrigerator. Makes 1 cup.

This page was last updated: October 6, 2012
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