Buttermilk: Not just for grandma anymore

  • Article by: NANCY STOHS , Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
  • Updated: February 13, 2013 - 2:15 PM

The versatile ingredient offers a tang and moistness to many dishes.

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Wedge of poundcake made with buttermilk.

Photo: Angela Peterson • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ,

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For all the dairy in the Midwest, one product gets a lot more love elsewhere.

The product is buttermilk, and the elsewhere is the South.

Buttermilk adds a wonderful tang, along with moistness and a fine, tender crumb, to cakes and other baked goods. It produces the fluffiest pancakes. It mellows out the fishy flavor in a fillet when used as poaching liquid.

It also makes creamy salad dressings, extraordinary ricotta cheese, refreshing smoothie-style drinks — and is a fine facial cleanser to boot.

Yet per capita annual consumption of buttermilk nationwide is only about 1 ½ pounds a year, or just under 3 cups, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

One reason, no doubt, is the name. “Buttermilk” gives the mistaken impression that it’s high in fat, like butter. In fact, it is low in fat. Originally, it was the low-fat milk left over after butter was churned from whole milk or cream. Today’s commercial buttermilk is made from skim milk.

Consumers in the South wouldn’t care either way.

Although the South is not a prime dairy region, small farmers everywhere made their own butter, said Debbie Moose, author of a new cookbook, “Buttermilk” (University of North Carolina Press, $18).

Back before refrigeration, because of the extreme heat, the resulting buttermilk fermented quickly. Frugal Southerners used the buttermilk anyway and came to favor its tart flavor.

“Regular milk, what my mother called ‘sweet milk,’ was predominantly used in the North,” where fermentation doesn’t take place so quickly, she said.

Add to that the fact that making yeast breads “was never hugely popular in the South.”

“Southerners are more likely to make biscuits and corn bread and quick breads,” Moose said. In the 1800s, when baking powder and baking soda were invented, they needed an acid, and buttermilk, with its acidic profile, found a new role.

Classic uses for buttermilk include such Southern staples as corn bread, biscuits, fried chicken and poundcake. Pancakes and waffles are also typical uses, as are certain layer cakes, including red velvet and German chocolate. Buttermilk in the batter helps with the rising and adds moistness.

“If you’ve ever taken a recipe for buttermilk pancakes and substituted regular milk, you’ll see the difference,” Moose said. “The recipe will work, but the regular milk pancakes will be a little flatter and a little drier.”

And not as flavorful.

A redefinition

One important point: What sells as buttermilk in stores now isn’t “true” buttermilk. The first change from the pure product occurred in the 19th century with the advent of centrifugal cream separators, author Harold McGee writes in his food science book “On Food and Cooking.”

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