Buttermilk: The Peerless Dairy Queen

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Imagine a liquid that tastes indulgent, but is lean. A ready-to-use brine that renders proteins from fried chicken to grilled steak tender and juicy. An elixir that adds soft and tender crumbs to cornbread and chocolate cake, and makes perfect biscuits a possible dream. A tonic that adds tangy zip to salad dressings, milkshakes, and soups. Friends, that’s no genie in that bottle — that’s buttermilk.

The Origins of Buttermilk

Buttermilk’s origins are modest, if not happenstance. Old-fashioned buttermilk is the whey left in the bottom of a churn, a byproduct of making butter. It is light, yet substantial, with flecks of butter floating through it like gold dust in a miner’s pan. Starting way back, most families kept a cow or had access to fresh milk — what some people called sweet milk. What they lacked was refrigeration to keep that milk fresh for very long. Turns out that milk left out overnight makes tastier butter. It also starts the growth of the harmless, active cultures in the milk, similar to the good-for-us stuff found in natural yogurt, kefir, and other fermented foods. Those delicious tangy cultures are what enable buttermilk to work culinary wonders in recipes.

Lemon Juice and Milk Are Not Buttermilk

Liquid buttermilk should always be our first choice in cooking. It’s a shame that so many well-intentioned but misguided recipes encourage us to replace buttermilk with reconstituted powder or milk curdled with lemon juice. Other than being acidic, curdled milk bears no resemblance to buttermilk, and it cannot deliver the goods. It’s akin to rice cakes in lieu of a warm baguette, powdered whitener instead of frothy milk in our latte, or, yes, water for chocolate. Please, raise your right hand and make a solemn vow that you will never again fool yourself into thinking that acidulated milk can pinch hit for liquid buttermilk in any recipe.

New-Wave Buttermilk

Despite its charms, naturally cultured and churned buttermilk is a rarity these days. Even the best local dairies usually produce their buttermilk by adding cultures to milk rather than let them develop on their own. But when made on a small scale with care and without artificial thickeners or added chemicals, the results are excellent. In response to the local food movement, a few family owned, small-scale dairies with pastured herds are producing astonishing buttermilk these days, often as a companion enterprise to cheese making and grass-fed beef production. Ask around your community and check for local producers at your local farmers market. But rest assured that even commercial liquid buttermilk is still superior to no buttermilk at all.

The Utility of Buttermilk

I’ve heard cooks say that they don’t want to buy a bottle of buttermilk when they need only a splash in a recipe, which implies the rest will go to waste. That’s poppycock. First, because buttermilk is fermented, it keeps longer than most dairy products. Even if it is a few days past the freshness date and the solids have risen to the top, give it a good shake. If it comes back together, it’s fine to use. Second, considering the versatility and utility of buttermilk, finding no way to use it up is a result of lack of imagination.

7 Ways to Use Buttermilk

Beyond the obvious (but never tiresome) biscuits, cornbread, pound cake, and pancakes, here are seven ways to use buttermilk.

  • Dressing: Think Ranch with integrity.
  • Soups: Especially warm curries where you might use coconut milk, and any soup that you would garnish with sour cream.
  • Mashed potatoes: If you like sour cream on a baker, you’ll love the tang in mashers.
  • Milkshakes: Take inspiration from a mango or strawberry lassi and play around with the fruits.
  • Brine: Look up a brine for fried chicken and use it on skirt steak.
  • Ice cream and sherbet: The zip balances the sweetness.
  • Whipped cream: It’s too lean to go it alone, but a tablespoon or two added to whipped cream is fantastic
  • Drink it: Yes! Not only is it full of good bacteria for a happy gut, but many a Southern soul also knows it does wonders for a hangover.
    Editor’s note: We love Sheri’s stance on buttermilk — buy the best you can when you can. For those other times when that’s not an option, make the substitute. And remember it’s a substitute, not a replacement.