Did you have buttermilk in your home when you were growing up? I think we did only on special occasions and holidays. Mom had a few recipes she made during these times that my Grandmother had also made. So buttermilk didn’t feature prominently in our families diet when I was a kid. But it did feature prominently in Grandma’s cooking. I had often wondered why the popularity but not looked into it very much until I started learning more about real food cookery. With that I’ve come to understand why it’s popular.
What is buttermilk exactly?
Buttermilk refers to two things … that’s why you’ll find some confusion when people are talking about it. Traditional buttermilk is simply the milk left in the bowl after butter making. This is the kind of buttermilk I’ve been using in my kitchen. But the second kind of buttermilk, cultured buttermilk, is also very traditional. It was a favored drink in the south prior to refrigeration as cultured buttermilk keeps for a long time even in a hot climate. Acid is a natural preservative … it inhibits the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Buttermilk is naturally acidic hence the longer life. There is no butter in buttermilk. Cultured buttermilk is the only kind available commercially and is the kind of buttermilk typically required in recipes. In the past there was some crossover between the two because pre-refrigeration and mechanical cream separators people simply left their milk out for the cream to rise. While the cream was rising a natural culture would begin to grow in the milk.
Most of the buttermilk available in the store is made by culturing pasteurized milk, not as a byproduct of butter making.
What is buttermilk used for?
Buttermilk is acidic and so can be used anywhere an acid is desired. For instance soaking grains, flours, beans, etc to reduce phytic acids. It can be used as marinade for meat and often was in southern cooking. It can also be used as a leavening as in buttermilk biscuits and pancakes. So you see why I now understand it’s great popularity! It is remarkably versatile! So having some around all the time will make your life as a southern real food cook much easier :-). And since it keeps well that is easy to do.
Traditional buttermilk is the least acidic kind and cultured buttermilk is the most.
How to choose the best buttermilk
In choosing buttermilk much of the same concerns apply as when choosing milk. Ideally you would want buttermilk made from raw grassfed milk. You’ll also want to consider whether it has live cultures, depending on how you’ll use it. Live cultures matter most when drinking straight, or soaking, or using it in a served raw recipe, like salad dressing. If you’re just using it in cooking, it’s less important.
Since we are all working within the 80/20 rule , here’s a guide to help in the balancing act of quality to money to time, so you can work out your own individual priorities. It’s organized from the best to least to must-avoid.
- Excellent ($$$) – Buttermilk made either traditional or cultured from grassfed raw milk. This could be made either at home (super easy, btw) or by the farmer/distributor. This buttermilk will still contain live cultures with the cultured variety having more.
- Pretty Good ($$$) – Cultured buttermilk made from lightly pasteurized grassfed milk made at home. This buttermilk will contain live cultures.
- Pretty Good ($$$) – Traditional buttermilk made from lightly pasteurized grassfed milk. May or may not contain live cultures … most likely not :-).
- Good ($$$) – Cultured buttermilk made from lightly pasteurized milk made at home. This buttermilk will contain live cultures.
- Allright ($$) – Cultured buttermilk made from lightly pasteurized milk made commercially. This buttermilk may or may not contain live cultures so read the label carefully.
- Absolutely Avoid – Buttermilk made with Ultra High Pasteurized (UHT) Milk – Personally I haven’t seen any buttermilk labeled UHT but I’m concerned that it *may* be happening as there are regulations on the books (FDA) concerning the labeling of UHT cultured dairy products so it seems that the food industry can make cultured products from this milk even though it’s difficult and results in an inferior product for the home cook. Note that you will rarely if ever see a cultured dairy product labeled as UHT … if you have seen it leave me a note below, I’d love to hear about it :-).
Links to more about buttermilk
- About Buttermilk – Wikipedia
- Making Buttermilk – A slightly technical discussion by a Professor of Biology and Chemistry along with his own method for making buttermilk.
- Make butter at home – and get traditional buttermilk as a byproduct :-).
- How to make cultured buttermilk – Food renegade shows us a good close-up of a commercial buttermilk label and provides the steps to make your own!