Growing up my mom often had a container of buttermilk in the fridge. She would pour a small glass after a long afternoon in the garden or cleaning the garage and drink it with a small stack of saltines standing over the sink. It looked so delicious and I wanted some in a real way. Under the raised eyebrow of my mother, I poured myself a glass, took a big fat swig and gagged. Sour, cloying, unnaturally smooth.
The only reason the buttermilk stayed in my mouth and did not fly into the sink was that raised eyebrow, simply daring me to waste something that I had poured for myself. So I drank that gulp, vowed never to touch the stuff again and when she was safely back in the yard, poured the rest of the buttermilk back into the carton. And from then on consumed buttermilk only when it was securely imbedded into pancakes.
Over the years, at the urging of others, I’ve gradually learned to embrace buttermilk. There was lore of a salad at Vie Restaurant in Chicago, where I often work in the winters, of sliced beets dressed in buttermilk alone. They were still talking about it several years later. And on and on. Through the influence of others, I’ve come to really appreciate buttermilk, though that appreciation never crossed love and certainly never to drinking a glass, standing over the sink.
Three weeks ago, I was making a pasta salad for a Memorial Day party and thought of using buttermilk instead of a simple mayo to dress the salad. I bought a quart of Shetler’s, poured a spoonful to get a sense of its texture and sourness. I was flabbergasted—not sticky, delightfully tart. My mom had been right; I poured myself a glass. And now I want buttermilk all the time.
Back when families had a cow or two and before refrigeration was ubiquitous, the cream that would become butter was saved over the course of several days. To keep it from spoiling, a culture would be added to promote healthy bacteria development that would out compete the bad, rancid making bacteria. When enough cream was collected, it would be turned to butter. Through agitation or “turning” the milk proteins in the cream constrict, pushing the excess water out. The results: butter and buttermilk. The butter would have a slightly cheesy flavor from the culture and the buttermilk an acidic flavor.
With the advent of refrigeration, the cream didn’t need to be cultured to stave off spoilage. And so, as a nation, we’ve switched to “sweet cream” butter. Butter from uncultured cream. When turning this cream into butter, the expelled liquid is not acidic. As a result, we now take the extra step of making buttermilk from fresh milk in order to recreate the traditional product.
Shetler’s uses their regular 2% to make their buttermilk, differentiating it with a gold cap. The culture bacteria, similar to what would be used to make yogurt or cheese, grows in the milk, lowering the ph. and thereby acidifying it. And in Shetler’s case, that’s it. Cultured milk, no additives. In more mass-produced buttermilk carrageen or galangal, both thickeners derived from seaweed, is added to smooth out the lumps that naturally form through acidification.
This acidification is why buttermilk is so often used in baking. Baking powder and soda react with a low ph., releasing carbon dioxide—think vinegar and baking soda in a two liter bottle in middle school science. Those bubbles are then trapped in the batter and give lift to waffles and biscuits. If you find yourself in a buttermilk-less jam when making pancakes, you can think yogurt with milk to substitute. I never measure, just thin it to the thickness of buttermilk, whisk to combine and it usually works well.
Cultured buttermilk transforms cream to crème fraiche or sour cream. I use 4 parts cream to 1 part buttermilk and leave it loosely covered for 2 full days or until it is fully set.
The following two recipes show off the savory and sweet applications for buttermilk. The pasta salad is what I made over Memorial Day that lead to this buttermilk renaissance. The buttermilk ice is a play on milk ice—a tradition from the Border States. It is like making sorbet but instead of spinning it to keep the ice crystals small, let them form big and flakey. This time of year, all I want for dessert is a big bowl of fruit but it never feels like quite enough effort for a dinner party. And this ice gives an unexpected tang and crunch to humble desserts.
Using the same water for the peas, asparagus and pasta makes quick work of all the cooking. The water may darken a bit with the asparagus, but it shouldn’t discolor the pasta. If you’d rather use fresh water with each step, feel free. I like to top this with buttery toasted breadcrumbs to give a little extra crunch. This salad will hold for a couple of days, but the asparagus will leach water as the days tick along.
- 2 C pearl pasta (substitute another shape if you like)
- 1 lb asparagus, cut into 1/4” pieces
- 2 C peas
- 1 C buttermilk dressing, more or less depending on how saucy you like it
- salt and pepper
- Bring salted water to a boil and blanch asparagus for 1 min or until bright green but maintaining its texture. Skim from the water and allow to cool in a single layer on a cookie sheet
- Blanch the peas for 30 seconds and skim out of the water and allow to cool like the asparagus
- Boil pasta in salted water until just tender then drain
- Toss the peas, asparagus and pasta together with the buttermilk dressing adding any herbs you have around and serve room temperature or cold
This may sound over the top, but I like to wash berries and then put them into the sun on a porch or windowsill. Berries that are slightly warm taste so much better, and in this recipe the heat accentuates the cool crunch of the buttermilk ice that tops the whole bowl. You can also leave them in a hot car, but it is easy to overdo it and get berry mush bags, and it doesn’t sound as nice—hot car fruit as opposed to sun-warmed fruit. But it does work. If you are feeling really over the top, serve these with a plate of cookies. I like shortbread or thin crispy almond cookies.
- 2 C buttermilk
- 1 C cream
- ¾ C sugar
- pinch of salt
- Warm the cream and dissolve the sugar and salt
- Whisk with the buttermilk to combine
- Pour into shallow and wide pan and freeze
- After about 4 hours (or as the ice crystals begin to form) stir the mixture with a fork flaking the crystals
- Stir every hour or two as the mixture continues to freeze to flake and fluff the ice
- Serve over a mixture of berries