So, you buy a quart of buttermilk, make pancakes or biscuits, then complain about having all of that leftover buttermilk. As the author of a book about buttermilk, if I had a dime for every time I've heard this gripe, I'd have enough money to buy a herd of dairy cows. People, what we have here is not a problem of excess buttermilk, it's a lack of imagination. Right there in your refrigerator is a magic elixir that is worthy of Harry Potter’s "Potions" class. Buttermilk can transform even the most mundane of dishes into tangy, high-flying delicacies.
If you want to believe a dairy farmer I know, it can do much more. I once heard him say: “If people drank more buttermilk, they could throw away that Viagra.”
Oh, yeah, you're grabbing that buttermilk now, aren't you?
But the most important thing is: If you love breakfast, you simply must embrace buttermilk. I think that next to bacon, it’s the essential ingredient for a stellar morning meal.
At a basic level, buttermilk is what’s left over after the butterfat is removed from milk to produce butter. However, another transformation takes place after that. The buttermilk is cultured, much in the same way as cheese or yogurt. In the days before refrigeration, farmers put the pitcher of liquid on a kitchen shelf and let bacteria in the air do the work, changing the lactose in the milk to lactic acid and causing natural fermentation to take place. Today, milk processors inject cultures into non-fat or full-fat milk to accomplish the same thing in a more controlled (and safe) way.
Fermentation gives buttermilk its tart flavor and buttery aroma, and extends its usable life. In the process, the acid level of the buttermilk increases, making it higher than that in what my Southern mother called “sweet milk.”
The higher acid level is crucial to fluffy pancakes, mile-high biscuits and moist, tender scones. Creating the lovely bubbles that make baked goods rise requires a combination of high and low pH ingredients. Baking powder or baking soda provides the alkaline leavening—and there’s acidic buttermilk to do the job on the other end. That’s why, when chemical leavenings were invented around the 1800s, buttermilk sales boomed.
You can substitute buttermilk for regular milk in any baked good recipe. If the recipe already has baking powder or baking soda, you're good to go on making the swap. If you're using a lot of buttermilk and you want some insurance, increase the baking soda by no more than 1/4 teaspoon.
Buttermilk is an ingredient for all seasons. It can be a flavor star or a behind-the-scenes supporting player. Either way, you need it among your kitchen’s cast of characters.
Biscuits and pancakes are just the start. Any baked good is better with buttermilk—scones, breads, doughnuts. It balances the sweetness in pound cake (we've all eaten toasted pound cake for breakfast). Smoothies and Indian lassis gain extra flavor. Substitute buttermilk for all or part of the milk to make a not-the-same-old brunch quiche. Give some tang to whipped cream by replacing about a third of the cream with buttermilk. Ricotta made from buttermilk is heavenly. Put buttermilk on your cereal or oatmeal, or create a brunch cocktail with it, as are some creative bartenders are doing.
The higher acid level makes buttermilk a great marinade to tenderize chicken. Try poaching fish in buttermilk sometime—it takes away the “fishy” flavor for those who are picky about such things.
Stock up on buttermilk right now, because like a full moon on a warm Southern night, buttermilk can make something magic happen. Just ask that dairy farmer.
Debbie Moose eats, cooks and writes in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is the author of six cookbooks, and her work has appeared in newspapers and magazines including the Dallas Morning News, The News & Observer and Gravy.