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Buttermilk: Bessie’s Misunderstood Stepchild Deserves More Attention

Updated on February 25, 2016

Buttermilk Cake

Long before anyone came up with refrigeration

Long before anyone came up with refrigeration, centrifuges and homogenization, buttermilk was “simply the liquid that remained after the butter had been churned out of fresh cream,” explains Debbie Moose in Buttermilk (UNC Press, 2012), throughout which she waxes poetic about the “magical” ingredient. Lots of elbow grease (those wooden butter churns didn’t come with a cord and plug), gravity, the formation of butter globules, and the resulting acidity of the liquid left behind set the stage for one of the South’s iconic ingredients. “In the days before refrigeration, buttermilk was left sitting out [in the churn]. … That’s when the second part of making buttermilk would take place,” Moose explains. “Bacteria in the air and on the wooden churn paddle would change the lactose in the buttermilk to lactic acid, and natural fermentation would take place.”

With today’s large-scale dairy production, the romance has been thrown out the window along with the wooden butter churn. Lowfat or fat-free offerings are more often than not watery stand-ins for the thick, rich and tangy buttermilk that fueled so many memories. But thanks to small-scale, local producers; modern-yet-gentler production methods; the renewed interest in resurrecting and preserving our ancestors’ foodways; and notable chefs’ appreciation for buttermilk, this thing of the past is gaining a future.

Fourth-generation dairy farmer Ginny Franks and her husband, Jimmy, make whole milk buttermilk at Southern Swiss Dairy in Waynesboro, Ga. Their Brown Swiss cows, described by Ginny Franks as “heat-tolerant, sweet but headstrong — just like a typical woman,” produce milk that’s higher in fat and protein than most. Ginny says, “We have customers who drive 50 miles to get our buttermilk. They say they can’t get anything like it in the store. It doesn’t have the same good taste.” Along with other local chefs, The Hungry Peach’s executive chef and co-owner Suzanne Vizethann uses Southern Swiss Dairy products. Her newest restaurant, Buttermilk Kitchen, is an homage to “how it used to be prepared, utilizing the leftover ingredients to make new things.” Case in point: Everything at Buttermilk Kitchen is made from scratch and served in a space adorned entirely with salvaged items.

Atlanta culinary consultant Lea Brueckner, who says she comes from a long line of “dairy nuts,” professes a vast love of buttermilk and cooks with it often. “I’m a big fan of yummy, thick buttermilk like Sparkman’s. It almost pours like heavy cream, it’s so thick,” she says. Family-owned Sparkman’s Cream Valley in Moultrie, Ga., starts with milk from artificial- and hormone-free, all-Jersey cows, also prized for their high solid-content milk.

While finding high-quality buttermilk is the first step, understanding it is the second and most rewarding. Cookbook author and nationally renowned food scientist Shirley Corriher says she owes her most famous biscuits to her grandmother’s baking prowess, but even more so to the “wonderful buttermilk” produced with milk from their Jersey cow, Liza-Jane. Atlanta-based Corriher not only sings buttermilk’s praises, but also can explain why it deserves them.

“Baking with it is just wonderful,” she says. “The acid [in buttermilk] will make your cakes and muffins set faster. If a cake sets a little bit faster it’s going to have a finer texture and it doesn’t lose as much moisture. Plus, I think you get better flavor in baked goods with buttermilk.”

Corriher’s aunts, along with a bevy of old Southern cooks, would soak chicken pieces in buttermilk before frying them. “Acids act as a tenderizer, but if it’s too acidic it will toughen proteins. The acidity of buttermilk is mild, and it also contains calcium, which sort of makes the meat go into a natural tenderization process,” she explains.

Moose agrees that home cooks should reach for buttermilk far more often than they do. “I don’t think people realize how versatile buttermilk really is,” she says. “So many have said, ‘I bought some to make pancakes and didn’t know what to do with the rest.’ You can do so much more than biscuits and pancakes. If you think about it more like yogurt than milk, a whole lot of possibilities o pen up. If you’re lucky enough to get hold of really good quality buttermilk, you’ll see how much it’s like yogurt.”

Just ask Vizethann. “I love it because it has so many applications and you can use it in so many ways,” she says. “You can brine in it, use it for baking, for finishing dishes to add tanginess — we even finish our oatmeal with it. Its great texture and tang makes for really good cucumber soup, tsatsiki sauce and salad dressing.” Or you could always just pour a glass, grab a hunk of cornbread and a teaspoon and enjoy a blast from the past.

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