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What is Buttermilk? About Buttermilk and Its Uses
"Oooh. Buttermilk. Let's get it and make buttermilk pancakes!" We were at the farmer's market down the road, and my husband was looking at the milk that they sell from a local farm. All organic, and they even sell raw (not pasteurized) milk too, which is really hard to find.
I had never had buttermilk pancakes before, so I was curious. "I just saw a delicious-looking buttermilk pancake recipe on a blog the other day. Let's try it."
The buttermilk went into the basket, and we made the pancakes the next morning. They were wonderful--light and fluffy and far better than any mix. (It was this buttermilk pancake recipe, without the added wheat germ)
It wasn't until I was placing it in our refrigerator when we got home, though, that I noticed that it wasn't true buttermilk, as we had expected from a farm that sold raw milk as well. It was artificially cultured buttermilk. We weren't terribly surprised; true buttermilk is very hard to come by. It made me curious enough to do a little research about buttermilk, though, because I wasn't completely clear on the distinction.
Traditional buttermilk (true buttermilk) was a kitchen staple back before refrigeration (and pasteurization), because it would keep much longer than sweet milk, especially in warmer climates like the Southern United States where milk would sour even faster. When combined with baking soda, it is a very effective leavener, making items cooked with it very light and fluffy.
Don't let the name fool you, buttermilk is not full of butter, nor is it high in fat. When whole cream is churned, butter develops and separates. The butter is skimmed off, and the liquid that is left over is sort of like skim milk, but still full of enzymes and bacteria because it has not been pasteurized. If this liquid is allowed to ferment, the bacteria turns the lactose into lactic acid, and the milk becomes buttermilk. Traditional buttermilk is thin and slightly acidic, with a slightly sour taste. It is similar to plain, unsweetened yogurt in taste.
Artificial buttermilk is the result of intentionally adding good bacteria to milk that has already been pasteurized. Artificial buttermilk has a similar taste, but is much thicker because of the curdling that happens in the artificial fermentation process. It doesn't produce quite the same effect when using it in baking. Artificial buttermilk has become the standard because pasteurization is required for commercially sold dairy products in most areas.
When natural, traditional buttermilk is not available, artificial buttermilk is still a good substitute. Our pancakes the other morning made with cultured buttermilk were perfectly fluffy and delicious.