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What is Buttermilk Anyway?

What is Buttermilk Anyway?

I have very few remaining memories of my paternal grandfather. He was a Polish immigrant with limited English fluency, and even more limited parenting skills. One thing I do remember about him is that he always kept a quart of Knudsen’s Buttermilk in the fridge, which he would consult whenever the mood drove him to drink. Inarguably the misleading name is far more appealing than the actual product – a name that seems to promise the velvety sweetness of both freshly churned butter and cream top milk. Sadly, as I learned one afternoon at my grandfather’s home, straight buttermilk is kind of revolting. I never understood how such an unappealing product could have such a deceptive name (it was a few years before I tried sweetbreads) as the name gave no clear indication to the sour glass of yuck in store for you.

While you would be hard pressed to find anyone drinking buttermilk in the contemporary United States, buttermilk is still widely used in baking and is readily available in most supermarkets. But what exactly is it? Really, there are two definitions of buttermilk – there is the old, and the (relatively new). The old idea of buttermilk consisted of the byproduct that came from making butter – a thin, sometimes faintly sour, milky liquid. According to an article on Slate.com, in Western Europe and America, the only people who bothered to drink buttermilk of any kind were the poor farmers and slaves who needed all the calories and nutrition they could get. Everyone else fed sour milk and butter-byproduct to their farm animals. But what is referred to as buttermilk today has little to do with anything related to butter, or the buttermilk from days of yore. The cultured buttermilk readily available is milk that has been deliberately soured, as well as cultured with lactic acid (the tartness is due to the lactic acid). The acid inherent in contemporary buttermilk is customarily used in baking recipes to get an increased rise out of whatever you may be baking (it reacts with the baking powder). But back at the turn of the 19th century, health-conscious Americans, believing inflated claims, started drinking buttermilk (and various other soured milk products) as a means to ward off aging. However buttermilk has not retained its casual popularity, and yogurt has ascended as the cultured-milk product of choice among health-conscious folks around the nation.

If you are using a recipe that calls for buttermilk but have found yourself sadly lacking (who really keeps buttermilk in the fridge?) there is another option for you, provided you have milk. Essentially you want to acidify your milk by adding a tablespoon of white vinegar (or lemon juice) to about 1 cup of milk (whole milk is best). Let it stand and then you have (somewhat thickened) buttermilk. Voila!

Do you routinely use buttermilk? If so, why do you think it is necessary? Does anyone still drink the stuff or are yogurt drinks and/or kefir milk preferable?

Read more: Allergies, Blogs, Drinks, Eating for Health, Following Food, Food, , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

86 comments

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11:10AM PDT on Sep 20, 2012

my grandpa drinks buttermilk. a whole glass at a time. and my dad made us swish it in our mouth if we had ulcers in our mouths because he claimed it helped

8:24AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

Not exactly my dream of a taste treat, a beverage best avoided unless one wants to a) Wake up quickly b) Experiment with vile tastes c) Compete on Fear Factor d) Feed it to African Cave Dwelling Spiders as a beverage.

10:35PM PDT on Jul 21, 2012

Buttermilk is very good, thanks for post.

9:21AM PDT on Jul 17, 2012

I am 54 years old and I love buttermilk.The article above really did not explain what the creamy substance of today is.I have heard that if you sweat really bad,its a good remedy.Is it good for you? I would really like to know

9:08AM PDT on Jul 15, 2012

I bake with buttermilk...my carrot cake wouldn't be the same without it, but drink it ???....Never !!! My father, normally a sensible person, loved it.

10:01AM PDT on Jul 14, 2012

Both of grandmothers soured their milk with vinegar and my mother taught me to do the same.

9:38PM PDT on Jul 13, 2012

I make a genuine effort to find recipes using buttermilk, in place of regular milk.

For one thing, it keeps fresh much longer.

10:25PM PDT on Jul 11, 2012

The elders in my family all drink buttermilk. I like to use it in baking and making pancakes. Taste wise it isn't much different from yogurt. I don't drink buttermilk, and I'm not that fond of yogurt either. By the way, yogurt will work in baking if you don't have buttermilk.

4:19PM PDT on Jul 11, 2012

I love modern buttermilk and keep it in the fridge to drink and to bake with. However I don't think I could handle the old style buttermilk, that just might take some getting use to. Thanksd Eric for the article.

12:22PM PDT on Jul 11, 2012

i make it with lemon, the taste is better in cakes

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What a wonderful idea. I hope everyone has a great time!

Outstanding, smart, thoughtful and kind.....put a smile on my face!

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