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?