An old favorite is still a delicious ingredient
Growing up, I would always watch with a bit of mild fascination as my father crumbled leftover cornbread into a bowl of ice-cold buttermilk. Despite how knee-bucklingly good my mother’s two-inch-thick, cast-iron skillet cornbread was, there were always leftovers, and these leftovers would inevitably become part of this odd Appalachian Captain Crunch before day’s end.
I was never really bewildered by the taste of cornbread and buttermilk—it is surprisingly delicious and a genetically determined comfort food for a native Southerner. What puzzled my young brain were the ingredients themselves, specifically the buttermilk. If you’ve ever taken a swig of this enigmatic dairy decoction, you know it is definitely not just a combination of butter and milk. So, what in the name of St. Martha’s apron is buttermilk?
Buttermilk has been around as long as people have been making butter. Originally, buttermilk was simply the liquid left over when cream was churned into butter. Since almost all of the milk and cream we currently buy is pasteurized, the bacteria that used to ferment the resulting buttermilk and give it its signature sourness gets killed off. This means the buttermilk we buy at the grocery store has been cultured by adding live lactic acid bacteria to low-fat milk.
Prior to refrigeration, milk would curdle and sour quickly, so most butter ended up being made from slightly soured milk. This resulted in some people using the word “buttermilk” to describe this byproduct of butter-making. Others would use the word to describe the most common, main ingredient in butter-making at the time: soured milk. Still others would start the butter-making process with fresh cream and end up with a byproduct they called buttermilk as well.
This meant that prior to the 20th century, “buttermilk” could refer to either soured old milk, or a sour or sweet byproduct of the butter-making process.
The only people in Western Europe and America who drank any of these forms of buttermilk were poor farmers and slaves who couldn’t afford to waste anything, while everyone else fed this butter-byproduct to farm animals.
Around the 1800s, cookbooks started including the sour version of buttermilk in baking recipes that called for baking soda. The acid in the buttermilk was perfect for neutralizing the newly introduced baking soda being marketed as a faster and more reliable substitute for yeast. About the same time, Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe began immigrating to the country in large numbers and brought with them an appreciation of soured milk.
In part because of modern refrigeration, naturally soured milk became rare. This prompted commercial dairy producers to start making it themselves by injecting live lactic acid bacteria into low-fat milk (because it was cheaper). By the 1920s, buttermilk much like what we find in supermarkets today was being sold in stores all over the US.
Between a new generation of bakers and a large European immigrant population, cultured buttermilk sales rose to over 1,100 million pounds annually by the ’60s. Sadly, buttermilk sales have since plummeted to the point that yogurt has instead become the cultured-milk product de jour.
Although these days, buttermilk is increasingly hard to find north of the Mason-Dixon Line, here in the South it is still hanging on. Some people still drink it straight, but more often cooks will add it to recipes in place of milk or sour cream in pancake, bread and other baked recipes—including, of course, our beloved Southern buttermilk biscuits.
If you’re a do-it-yourselfer like me, a tangy version of buttermilk can be made by adding a teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice to regular milk, then letting the mixture sit for 10 minutes to curdle. It won’t contain any live bacterial cultures, but it may save you a trip to the grocery store if you open your fridge and realize someone made buttermilk and cornbread with the last of your stash.
As a bonus, here is my second favorite thing (right after biscuits) to do with buttermilk (without an ice cream maker):
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
4 cups buttermilk
Stir sugar, lemon juice and zest in a medium-size, freezer-safe bowl. Add buttermilk and stir until the sugar dissolves. Place in the freezer. After an hour, remove the container from the freezer and stir vigorously, mixing the frozen parts around the sides in with the rest. Return to the freezer. Repeat every hour until you have delicious sorbet!
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants, and singlehandedly increased Chattanooga’s meat consumption statistics for three consecutive years. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits