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What is buttermilk?

Rockview Farms ButtermilkI often get asked questions about what buttermilk is and how to substitute for it because people don’t keep it “on hand.” The best answer to this is to say that buttermilk is a wonderful dairy product that makes for some delicious baked goods, and it should always be kept on hand if you like to bake more than just the occasional batch of chocolate chip cookies. Buttermilk is thick and has a tangy, buttery flavor – sort of like a cross between melted butter and sour cream. Despite its thickness, it is low in fat. Some people like to drink it plain, but it is usually best utilized in cakes, pancakes, breads and other dishes where it lends a lot of butter flavor without the extra fat of more butter or full-fat sour cream.

Buttermilk is so named because it was originally the liquid left over after the butter-churning process was complete. These days, buttermilk is cultured, made by adding lactic acid bacteria to [pasturized] nonfat or lowfat milk to thicken it and give it a tangy flavor. The easiest substitute is to add 1 tbsp of vinegar to 1 cup of regular milk to curdle it and give it a sharper flavor. This also provides a similar level of acidity to buttermilk, so it will work in recipes in the same way (it doesn’t have the buttery flavor of buttermilk, however).

Buttermilk is usually sold in smaller containers than regular milk and it is usually quite inexpensive (usually around a dollar, in my next of the woods). It has a longer shelf life than regular milk, so you have more time to use it up. With cakes, pancakes, breads, salad dressings to choose from, there are plenty of options to choose from.

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  • Linda
    June 9, 2009

    Great post. I find myself using buttermilk more often these days.

  • Cheryl
    June 9, 2009

    As an FYI, if you are like myself and pass up on recipes that have buttermilk because you don’t have it on hand, you can buy dried buttermilk and keep that on hand as well. It is a very good option to fresh, which of course, is the best option.

  • Linda
    June 9, 2009

    Looks like the brand Trader Joe’s carries. I keep a quart around. You are right about the shelf life. I guess those cultures make that stuff nearly invincible! I’ve kept one WAY past the expiration date and it is still good. It does make for tender cakes and awesome biscuits!

  • Katie
    June 9, 2009

    I also like to keep buttermilk around. If I do have some that’s getting past the expiration date I freeze it. It will still work fine for pancakes or baking, and it doesn’t go to waste. I measure out the amount my pancake recipe uses and freeze it in freezer bags.

  • Mmmmm
    June 9, 2009

    Thanks for this great blog. You forgot to mention my favorite buttermilk product — powdered buttermilk. It won’t give you anything that’s drinkable, but I use it in cakes, pancakes, etc., all the time. Not only is it easier to have on hand, but that stuff keeps forever!

  • Corey
    June 9, 2009

    I always keep it around for biscuits/shortcake, yeast bread, cornbread, cake, oatmeal, dip, salad dressing, Ensenada-style white sauce, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, pancakes, and probably other stuff too. Yum!

    I also agree about the shelf life; it seems to last long after its expiration date for something that seems so perishable.

  • Jeff
    June 9, 2009

    Glad to see someone else uses buttermilk as much as I do. One thing you might try is substituting milk in a cornbread recipe with buttermilk. Buttermilk dinner rolls still remain my favorite.

  • Angela
    June 9, 2009

    I’m with “Mmmmm”….powdered buttermilk is always in my pantry, which is saying a lot since I’m a college student with little means! Sometime buttermilk is just more important than a Friday night drink…(okay, maybe not that important).

    I’ve heard that buttermilk is usually utilized in recipes with fruit in order to prevent an unpleasant mixing of colors. For example, anything with blueberries in it should really end up turning some sort of dingy indigo color, but buttermilk helps prevent this.

    Don’t know how, but it’s on the internet, so it must be true…(jk!)

  • Hoodia Gordonii
    June 10, 2009

    Buttermilk is one of the daily recipe of South Indian food. Do you know about South Indian Meal. It contains Rice, Sambar/kulambu, Rasam, Buttermilk, 2 curries, pickle and appalam. Some times they include additional one more sweet dish called ‘Payasam’. Moreover South Indian Rural Farmer’s daily taking at least buttermilk and raw onion with their lunch. Also the guests are welcomed with buttermilk only(Not with juice). When adding curry leaves, chopped ginger, malli leaves and salt will give a good taste.

  • debbie
    June 10, 2009

    I’m another fan of powdered buttermilk. In a pinch I’ve also used “soured” milk: Add 1.5 tablespoons of lemon juice to 1 cup of regular milk (any fat percentage should work, but I use 1%). Let this sit while you prepare the rest of the recipe–usually 5-10 minutes is enough. It will thicken the milk & make it look a little curdled, and it’s a great swap for the real thing.

  • Martha
    June 13, 2009

    Another user of dried buttermilk when I don’t have any fresh on hand.

  • When Cooking With Buttermilk

    Is it used for flavor or texture?
    I have been using powdered butter milk but noticed that it is not nice and thick like the liquid. This time I’m using it for chicken marinade (along with hot sauce). But I’ve used it in baking as well. Seems like the final result would be less rich tasting.

    Does the texture make a difference?

  • Christy
    June 14, 2009

    Like Katie, I’ve started freezing buttermilk in little containers. That way, I always have some on hand if I get a craving for something that calls for buttermilk.

  • chris
    February 6, 2011

    I like to drink buttermilk right out of the carton. However I’ve had dificulty finding regular buttermilk in the stores. Will this recipe taste just like out of the carton? If so u all just made my day! 🙂

  • Kevin
    September 15, 2012

    Buttermilk also is great for making beer batter for onion rings, fish fry and french toast! Love it! Thanks for the post.

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