Before I leave these creatures behind for a bit – or bore you all to death – I have to get one more “microbe” post out of my system. I’m talking about buttermilk, and hereabouts it’s another one of our bacterial “house” pets, just like our sourdough starter, just less in your face, I guess.
I had completely forgotten about this fermented product until the day I opened the fridge, moved the water jug, and spotted the quart container of buttermilk. Oh yeah -buttermilk- forgot that was in there. I reached in and pulled it out – not much was left in the container, and that’s not good, ’cause in my house, the buttermilk container should always be pretty much full. Why? Because if you treat it just like you do your sourdough starter, you’ll never have to buy another jug of buttermilk again. Yup, it makes itself over and over again.
I love the stuff! For a baker, it’s like gold – it’s essential for making the best biscuits, it’s key to the finest cakes, it makes what I consider the very best old fashioned white bread ever, and will bring a touch of flavor and sophistication to your breads that’s not otherwise possible. Outside of baking, it is the secret to the best Southern fried chicken ever made (as a marinade), and is essential to America’s most popular salad dressing, the ubiquitous Ranch dressing. It really is a kitchen workhorse – and it is underutilized.
The history of buttermilk is quite interesting – at the beginning of the 20th century, buttermilk was a staple in the kitchen because it was a natural byproduct of butter making – besides all the other good things it did, buttermilk was an everyday beverage. I remember my father drinking it and swearing that it quenched his thirst as nothing else could. I just thought it tasted like sour milk – it would take many years for my appreciation to grow.
Buttermilk has always been a fermented dairy product – in the old days, when it was simply the byproduct of butter making, the natural fermention resulted from the fact that butter was always made from “clabbered” milk -raw milk left at room temperature until the cream content had completely risen to the top of the container. During this time, the fermentation process would have begun, primarily through the action of the milk’s own bacteria, which consume the available milk sugars and create lactic acid – this process was beneficial to the making of butter, since it also lowered the ph of the milk/cream, thereby facilitating a faster butter coagulation. Unfortunately, clabbered milk can only naturally occur from raw milk – and since pasteurized milk contains no natural bacteria, the clabbering of milk is history – modern butter is not a fermented dairy product.
Buttermilk is now made by taking ordinary low fat pasteurized milk and “culturing” it – that means the milk is inoculated with some of the same beneficial bacteria that natural buttermilk contain (streptococcus lactis and/or lactobacillus bulgaricus), and allowing them to grow. The resulting product is similar to, but not exactly like, the natural buttermilk of old. However, any dairy product that is cultured is also fermented – the act of culturing is fermentation.
One may ask, “If butter is still being made, why don’t we see natural buttermilk in stores?”. Good question! The answer is that while natural buttermilk is still a byproduct of the butter making process, it is used to better advantage in making ice cream and in the baking industry than it would be if natural buttermilk were still offered as a milk alternative in our groceries. Buttermilk’s popularity has declined to the point that it is much easier for the dairy industry to make and offer a cultured buttermilk than trying to market huge quantities of a natural but unpopular product.
But, in a way, this is good news for us – for cultured buttermilk – since it contains live bacterial cultures – allows us, in our own kitchens, to do exactly what the dairy did in creating the buttermilk that you purchased in your grocery. All you need do is to add fresh milk to some leftover buttermilk (use the same container) at a ratio of 4 to 1 (it’d probably work at a lesser ratio as well), and let the container sit out at room temp – or even a little warmer – for about 24 to 36 hours for the “culturing” to occur.
No, you are not creating an environment for bad bacteria to take over, because you have a predominance of good bacteria at work, and just like they do in your immune system, these bacteria are always at work battling bad bacteria. Additionally, any fermented dairy product has a longer expected life than do non-fermented products – this is true primarily because fermenting lowers the ph of the product -thus the sour taste- which inhibits the growth of the usual destructive bacteria. So how do you really know when buttermilk and yogurt go bad? When you see mold and it begins to taste musty, these are signs that your good bacteria is losing the battle with the bad – pitch it and start anew.
Frankly, I always use whole milk when I make new buttermilk at home, simply because it makes a richer and tastier product that’s not available anywhere else. Why doesn’t the dairy industry make whole milk buttermilk? Because natural buttermilk is a low fat product, and the dairy industry is trying to create something as close to the old fashioned stuff as they can – but if you want low fat buttermilk, just use low fat milk!
Any of you like yogurt? Maybe you even make your own – congrats if you do. You’re playing with the same bacteria friends that I am – in fact, you may also know that your yogurt friends are probably from the family, lactobacillus bulgaricus, the very same bacteria that is used today to make cultured buttermilk. Anybody see where I’m going with this? Yes, of course – another way to make buttermilk at home is simply to add some plain yogurt with active cultures to whatever pasteurized milk you have around, and let it sit out at room temperature for a day or two until it has thickened.
This will work because lactobacillus bulgaricus is a thermophilic bacteria – it grows best at warm temperatures. And again, a 1/4 ratio of yogurt to milk is good, because you’re giving your milk a good healthy start with billions of good bacteria – you could probably use less yogurt, but you’d have to leave your mix out longer at room temp, and you chance loosing it if it’s not strong enough to be resistant early on. If you want to speed up this process, put your mixture in a warmer environment – I use my oven with the light on – it goes to 85 degrees there, and is perfect.
As I mentioned above, Ranch salad dressing has become America’s most popular salad dressing – but I’d bet it’s one of the few dressings that is not often made at home. A good part of that fact is that most people don’t have any buttermilk in their refrigerator – and a second reason is that most folks simply have no idea how Ranch dressing is made. Well, I’ve told you above how to solve the first part of this problem, and I’m going to leave you with a recipe for making homemade Ranch dressing, so now there’s no problem at all.
Homemade Buttermilk Ranch Dressing
Adapted from SimplyRecipes.com
* 1 cup buttermilk
* 1/2 cup mayonnaise
* 1 teaspoon lemon juice (some grated rind can’t hurt)
* 1/8 teaspoon paprika
* 1/4 teaspoon mustard powder
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
* 1 Tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
* 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh chives
* 1/4 teaspoon of dry dill (or a teaspoon finely chopped fresh)
In a medium bowl, stir together the buttermilk and mayonnaise until fully mixed. Add in the other ingredients, adjusting for taste.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups. Keeps for a few weeks, covered in the fridge.
PS: A world class Blue Cheese Salad Dressing is made by simply adding a half cup of good blue cheese to the above!