Buttermilk, America’s (almost) Lost Fermented Treasure

Some of My Bacteria Friends_photo courtesy of hubpages.com

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.

photo courtesy of foodpeoplewant.com

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.

photo courtesy of cookingnook.com

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.

photo courtesy of cakeblast.com

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.

photo courtesy of themerlinmenu.blogspot.com

Homemade Buttermilk Ranch Dressing
Adapted from SimplyRecipes.com

Ingredients:
* 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)

Method:
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!

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About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
This entry was posted in America's Food Secrets, Food and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to Buttermilk, America’s (almost) Lost Fermented Treasure

  1. Frances Quinn says:

    I am certainly going to make my own buttermilk from now on. I, too, use buttermilk for baking, cooking and marinading. Fried chicken that has been marinaded in buttermilk is the best there is. Thanks for the info.

  2. Anet says:

    Well, how fortuitous is it that I wanted a ranch dressing recipe, and up pops one! Thanks, also for the ferment-your-own kind.
    Luck has it that nearby a local dairy does make whole milk buttermilk. I use it all the time, especially for wheat breads, corn bread, pancakes, etc.
    And I do not mind any more lessons in microbes or “old” recipes. Please, keep ’em coming.

    • drfugawe says:

      Appreciate the encouragement, Anet – it is fascinating stuff, and I love knowing that others find it so as well.
      Have a great Thanksgiving at your house, and eat well.

  3. ‘ Morning Doc I love the pictures in this post! I get really confused about buttermilk as it is used to describe so many variations on a theme here. One person’s buttermilk is another person’s drinking yoghurt. Though I believe the strain of bacteria is different, is that right?

    I love the dressing recipe too.

  4. the’ ‘here’ above means here in the UK not in your post btw… just re-read that… not at my most articulate today!

    • drfugawe says:

      I knew what you meant – and yes, there are sev types of bacteria that can be used to make buttermilk, depending on how “sharp” a taste is wanted – the bulgaricus strain is most often used for yogurt, but sometimes for buttermilk as well (for more sour). Over here, the dairies tend to list the specific type of cultures they are using, which is very helpful. And sometimes they use more than one, but then sometimes they kill the culture before sending it out – have no idea why they are doing that, because the cultures used in both buttermilk and yogurt tend to increase the shelf life of the product anyway.

      Hey, speaking of re-reads, I re-read my comment on your Hamelman Country Bread post and I saw that it could easily be interpreted differently than I meant it – I was trying to be helpful, but it sounded as if I was being critical, didn’t it? You are much the better baker than I, my dear – I’ll be more careful with my comments in the future.

      • I don’t think I’m a better baker at all! What did I say? Really I am a baby baker, I read a lot but in terms of loaves turned out and experience, I have loads to learn. It could have been the flour that didn’t help. When there is nothing else in the loaf apart from water, yeast and salt, what else can it be but the flour that is lacking in flavour? I think what I thought with that one was that it should have developed more flavour from the long pre-ferment process but it didn’t. Please don’t stop commenting and don’t be too careful. Grapplestein is not enjoying the english weather much, he had a good start and then faded the other day, so I haven’t baked with him yet. I offered him some of my finest Shipton Mill flour and he sulked, so today I have put him back on the Waitrose organic (the Canadian) and offered him a teaspoon of apple juice and he is bubbling gently again. I’d forgotten how frail the ego of a young starter is… 😉

        • drfugawe says:

          OK, I thought I may have offended you as a baker – if not, then we won’t argue about who’s the better baker – OK? (although the King of sloppy errors knows the answer in his heart!)

          But let me tell you what I do know about sourdough starters – they go through at least two phases as they are “aroused” from their dry state – phase 1 is 2 or 3 days into hydration – but this is a false alarm; the real awakening only takes place at day 5 or 6 – and if you refresh daily, it may occur faster.

          But it sounds as if he may have reached that phase already – yes? I’m sure what he’s doing right now is getting to know your local English bacteria – and once they’re friends, they’ll be mating away and he’ll be healthy again.

          Yes, don’t use him until he’s strong and active.

  5. joanna says:

    Grapplestein is much more lively today, day 6/7 you are spot on. I bulked up the quantities, sometimes that works, but it may just have been coincidence. I had no idea about the two phases of reanimation, thanks! I feed him everyday and he stays out on the counter for now, picking up the local lingo and so on. Any thoughts on when he might be ready to go to work and what he might like to do on his first assignment?

    • drfugawe says:

      Whenever I bring my guys back from one of their fridge rests, I wait until they’ve had at least 3 days of good activity before I put ’em to real work. Lady’s choice on what to bake.

  6. Alfie says:

    Sorry, I’m a bit late for the party (May 2011).

    Drfugawe, when you mentioned using the starter culture from old buttermilk to make a new batch, how do you know if the ‘Starter’ culture you have is not ‘off’? That is, if the expired buttermilk in the fridge already has a ‘musty’ flavour, wouldn’t you be creating a ‘bad’ buttermilk mix?

    It’s not expensive to buy 250ml of buttermilk from the grocery store here (Australia) but I always think that using a natural ingredient is far superior to any that were bought from the store. I’m just worried that a starter culture of buttermilk in the fridge for 1month will produce a toxic product instead of the real deal.

    Any suggestions or thoughts to shed light on the subject? Thank you in advance for your reply.

  7. drfugawe says:

    Hey Alfie, Thanks for stopping by. I think making your own buttermilk depends much on how much buttermilk is in your area. Here in Oregon, buttermilk is about 25% higher than reg milk – it’s not much, but I kinda like being in control of how sharp by buttermilk taste is – ie, the longer it stays at room temp, the sharper the taste.

    Over here, there’s a trend to make ‘dead’ buttermilk (they kill the active cultures before bottling – I think they do that to extend the shelf life, but buttermilk with active cultures has a pretty long shelf life anyway. So, make sure you’re getting one with active cultures.

    Re. the question about using an old buttermilk that might be ‘off’, I would just use taste and smell as determiners – but frankly, I’ve never seen a buttermilk that was nasty enough not to be used for baking or pancakes – in my experience, an old buttermilk may get pretty sharp tasting (I’ve even seen it separate), but I’ve never seen it get so bad I couldn’t use it. I think you’d see mold if the bad bacteria took over – and I wouldn’t use it then. And I’ve had buttermilk as old as six months, maybe more.

    Thanks for your comment – feel free to join in on some of our other discussions – you’re more than welcome.

  8. oh Doc, I am getting so forgetful – there I was writing away about buttermilk the other day, and you commented and didn’t say ‘hey we already had this conversation’ please do forgive me. I wonder if it is a symptom of too much time on the internet. I am more likely to remember what I say in real time than in the comments I leave. I feel like a snail leaving a slow and sticky trail across the internet. Have you ever googled your blog’s name? The hits show you some surprising places you have been and forgotten. It’s a chastening exercise. Joanna

    • drfugawe says:

      Hope you don’t lose any sleep for proving that you’re human – god knows I don’t! Fact is, when I read your post, my first thought was, ‘Hey, I think I did a post about this too.’ and I forgot that we’d had this discussion. I’m getting so bad that I have to do word searches on my own blog before I pick a new subject to post on; if I didn’t, I’d be doing 2 or 3 posts on the same subject all the time.

      Scarier that goggling your blog’s name is doing the same with your own name – really scarey!

  9. This might be the greatest read online…

  10. Kimberly Gill says:

    Hi! love, love, looove this site. I do have a question also about making my own buttermilk from some store bought buttermilk, well two actually. First when I sit the mixture of old buttermilk and whole milk do I need to let the container stand open for the air to come in? I also wanted to know how you can be sure if the buttermilk I bought from the store is active. Mine says ‘cultured buttermilk’ on it.

    Thank you so much for sharing this fantastic knowledge!

  11. drfugawe says:

    Hi Kim,
    No, you don’t need to let the air in – all the magic is done by the ‘cultures’ inside the container. And as far as I know, all the cultures used in buttermilk are ‘active’ cultures, which means they are live bacteria, and therefore will work. Thanks for your kind words.

  12. Kimberly Gill says:

    It turned out wonderful! Thank you. I can’t wait to show my husband (-:

    • drfugawe says:

      Good News! Now you can save even more $ by buying outdated milk for making your buttermilk – older milk makes better buttermilk than does fresh. In olden times, in order to make butter, they had to let the cream ‘clabber’ first – that meant that the cream was left out at room temperature until it started to get thicker – the early stage of souring. Then it was ready to make good butter, with thick buttermilk as the by-product.

      Glad it worked out for you – happy baking!

      • Tyler says:

        Hey Doc! First time post here, as I just recently stumbled across the blog in a search on buttermilk. First of all, a quick thanks for the post. I’m a cheese maker by trade, and have enjoyed the read!

        It’s a little dated & I realize the blog is no longer being updated, but I did want to leave a quick comment, in case anyone else who stumbles across this page in search of information may find it helpful…

        I recommend not using outdated milk when making fermented dairy products. In fact… I’d suggest just the opposite… Always use the FRESHEST milk possible, and when naturally clabbering, you’d want clean, raw milk. When fermenting milk, you want a strong presence of lactic acid producing bacteria… These guys create the pleasant tanginess you find in yogurt or buttermilk. Pasteurization destroys these good guys. Any bacteria left in the pasteurized milk (and there ARE some bacteria left) aren’t going to create pleasant flavors when the milk is fermented. On top of that, the milk has been stored under refrigeration temps for an extended period, and you see an increase in the number of psychrotrophic bacteria. These guys also create off flavors in fermented products. Store bought milk near the expiration date, then, has a higher likelihood of containing larger numbers of undesirable bacteria.

        So, when making fermented dairy products, use the FRESHEST milk possible! If you are clabbering naturally, use the freshest, cleanest, raw milk you can!

  13. Erin Elizabeth says:

    Just curious – when I buy buttermilk I never see the “Live and active cultures” logo that I see on yogurt. So does that mean that there are not live and active cultures, or they just don’t put it on there? I love buttermilk and am going to try my hand at making some, as I make my own yogurt, but wasn’t sure if the buttermilk I am buying has the cultures in it? Anyway, glad I found this post – I always buy some but I am the only one who drinks it and uses it, so having some on hand, without having to buy it each time would be great.

  14. Erin Elizabeth says:

    Oh – just a follow up. I did see that I can use yogurt to make buttermilk but I was just curious as to whether they would actually list on the buttermilk container if it contains live and active cultures. Anyway – thanks again.

    • drfugawe says:

      I’m not an expert on this stuff -quite the opposite- but bacterias fascinate me – especially those which inhabit our bodies. My take on this cultured dairy thing is that a producer can either make a ‘live culture’ product, or can kill the cultures prior to marketing. The only reason why a producer would choose the latter is to increase shelf life.

      I think it’s quite likely that a cultured buttermilk would still have live cultures, even if the package doesn’t say so – (this live culture thing with yogurts is a PR device, mostly). I don’t remember any of the buttermilks I’ve used having anything about live cultures on their boxes – but if they didn’t have live cultures, they wouldn’t have made new buttermilk!

      Just try it and see.

  15. Roberta says:

    Hi,
    I’m from Hungary and for a long time I was searching for a type of soft cheese ( called TURO) which we Hungarians use a lot for baking or eat it fresh on pasta or mix it with sour cream. I find out I can make this cheese at home in my oven too. After I leave the buttermilk in the oven for overnight the top part is become the cheese. I strain the cheese through a cheese cloth and on the bottom is a liquid which I don’t use. I wonder are the good bacteria will stay in the cheese or in the liquid?
    I also have another question.You have mentioned earlier how we can make buttermilk from yoghurt as well. 1/4 ratio of yogurt to milk. How much milk?

    Thank You for your time

    • drfugawe says:

      Hi Roberta,
      I’m not a cheese expert, but I think it’s safe to say that there will be lots of bacteria in both the solids and the liquids – the liquid is called whey, and I hope you don’t throw it away, because it contains lots of nutrients and is wonderful for baking and for making high protein energy bars. The dairy industry dries it and sells it in health food stores. Good stuff.

      If you want to use yogurt to make buttermilk, it won’t be the exact same thing as you buy in a carton, but it will look and taste the same – if you take a cup of yogurt and mix it with 4 cups of milk, then leave it out at room temp for a few days, you’ll get a form of buttermilk. It may also work well with 5 or 6 cups of milk – you just have to experiment to see. Good luck.

  16. Vanna says:

    Hello all the way from The Bronx! You are awesome. I have a batch sitting on the counter now.. I can’t wait to bake with it. Thank you for the info!

  17. drfugawe says:

    Hey Vanna,
    At one time we were closer neighbors – I lived in Jersey, just over the river in East Orange – small world. Glad you are enjoying the fun of making your own stuff. I’ll share another secret too – whenever I have any milk go sour in the fridge, I use that to do my next batch of buttermilk – there’s no danger because the friendly bacteria know how to deal with the bacteria in the sour milk – and they’re related anyway!

    Have fun.

  18. Missy says:

    Hey there drfugawe, first of all, that beard of yours, me amour! ❤ Anyways, I like buttermilk when I eat Friskies Ocean White Salmon. Ya mix the salmon with the buttermilk and volla! best I ever had! you should try it! but smoke the salmon under 400 degrees F for about 20 minutes, then rub some marinara sauce with buttermilk onto the salmon, then bake for 20 minutes and it is so delicious (almost like a big mac) so try it! and I just wanna say, I love your enthusiasm for buttermilk, it doesn't seem like too many people in this world show the true appreciation we need for buttermilk. My name is Missy, and I approve this message! Paws 4 Life

  19. Karyl says:

    great post. I love buttermilk and made my first smoothie with it this morning. also like it straight from the bottle.

  20. Betty Williams says:

    I love buttermilk. At an early age, I was fortunate enough to get the real thing. For some reason I am allergic to most dairy products. Not lactose intolerance but allergy, with coughing and asthmatic symptoms. I do not seem to get this from yogurt or buttermilk. I actually have a craving for it which means my system may really need it. Thank you for this informative site. I have some buttermilk fermenting on my kitchen counter as I write this and hope I am never without it again. I feel sorry for so many people, including my own children for not realizing the “treat” they are missing.

  21. Marissa says:

    Love buttermilk, loving baking with it, and love you for writing this awesome post! Buttermilk is a staple in our house, a tradition I hope my kids will continue in theirs!

  22. Neringa says:

    I am Lithuanian. We love buttermilk. We make “cold beet” soup with it. It is so delicious and refreshing during the summer. My 90 year old father spent 67 days in the hospital 2 years ago with
    an infection called c-diff (uncontrollable diarrhea). He also had a couple of bleeding ulcers during that time (among other things) which almost caused his death. He is happily home now but am concerned about the protonix (proton pump inhibitor) for stomach acid which was prescribed since research has shown that there is a correlation with people using ppi’s (proton pump inhibitor’s) getting c-diff. Looking for an alternative to get that good bacteria. Do I put the milk and yogurt in a mason jar and cover it? Put cheese cloth on it like with pickles? or just leave it uncovered?

    • drfugawe says:

      Neringa,
      Thanks for commenting – I’m far from a medical authority, I just have personal opinions about what works for me – and I share your concerns that sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. And I believe that all we can do to strengthen our our immune system, the better our health will be – therefore the good bacteria in yogurt and buttermilk deserve to be in our diets. And those good bacteria are thermophilic bacteria, which simply means that they love heat (just not boiling or roasting!) – they will grow best at warm room temps, or a bit warmer, I think up to 110 F. And yes, it should be covered, to keep out insects and airborne stuff (it’s not like a sourdough starter). And sometimes I’ve seen it take a few days for the buttermilk to thicken at room temp (warmer = quicker).

      Good luck with your buttermilk, and good wishes for your father’s improving health.
      Take care.
      jm

  23. Don Lowery says:

    I love just drinking buttermilk with a little fresh ground black pepper and a pinch of salt. In addition to all the uses you mentioned above, you can use buttermilk to make creme fraiche. I use creme fraiche in making some sauces – adds depth of flavor to some soups too. A tablespoon of creme fraiche in tomato soup is amazing. And it doesn’t break down when heated like yogurt does. 2 tablespoons of buttermilk in non ultra pasteurized heavy cream will do it (pasteurized is ok). Cover with a rubber band and paper towel and leave at room temp or warmer for 24+ hours. It will thicken up – then refrigerate. Voila!! Creme fraiche!! It keeps for a long time so I’ll make a quart at a time.

    • drfugawe says:

      Hey, that’s good to know! I appreciate the tip. I always try to get non ultra pasteurized heavy cream – and we’re lucky enough to have a local market who always seems to have some. Thanks much, Don.
      Be well, doc

  24. Dot says:

    Doc, if I wasn’t already married, I’d have to propose to ya!! Thank you for the great info.

  25. JB Johnson says:

    I saw a comment by a woman whose father had diarrea. This might or might not be of service, but there is a charcoal available at Health Food Stores in the form of tablets that cures diarrea rapidly. I’ve used it twice in my life and it has driven this problem away within 4 to 5 hours, with no return. Of course, if the illness is more established in the system, it might not be permanent.

    • drfugawe says:

      Thanks for the tip JB – I’ll try to remember, but frankly, my system goes in the opposite direction! There are times when I look forward to diarrhea – ain’t it wonderful being human!

  26. You actually make it appear so easy along with your presentation but I in finding this matter to be actually one thing which I believe I would by no means understand. It seems too complicated and very large for me. I’m looking ahead on your next put up, I will attempt to get the cling of it!

  27. Pingback: If You Drink A Glass of Buttermilk Every Day Here’s The Effects on Your Liver, Colon And Stomach | Womans Vibe

  28. Pingback: Why Wine, Beer and Buttermilk? | "The Old Fool" – Martin Lehman

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