Buttermilk is a Southern staple, as necessary in the Dixie kitchen as grits and ham -- probably because most Southern cooks are bakers at heart.
Southern cooks are famous for their breads, biscuits and cakes, and the secret to many good recipes is simply buttermilk.
Originally, buttermilk was what remained in the churn after you made butter. On a cool, clear morning or evening -- hot or stormy weather delays the process -- fresh cream was put in a tall, wooden churn. The butter-maker worked the plunger with even strokes until the sound and feel of the cream indicated that the butter was ready. The whole process took about an hour. Once the butter was skimmed, what remained was buttermilk.
This is how the dairymaids used to make it, but buttermilk-making -- and buttermilk -- has changed completely.
The modern dairy's buttermilk-making process is more like this: Combine skim and whole milk to reach the desired butterfat content, then add a live culture. The bacteria in the culture multiply, creating a by-product that coagulates the milk.
When the milk reaches a certain acidity it's ready to "break." It's cooled down to stop the bacterial growth, then cooled further, to 40 degrees, and bottled.
Milk solids are added to give body; the lower the butterfat percentage in the milk mix, the more solids must be added. Another strain of bacteria is added to produce a buttermilk "bouquet."
Old-timers could tell by the aroma alone when the buttermilk was ready to break, but now the pH is measured to determine exactly how acidic the buttermilk is when the culture's growth is stopped.
Despite its sinful-sounding name, buttermilk is almost always made of pasteurized skim milk and contains about 8.5 percent milk solids other than fat. Though old-fashioned buttermilk often had flecks of butter remaining after the skimming, modern buttermilk is only as fat as the milk it's made from. (Sometimes cream or butter particles are added to commercial buttermilk to make it more like the old-time stuff.)
According to Pat Rheel of the Associated Milk Producers, buttermilk consumption has been on a slow decline in recent years. "It was traditionally a favorite Southern beverage and ingredient," he says.
"As the South's traditions have faded, buttermilk has become less popular. It is still a low-fat, low-calorie drink, and is still popular for nutrition reasons."
A cup of buttermilk supplies the same protein and vitamins as regular milk, for 110 calories. It is different from milk in that it contains more lactic acid. Because the culture breaks the milk protein down into small curd, it is also more digestible than regular milk.
Most buttermilk on the grocery shelf contains only 1 1/2 percent butterfat (4 grams of fat per cup); in many recipes that call for sour cream (such as beef stroganoff), you can make an easy, low-fat substitution with buttermilk. If you do cook with buttermilk, heat it very gently or add it off the heat, as high heat will make it curdle.
Most people today buy buttermilk to cook with, not to drink. Its tangy flavor is essential to certain recipes, such as ranch dressing. Its acidity makes it a tenderizing marinade, on the same principle as Indian yogurt marinades, and a velvety addition to sauces.
The lactic acid in buttermilk reacts with baking soda to give baked goods a tender texture. Most cooks don't use buttermilk every day; the powdered buttermilk available at some grocery stores is a convenience to the baker.
Buttermilk and sour milk are interchangeable in baking. Older recipes call for soured milk but, left to itself, pasteurized milk doesn't sour; it spoils. Those recipes are now usually made with buttermilk instead.
According to "Joy of Cooking" by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker (New American Library), you can make buttermilk yourself: Combine 1 quart skim milk and 1/2 cup cultured buttermilk at 70 degrees with 1/8 teaspoon salt. Stir well and cover. Let stand at 70 degrees until clabbered, or thickened. Refrigerate before serving, and store as for fresh milk.
OC There are many variations of this traditional Southern recipe.
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
3 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
Icing (recipe follows)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter 2 (9-inch) cake pans.
Cream the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla.
Sift together the flour, cocoa, spices and soda and stir the flour mixture into the butter alternately with the buttermilk. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold whites into the batter.
Divide the batter between the prepared pans and bake 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick or tester inserted comes out clean. Let the layers cool in the pans, then invert them onto a rack and let them cool completely.
Prepare the icing and quickly frost the cake. Makes 10 to 12 servings.
Icing: Put 2 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar, 1 cup buttermilk, 1 1/2 sticks butter, 1 teaspoon baking soda and 1 teaspoon vanilla in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil; cook until mixture registers 236 degrees on a candy thermometer. Off heat, beat the mixture with a wooden spoon for 5 minutes or until it loses its sheen. Stir in 1 cup chopped pecans. (Reheat the icing if it becomes too hard to spread.)