Back To Buttermilk Basics

ROB KASPER'S MARYLAND

April 02, 1995|By ROB KASPER

The soup had me and my fellow diners swooning and spooning. There were pieces of asparagus and mushroom floating in a golden liquid. The flavor was smooth yet complex. It was, I learned later, the flavor of good old-fashioned buttermilk.

The buttermilk soup was the first course in a seven-course dinner held at Hampton's restaurant in Baltimore's Harbor Court Hotel. Executive Chef Holly Forbes had cooked up the feast to honor Jonathan White, the man who made the buttermilk, and the clabbered cream, and the cultured sweet butter, and all the other high-flavor, high-fat dairy products that many big dairies shy away from.

White, a former engineer, came to Baltimore to churn up interest in his Egg Farm Dairy in Peekskill, N.Y., a 1-year-old operation that makes dairy products in the labor-intensive, time-consuming style. His goal, White said, is to return to the old ways of making dairy products. As he puts it, "We are setting the dairy industry back a hundred years."

He buys milk from a farmer, then turns the milk into butter and clabbered cream, a thickened, fermented cream. He makes a soft, white ripened cheese of cow's milk called Muscoot. He also "wild ripens," that is, he lets the natural mold grow on four other cheeses he gets from other cheese makers. And he makes his own buttermilk.

He ships his dairy products throughout the United States (his number is [800] CREAMERY) and sells to specialty stores, including Fells Point Coffee and Cheese in Baltimore's Broadway Market and Graul's markets.

So far, many of his customers are chefs like Ms. Forbes, who are willing to pay a few extra dollars for fine goods. A pound of Chef's Log cultured sweet butter, for example, sells for $6. Another chef whom White supplies is his business partner, Charlie Palmer, chef and owner of New York City's Aureole restaurant.

TC The butter served at the Baltimore dinner did indeed live up to White's billing: "Butter so good you can eat it with a spoon." But mostly I was interested in the buttermilk. I am not quite up to drinking the stuff; I cook with it. It is a central ingredient in my Sunday morning pancakes and in many salad dressings.

So while White and I worked our way through waves of delicious dairy-infused dishes, such as smoked salmon cannelloni with clabber and chives, and mashed potatoes laced with wild ripened Cheddar, he told me how he makes his buttermilk.

These days, he said, much of the cultured buttermilk found in supermarkets is milk that has been skimmed of its fat and treated with bacteria cultures to sour the milk. By contrast, his buttermilk still comes from the butter-making process.

First, cream is cooked slowly in vats. This old method of pasteurization takes time but it preserves the flavor of the cream, he said. Cultures are added to this "vat-pasteurized cream" and it is then churned. The churning process produces solids that become cultured sweet butter. The liquid leftover from the churning is, White said, "honest-to-goodness buttermilk."

The dairy sells the buttermilk at $1 for 8 ounces -- as a cooking ingredient, not a beverage. Selling buttermilk as a beverage would require the dairy to set up a bottling line, a process that White and his family are not ready to leap into. However, what people do with the buttermilk is their own business, White said. And he suspects that the three elderly customers who drove through a snowstorm this winter to buy buttermilk at the creamery's Saturday-morning market might actually drink the stuff. White said he drinks the buttermilk, and loves it.

Dennis Westhoff, chairman of the department of agricultural sciences at the University of Maryland in College Park, was impressed when I described White's buttermilk process.

These days most big dairies use a faster process of making buttermilk, Westhoff said. Moreover, he said, not all dairies make their own buttermilk. A spokesman at Embassy Dairy in Waldorf, for example, said its buttermilk is made by Fike's Dairy in Uniontown, Pa., near Pittsburgh.

Occasionally, when I have run out of buttermilk, I have followed the advice of cookbooks and made my own by adding a few drops of lemon juice or vinegar to a cup of milk, then letting the milk sit for five minutes.

The results have been lousy. The buttermilk pancakes made with this milk don't taste nearly as good as the ones made with the buttermilk that comes from a carton. The other day, in the midst of his buttermilk briefing, Westhoff told me why. I wasn't really making buttermilk with my lemon drops. I was making something called "acified milk."

Westhoff patiently explained how real buttermilk has its acid level and its flavor changed by bacteria cultures that are added to the milk. The lemon juice or vinegar may change the acid level of the milk, he said, but it does not produce the "diacetyl effect." Diacetyl is, I gathered, one of the crucial ingredients that make good buttermilk.

As for what makes White's buttermilk exceptional, Ms. Forbes, the Harbor Court executive chef, put it this way. "It is not watery," she said. "And it is so close from the cow to your mouth."

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