Supposedly, Cleopatra used buttermilk as a facial mask. Advisers told Scarlett O'Hara a buttermilk bath could fade freckles.
Today, skeptics may question its merits as a beauty aid, but its culinary talents are incontrovertible.
"Buttermilk has become very trendy," says Rozanne Gold, cookbook author and consulting chef to the legendary and tony Rainbow Room and Windows on the World in New York City. "It gives great flavor with an undefinable tartness and acidity. Unlike yogurt, it has a very rich feel. Emotionally, it has an appealing, old-fashioned connotation."
Gold loves buttermilk in a variety of desserts. She says when you balance buttermilk with sugar, something very pleasant happens. Top her delectable, easy-to-make Lemon Buttermilk Ice Cream ("Recipes 1-2-3," Viking, 1996, $22.95) with fresh berries and you have a springtime treat that juggles sweet and tart flavors to perfection. But Gold is quick to add she adores buttermilk in salads, too.
"We're starting to really appreciate tartness in foods, especially salads. The acidity of buttermilk is like a spark plug for other flavors. In salads it is so refreshing and so delicious. When you add it to warm barley, the starch comes off the barley and thickens the buttermilk. Add salt and chopped fresh cilantro to heighten the flavors, and you have got a simple, delicious salad."
And buttermilk-based, creamy ranch dressings marry well with fresh herbs, too. Add a little reduced-fat mayonnaise, and buttermilk has enough body to richly coat lettuce leaves or serve as a zesty dip for fresh vegetables. You get a lot of flavor without a truckload of fat and calories.
Buttermilk is a taste-bud trickster. Its appearance and flavor - in fact, its buttery, high-fat name - suggest a product oozing with fat grams. But now it's made with nonfat or low-fat milk. Years ago, it was the liquid left over from churning butter. However, today's commercially produced buttermilk is made by culturing either nonfat or low-fat milk with a lactic-acid culture. So it's a great asset for the low-fat cook. Especially the low-fat baker.
Buttermilk "is a welcome ingredient in low-fat baking, because it is ... low in fat and its acidity slows the development of gluten in wheat flour, tenderizing baked products," says Susan G. Purdy, author of "Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too" (William Morrow, 1993, $25) and "Let Them Eat Cake" (William Morrow, 1997, $25), two groundbreaking baking books that concentrate on fat-reduced recipes. "Buttermilk produces a tender crumb in cakes, muffins and biscuits. It does a much better job than, say, heavy cream, which has no acidity.
"And chemically, I don't know what buttermilk does to chocolate, but it sure brings out its flavor. It adds just enough tang to bring up its unctuousness. And the buttermilk doesn't cut the sweetness."
Whether it's in cake, brownies or puddings, chocolate and buttermilk make great partners. My favorite buttermilk-chocolate dessert is a rich chocolate cake surrounded with crispy meringue. Because the meringue forms a shell around the brownie-like cake, no frosting is required. It looks glamorous, and the flavor is irresistible.
If you are substituting buttermilk for whole or skim milk in baked goods, Purdy recommends adding a little baking soda to balance the acidity - approximately one-eighth teaspoon baking soda for up to two cups buttermilk.
"And any kind of buttermilk will work in most baked goods," Purdy adds, "whether it says low-fat buttermilk or nonfat buttermilk - cultured or not. And buttermilk powder works, too. I always keep a container in my pantry. It saves buying a quart when all you need is one-half cup. For low-fat baking, I like to add it with the dry ingredients, then add the appropriate amount of water to the wet ingredients."
Or, although it lacks some of the rich flavor, you can make a soured milk substitute for buttermilk by combining one tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice with one cup of 1 percent fat or 2 percent fat milk and allowing it to sit for a few minutes at room temperature (sometimes this mixture is called clabbered milk). Or blend one cup of nonfat milk with two-to-three tablespoons of plain, nonfat yogurt.
It's been said that symptoms of lactose intolerance (the inability to digest and absorb lactose or "milk sugar") are reduced or eliminated when buttermilk rather than milk is used in a recipe. Nana Farkye, specialist in dairy-product technology and dairy-product chemistry at California's Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, says the negative symptoms may be milder or even nonexistent with buttermilk, but that some people will still have a reaction.
"During the fermentation of cultured buttermilk, not unlike yogurt, the milk sugar [lactose] is fermented by the lactic-acid bacteria," Farkye says. "But not all the milk sugar ferments, so some will be present. If the live microorganisms survive in the gastrointestinal tract, they help to break down the lactose."