In the words of the acclaimed author Halldôr Laxness:
“Three things…are considered bliss in Iceland: hot rye-cakes, plump girls, and cold buttermilk.”
If developing an appetite for buttermilk and plump girls is the only thing standing in the way of sure bliss and winning a Nobel prize in literature then I say bring on the buttermilk cold or otherwise! The obstacle of my penchant for waifs, however, may prove to be a stumbling block on my road to literary immortality. But I digress. Let’s examine what buttermilk actually is. In order to properly do that we have to go back in history and examine what it used to be.
Originally, buttermilk was very simply the milky by-product of cream that had been churned into butter. The butter’s milk so to speak. As the cream was traditionally left to stand for 8+ hours prior to butter making, and modern refrigeration had yet to be invented, the milk would take on a slight sourness. This tartness indicated the fermentation process had begun and Buttermilk was often considered a ‘cultured’ dairy product. At one point referred to as “Grandma’s probiotic”.
Today the “buttermilk” sold in the United States is not true buttermilk at all, and the process of making it is very different than it once was. In the wake of modern refrigeration, naturally-occurring sour milk became increasingly rare. This deficit led to the success of the imitation buttermilk we see today in supermarkets.
This “cultured buttermilk” is made similarly to yogurt. Low-fat or skim milk is seeded with “cream cultures” or friendly bacteria, and the combination is heated. These cultures convert the lactose (natural sugars) in the milk into lactic acid. This acid accumulates and retards the growth of most other microbes, and results in a pleasantly puckering tartness to mimic the tang of the original fermented stuff.
This method leads to a more acidic, less complex flavor profile, however cultured buttermilk is still very useful in baking as it imparts not only a rich and tangy flavor but also tenderness to baked goods. Buttermilk does this by breaking down the long tough strands of gluten that develop when flour meets liquid.
Buttermilk can also contribute to the leavening of baked goods. In conjunction with baking soda, the acid in buttermilk produces carbon dioxide gas, giving your buttermilk pancakes that extra “lift”.
In the kitchens of yesteryear, before baking powder was invented, buttermilk was added for the express purpose of activating the soda and leavening the baked good.
Buttermilk can also help prevent overcooking your baked goods. According to Harold McGee in his book On Food and Cooking, baked goods brown more quickly in an alkaline environment. So by adding acidity in the form of buttermilk, your yellow cake and your pale sugar cookies are more likely to retain their delicate coloring.
Despite its long history and the esteemed position it once held in ancient kitchens, buttermilk has all but fallen by the wayside in the modern kitchen. And even when it is purchased for this recipe or that, the better part of the half gallon generally remains untouched until even its rather lengthy shelf life has expired. So for those who cannot bring themselves to sip on it as a stand-alone, making a buttermilk substitute for that biscuit recipe works very nicely and frees up that most desirous of commodities in the kitchen, more fridge space.
There are several methods for making buttermilk substitutes. Based on whim and the ingredients at your disposal give any of the following a try.
Milk and Lemon or Vinegar
Add 1 tablespoon Lemon juice or Vinegar to 1 cup of Milk (be it whole, skim, or one of the percentages). Stir, and allow to sit. By the end of two minutes, your milk is both acidic and curdled. For each additional cup of milk add 1 a teaspoon of acid. An entire tablespoon for each cup is unnecessary. This also works with non-dairy milks.
Milk and Yogurt
Stir 1/4 cup milk into 3/4 cup plain yogurt to create a thick buttermilk substitute.
Milk and Cream of Tartar
Stir together 2 Tablespoons of milk and 1 3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar in a 1 cup measure. Once thoroughly combined add the rest of the cup of milk. This method prevents lumps of tartar from forming in the buttermilk.
Substitute equal amounts of Kefir for buttermilk, just make sure it’s the unsweetened, unflavored kind.
Baking with Buttermilk
A good rule of thumb to remember is that 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda will neutralize 1 cup of buttermilk. Therefore, when substituting buttermilk in recipes, reduce the amount of baking powder by 2 teaspoons and increase the amount of baking soda by 1/2 teaspoon to neutralize the acids for every 1 cup of buttermilk.