You might assume that being a Southerner I grew up soaking last night’s cornbread in this morning’s cold buttermilk for breakfast, while Pa was already hard at work in the peanut fields. But the reality of my Georgia childhood was not that cliché. Despite the name of this blog, I haven’t had much experience with buttermilk. I grew up in the ‘burbs. We lived in a strip-mall wasteland, where I ate instant oatmeal from packets while my Dad sat in gridlock on his way to downtown Atlanta each day. My mother was from New Jersey, and the closest thing we had to buttermilk biscuits was Bis-quick.
I never gave buttermilk a second thought.
Over the last six years of living in England, I found myself struggling with a few down-home recipes calling for buttermilk. I couldn’t find it in the supermarket over there—but then I learned from my great-grandmother that adding a tablespoon of vinegar to regular milk will serve the same function in baking. What you are really after is an acid to react with the baking powder, providing lift and fluffiness to your goodies. Problem solved.
Back in the US, it occurred to me that I could find real buttermilk in the store, and I wondered if the effect in pancakes and whatnot would be very different from my vinegar versions in the UK. So I bought some, and brought it home.
We had a bang-up breakfast one weekend, and yes—the pancakes did benefit from the real thing. They were even better with some fresh Maine blueberry syrup on top, and some chocolate chips sprinkled into the last few for a gluttonous treat. But with 3/4 of a bottle of buttermilk left afterward, I had to think of a few other ways to use it.
I made cake. I marinated chicken before frying. I made cornbread and then tried the old timey thing of soaking the leftovers in yet more buttermilk for my morning breakfast. I mixed it into frittatas and scrambled eggs, where other people might use sour cream. Then I decided just to drink it. And so it was only very very recently—in my 34th year of existence—that this Southern girl realized she’d never actually tasted real buttermilk.
I sniffed it—sour, maybe too much so. I took a swig—acidic…like milk that’s gone off. Then I had another and realized it really is just like plain, drinkable yogurt. It isn’t far off from kefir, or some of the European versions like Swedish filmjölk. I poured a small glass, downed it, and then had another. I think I might like this stuff! I thought.
I don’t know why, maybe it’s because the weather has finally gotten hot, or because I’m especially interested in reliving (or completely inventing) some kind of cultural heritage for myself, but I think I’m hooked. I like it in breads, cakes, smoothies, sauces, you name it. So I was especially delighted to learn how easy it is to make at home.
I went through a yogurt-making phase when I lived in Korea, when I discovered that my rice cooker would act as an insulator, keeping milk at just the right temperature to allow cultures to grow overnight. I’d skim a few tablespoons off of the last batch, stir it into a fresh jar of warmed milk, then stash it all in the cooker overnight. The next morning, yogurt ensued.
Turns out, buttermilk works in exactly the same way. Now before you go thinking why would anyone want live creatures to grow in their milk?, stop to consider that lactic acid cultures extend the shelf life of milk by several weeks. So, as with cheese-making, this sort of process would have come about centuries ago as a method of preservation. Ingenious, really.
I thought I’d give a recipe for something other than pancakes, biscuits, or the other baked goods that we automatically associate with buttermilk. Instead, I’ve raided Grandma’s mint patch and whizzed up a salted mint lassi, Indian-style: because it’s refreshing on a hot day, and there’s nothing like turning your cultural heritage on its head.
First, read this site by Dr. David B. Frankhauser. Then, follow his instructions. Take 1 part buttermilk (make sure it is cultured buttermilk, not ‘traditional’) and mix it with 4 parts plain milk. You can use whole, 2%, 1%, or skim, though be aware that the less fat, the thinner the end product. Put it all in a very clean jar with a lid, give it a shake, and let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours. Voila, buttermilk.
You can refrigerate it now and use it as you like. Just remember to save a little for your next batch.
Salted Mint Lassi
for each serving:
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 20 fresh mint leaves
- 5 ice cubes
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 1 tablespoon lemon
- pinch salt
- more mint to garnish
Put everything except garnish into a blender and whizz until blended and frothy. Pour into a glass, garnish with remaining mint, and serve immediately.