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I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter


FOOD FOR THOUGHT - Sept 23, 2009 - Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Archive

Recipes Below
Culinary nomenclature is replete with misleading terms:  Wild rice is not rice, pink peppercorns are not peppercorns, hamburgers are not ham, sweetbreads are not bread, and for the purposes of our present discussion, buttermilk is not butter.  It's actually more anti-butter.  Traditionally, buttermilk was the liquid left over after churning butter.  Nowadays, buttermilk is made from whole, or more commonly, low-fat milk to which lactic acid bacteria has been added.  This modern, processed buttermilk is also known as cultured buttermilk.  Culture, in this instance refers to the microorganisms, not the buttermilk's ability to appreciate art or fine wine.

     Buttermilk derives its acidity, and hence its tangy taste, from lactic acid bacteria, which is naturally found in milk.  Lactic acid bacteria metabolize the milk sugar, i.e., lactose, and produce lactic acid as an end product.  If left to ferment, the liquid left over from the churned butter would become imbibed with lactic acid.  Cultured buttermilk, as stated, is created by adding the bacteria to whole or low-fat milk and kick starting the process. 

     While traditional and cultured buttermilk are defined as just described, there are other definitions of buttermilk, depending on who you ask.  In India, the Middle-East, and even the southern United States, the term buttermilk is applied to a range of fermented milk products or even sour milk.  "Bulgarian buttermilk" is produced with a different strain of bacteria altogether.  I guess you could say that cultures vary on their cultures. 

     While buttermilk is not butter per se, when making it in the traditional manner, tiny flecks of butter may be present in the liquid.  Thus, some modern producers of buttermilk may add tiny butter particles to simulate the classical product.  Some also add salt.

     Buttermilk is a good source of potassium, B12, calcium, riboflavin and phosphorous.  Buttermilk is considered to be a probiotic, i.e., a substance containing live microorganisms (in this case the lactic acid bacteria), that confer health benefits.  Probiotics are alleged to improve intestinal microbial balance, inhibit pathogens, relieve gastrointestinal inflammation, and ward off diarrhea, urogenital infections and allergic reactions.  The Irish used to think that buttermilk was good for hangovers.  So my advice is to make some martinis and the next day you can cure your hangover and every other disease as well.

     In any event, the jury is still out on the purported adulations of buttermilk as well as many other health claims.  What buttermilk is definitely good for is cooking.  Buttermilk is like Thai fish sauce.  If you consume it straight it's nasty.  But when combined with food it imparts a whole new flavor dimension.  It's yummy in baked goods such as biscuits and salad dressings like my recipes below.  Buttermilk is a good choice for marinades.  In fact, it’s the marinade of choice for classic southern fried chicken.  It also works well with sweet fruits such as peaches and cherries. 

     Buttermilk will last longer than regular milk because of its higher acid level.  You could get two weeks out of it in the fridge but for the best freshness, use within one week.  Like other milk products, check the date on the carton. 

     Finally, there is also buttermilk powder which is merely dehydrated buttermilk.  It lasts indefinitely if never opened and up to a year once opened if kept in the fridge.  Buttermilk powder is used most often in baking.



    • 2 cups all purpose flour
    • 4 teaspoons baking powder
    • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
    • pinch of salt
    • 3 oz. cold butter, diced
    • 8 oz buttermilk

Combine and sift the dry ingredients. 

Gently knead in the butter. 

Add the buttermilk and knead on a floured board just enough to bring the dough together.  It is vital that you knead gently and no more than is necessary or you will develop the gluten in the flour and make the biscuits tough.  Good biscuits are as much a function of technique as ingredients. 

Form a flat mass with the dough and cut out biscuits with a biscuit cutter.  Don’t make them too high or the outside could become over browned by the time the inside is cooked. 

Place them on parchment paper on a sheet tray and then into a preheated 400-degree oven. 

Bake until they are golden in color. 


    • ½ cup buttermilk
    • 1 tablespoons white wine vinegar
    • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
    • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
    • 1-2 garlic loves, minced
    • Small handful of chives, minced
    • Salt and pepper to taste

I like this dressing best on blander greens such as Boston, iceberg, romaine, green leaf and red leaf lettuces.  It also works well with corn, cucumbers, radishes and tomatoes.  Or try it over plain vegetables that need a little jazzing up such as steamed green beans or broccoli.

Also Visit Mark’s website: Food for Thought Online

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