Alison Miksch

If you need something to quench your thirst or help your pound cake perform, turn to hardworking, classic buttermilk.

When you think of classic Southern beverages, what springs to mind? Sweet tea? Bourbon? Buttermilk? Yes, buttermilk. Thick, creamy, and slightly tart, buttermilk has nourished and satisfied Southerners for generations, oftentimes when there was little to eat besides a piece of day-old cornbread. (We would crumble that cornbread into a glass of buttermilk.)

However, the buttermilk found in the grocery stores today has little in common with the beverage from agrarian times. In those days, “buttermilk” was simply the liquid that remained after the butter was churned out of fresh cream. Since there was no refrigeration and frugal homemakers never threw anything away, this liquid was left sitting out. To make short work of a lengthy scientific process, the natural cultures and bacteria (similar to what is found today in yogurt and sour cream), began forming, extending the life and changing the makeup of the buttermilk. Southerners came to love the tart flavor and, naturally, found ways to incorporate buttermilk into their cooking, including those daily pans of golden cornbread.

Most of the buttermilk found in grocery stores today is not the product of churning, but is produced when dairies add commercial cultures to what older Southerners call “sweet milk.” In a large-scale milk production, all the fat is removed from the milk, then added back in amounts that fit industry standards for fat-free milk, 2-percent-fat milk, or whole milk. Some of that milk is then used for buttermilk. Many independent dairy farmers believe this process damages the flavor of buttermilk, and use only whole-milk to make buttermilk. Some dairies even take it a step further and combine the old ways of churning with the newer method of culturing.

What was once a staple in just rural country kitchens; buttermilk is now recognized as the magic ingredient behind fluffy buttermilk pancakes and juicy chicken. Marinate chicken in buttermilk and you will get crispy fried chicken worthy of a blue ribbon at the fair. This collection of our best buttermilk recipes gives you over 30 ways to use buttermilk in flaky biscuits, creamy panna cottas and, of course, mile-high pound cakes.

Many cooks have been loving the tart taste and witnessing the magic behind buttermilk. If you're new to the buttermilk bandwagon, here are some tips to remember:

  • Fat contents vary, so read labels carefully; the higher the fat content, the richer and creamier the buttermilk.
  • Look for buttermilk that has active cultures or live cultures; again, read the labels. A glass of buttermilk with active cultures can soothe an upset stomach the same way a serving of yogurt can.
  • Buttermilk will separate and break down when heated to a near boil, so it is used mostly in baking or in cold soups, smoothies, and ice cream.
  • If you need buttermilk in a hurry but don’t have any on hand, add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice in a liquid measuring cup to enough milk to make 1 cup liquid. Stir well, and let stand for 5 minutes. When the milk curdles, it is ready to use.