What Is Buttermilk? Here's Where It Comes From And How To Use It

You may love eating buttermilk biscuits but do you know where buttermilk comes from? Learn exactly what buttermilk is and tips on how you should use it in Southern recipes.

What Is In Buttermilk?

What is buttermilk? Well, there's the old answer and the new, and both are good.

The old answer is that buttermilk was the thin, non-fat but rich-tasting liquid left in a churn after making butter, full of healthful, delicious cultures that develop naturally when cream is left at room temperature for a few hours to improve the flavor of the butter. The cultures meant that buttermilk kept longer than raw milk in the days before easy cooling and refrigeration, which made it useful in cooking.

The new answer is that buttermilk is still cultured milk, similar to natural yogurt and kefir, but instead of being a by-product of churning most dairies inoculate fresh, pasteurized milk with cultures (harmless lactic acid bacteria) that transform it into the buttermilk we buy in bottles and cartons in stores.

Best buttermilk
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Churned Versus Store-Bought

Although it looks and tastes rich and creamy, traditional churned buttermilk was always nonfat because all the fat wound up in the homemade butter. These days, cultured buttermilk can range from skim to full-fat with corresponding calorie count, just like yogurt and sour cream, although most of what we buy in stores is low-fat.

Store-bought buttermilk is thicker, tangier, and more acidic than traditional or homemade buttermilk, so if you're preparing a recipe that calls for buttermilk, it's best to stick with store-bought, especially in baked goods that depend on precise leavening. Many recipes that call for buttermilk include baking soda as part of the leavening, to balance the acidity in the commercial buttermilk.

Can You Drink Buttermilk?

Buttermilk is a prized Southern ingredient, but it's also a delicious beverage that's good for us. It is a potent source of probiotics and active cultures found in natural yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchee, and other fermented foods that aid digestion and promote gut health. A glass of bedtime buttermilk has soothed the tummies of the dyspeptic and the frayed nerves of many a late-night reveler. A few sips calmed some things down and perked other things up.

How Long Does Buttermilk Last?

One of the charms of buttermilk is that it keeps longer than most other dairy products, plus it has myriad uses, so it's not difficult to use it up. After a few days in the fridge, buttermilk separates into solids and whey, but if it comes back together when shaken, it's usable, even if it's a couple of days beyond the freshness date. Cultured products are forgiving.

Buttermilk freezes well, so there is no need to waste a drop. Just pour it into containers the size you use most often in your favorite recipes, such as 1 or 1/2 cup, so that you don't have to measure it again after thawing. If you're not sure how you'll use it later, freeze it in one-tablespoon portions in ice cube trays so that you can pull out the number of cubes needed to add up to the amount called for in a future recipe. Thaw frozen buttermilk in the refrigerator overnight or on reduced power in the microwave.

How To Use Buttermilk

Some recipes offer substitutions for buttermilk, but the truth is that buttermilk's signature cultures are what enable buttermilk to work culinary wonders in recipes. To replace a frosty bottle of buttermilk with a bowl of wan skim milk curdled by lemon juice or vinegar just won't do.

So how can one use a fresh carton of buttermilk? Let us count at least 13 lucky ways:

  1. Biscuits
  2. Cornbread
  3. Pancakes and waffles
  4. Pound cake
  5. Marinade for fried chicken
  6. Brine for grilled skirt steak
  7. Smoothies and frozen desserts
  8. Mashed potatoes or grits
  9. Instead of coconut milk or cream in curries and soups
  10. Chocolate cake
  11. Muffins
  12. Creamy salad dressing
  13. Refreshing beverage
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Southern Living is committed to using high-quality, reputable sources to support the facts in our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we fact check our content for accuracy.
  1. Merriam-Webster. Definition of buttermilk

  2. Harvard Health. The benefits of probiotics bacteria.

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