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Pumpkin pie is to Thanksgiving what cake is to a birthday party: people expect it. Many bakers make the same pumpkin pie recipe year after year. Others keep an eye out for trends, and are willing to take a new idea for a spin. This year's tweak on classic pumpkin pie is buttermilk. Whether making the filling, crust, and/or whipped cream topping, buttermilk can play a starring role in perking up this year's pumpkin pie.

It's important to establish a ground rule. Bakers must use real buttermilk, not curdled milk. Long ago and far away, some well-meaning cook tried to tell us that we could make "buttermilk" by mixing milk with vinegar or lemon juice. Trouble is, the result is curdled milk, not buttermilk, so there are none of the delicious naturally good-for-us cultures (like those found in yogurt, sour cream, and kefir) that work culinary magic in our recipes. Real buttermilk is inexpensive and keeps for weeks, giving us plenty of time to use it up in our pies and other recipes.

Our Easiest Pumpkin Pie Ever
Credit: Greg Dupree; Styling: Heather Chadduck Hillegas

In almost every pumpkin pie recipe, there's opportunity to use buttermilk in one or more ways:

  • In the Filling: Replace the canned evaporated milk or whole milk with full-fat buttermilk to add a little delicious tang that balances the sweetness. It also makes the filling a little fluffy and less stodgy. (Make sure you're not replacing sweetened condensed milk, such as Eaglebrand, which is the source of sweetness in the filling.)
  • In the Homemade Pie Crust: Replace the ice water with deeply chilled buttermilk to make pastry that is easy to handle and rolls like a dream.
  • In the Whipped Cream Topping: Whip together 1½ cups cream, ½ cup buttermilk, and 2 tablespoons of powdered sugar to make a slightly tangy and less rich topping for pumpkin pie. It's also great on pecan pie and other super-sweet fillings.

Baker's Pro Tips:

  • Buttermilk can separate as it sits, so always shake the carton or bottle of buttermilk just before using. A reliable way to know whether buttermilk that's been opened is still usable is to shake it; if it comes together, it's good to use.
  • When liquid buttermilk truly isn't an option, it's okay to turn to buttermilk powder, which keeps on the shelf for months and does a pretty good job in most recipes. Follow the directions on the package to reconstitute it.