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Buttermilk: A Tumultuous History

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In a pinch, I often sour milk with lemon juice to make my own buttermilk. We’ve all done it. But do any of us really know the history behind such a common ingredient?

The history of buttermilk is about as tumultuous as one for a dairy product can get; this week at Slate, L.V. Anderson investigates its extensive evolution. From the creamy, sweet byproduct of churning fresh milk into butter – the likes of which Laura Ingalls Wilder describes in Little House in the Big Woods – to quickbread additive, to deliberately-soured anti-aging tonic in the early 20th century, buttermilk has undergone more than a few confused identity changes.
Motivated by a kind of rite of passage, (“my ability to enjoy a glass of buttermilk at the age of 7 carried the same symbolic weight that my ability to enjoy a scotch neat does today”), Anderson attempts to find the original stuff. She decides, after multiple dead-ends, that if it were to be tasted, she had to make it herself.
Her consensus? That good, fresh buttermilk is actually kind of bland. But, as she also discovered, “higher fat content usually tastes better.” We can back her up on that one, hands down.

All Churned Around from Slate

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Comments (3)


over 3 years ago ATG117

For years, I'd end up wasting buttermilk after baking something that called for it. It would sit in the fridge until it expired, and then I'd toss it. But recently, because I had nothing else on hand, I used it in a berry smoothy--just mixed berries, buttermilk, and a touch of turbinado sugar. I am hooked. It reminds me of kefir, but is far more satisfying, if only because it means I no longer have to waste buttermilk.


over 3 years ago Panfusine

buttermilk is an essential ingredient in South Indian Cuisine. It definitely has something to do with not wasting the remnants of churning butter, & is usually left to 'sour' before incorporating into sauces & gravies. It is traditional to offer guests a tall glass of freshly churned buttermilk (chaas or 'neer more', neer - tamil, for water, more - tamil for buttermilk) in many Indian communities. I believe homes used to leave earthen pots of lightly salted buttermilk out in the shaded front porch, purely for the convenience of anonymous travelers passing thru, so that they could quench their thirst. (given that its a cardinal sin in Hinduism to refuse water to anyone even if they're enemies)


over 3 years ago mrslarkin

Mrs. Larkin is a trusted source on Baking.

I love buttermilk. I was downright giddy when I spotted Kate's Real Buttermilk at the market. It tastes so good, straight from the bottle. Making antoniajames' buttermilk oatmeal bread today.