Only a mother would see her homely child as beautiful and only a devotee could love a glass of buttermilk. Thick and lumpy often with bits of butter, it oozes down the sides of an empty glass leaving a grainy film behind. But don't go screaming off into the night. There's more to this homely child than meets the eye. Lurking beneath the blemishes of what most believe to be the dairy family's black sheep is a vibrant, nutritious, and superb flavoring agent.
There is no doubt that its name is disarming. In the early days, buttermilk was the milky liquid left from churning butter. Natural emulsifiers were the thickeners. Ironically, back then, there was little butterfat left behind in the milky residue after the butter was churned, and there is even less fat now. The quarts of buttermilk found on the dairy shelf today are not made from the remains of butter but, instead, are made from skim milk. Added cultures are the thickening agents. Some dairies even add a few lumps of butter to give credibility.
The nagging question always for the cook who cherishes using buttermilk in food but abhors the taste of buttermilk is "what do I do with the left over when I only need a little?" Some might say, why bother with buttermilk in the first place. After all a teaspoon of vinegar in a cup of sweet milk gives the same effect.
Bonafide bakers would respond that such a substitute does not give the richness of real buttermilk and leaves a taste and smell of vinegar. A far more appealing approach is to call on a dried cultured buttermilk powder with an indefinite shelf life. Manufactured by SaCo of Wisconsin, the box is the same size and with a slightly lighter orange hue than the Arm & Hammer baking soda and holds four envelopes making one cup of buttermilk apiece. In addition to being convenient, it is made from authentic buttermilk. Popular in the country's dairy belt for some time, the cultured buttermilk blend is available on most supermarket shelves and through wholesale food suppliers.
Experience has shown that the powdered buttermilk gives a noticeably finer texture and softer taste than buttermilk off the refrigerated shelf. The pancake recipe on the package is exemplary. We found the recipe on the back of the envelope to produce remarkably tender and flavorful pancakes. Serve them with good New England maple syrup and you have a Sunday morning feast.
Historically, the practice of using buttermilk in food preparation was one of conservation - making use of byproducts particularly in difficult times. In 18th century Ireland, often called "churn milk" it was used to make a cookie dough called Filling Cakes. The dough was baked with a thinly veiled fruit mixture, presumably to satisfy one's sweet tooth. The Frances Virginia Tea Room in Atlanta , called "the queen of tea rooms" by Jane and Michael Stern in their book Square Meals, served Blueberry Gems (mini-muffins) using buttermilk during the depression, and in 1942, Pillsbury's Victory Dinner recipe book touted a recipe for brown bread using sour milk or buttermilk.
Buttermilk, whether dried or fresh, is excellent as an ingredient in pancakes and waffles, baking powder biscuits, corn meal griddle cakes, and chocolate cakes. Since dry buttermilk must be incorporated with a recipe's other dry ingredients before adding the liquid, it cannot be used in salad dressings, dips, or marinades.