Yesterday I warned you about fermented products that weren't cultured and therefore probiotic. Today I'll tell you about one that is.
An unsigned article on the Tuscaloosa News website gives the best summary of today's buttermilk I've seen in a long time.
[W]hat the heck is buttermilk?
It’s not what it used to be, that’s for sure. In bygone days, when dairy products were made on small farms, buttermilk was the byproduct of butter making. Great grandma would leave pans of fresh, raw milk in the cool of the cellar for a day or so, waiting for the cream to rise to the top. Then she’d skim off the cream and churn it until the butter formed. The thin, slightly soured liquid left was the original buttermilk. It was prized for baking because, being acidic, it reacted with baking soda to make biscuits, muffins, pancakes and other quick breads rise. Many people also enjoyed it as a beverage.
With the advent of huge commercial dairies, mechanical cream separators and pasteurization, traditional “churn” buttermilk went the way of — well, of fresh, raw milk....
So what’s in those cartons labeled “buttermilk” in your grocery store? Pasteurized milk that’s been cultured with bacteria, just like yogurt. This process yields a product which, unlike traditional buttermilk, is consistent in flavor, texture, nutritional value and cooking properties. Cultured buttermilk is thicker in texture than the watery traditional buttermilk.
What buttermilk doesn’t have in it is butter. Many people assume from the name “buttermilk” that the stuff is quite rich. Not so. Cultured buttermilk is usually made from fat-free milk. I’m no fan of a fat-restricted diet, but if you’re watching your fat, buttermilk is friend, not foe.
Buttermilk also doesn’t have much lactose. Just as in yogurt, the bacteria have digested the lactose, yielding the lactic acid that gives both products their tangy flavor. This means that buttermilk is far easier than sweet milk on the guts of those who are lactose intolerant. It also means that buttermilk is suitable for those of us who watch our carb intake.
Cultured buttermilk is great for baking, adding moisture, tenderness and lightness to everything from pancakes to cornbread. Still, once buttermilk is cooked, the cultures are no longer active. How can you use buttermilk without cooking it?
When I was a kid, it wasn’t uncommon for people to simply drink the stuff. I have a book from the 1960s that recommends drinking buttermilk as a delicious and filling pick-me-up. If you’re fond of plain yogurt, try a glass of buttermilk. Or you can run chilled buttermilk through the blender with a handful of fruit and a little sweetener for a healthy fruit smoothie.
David B. Fankhauser, of the University of Cincinnati Clermont College, has a great Making Buttermilk page.
There's even a specialty buttermilk cookbook, Better With Buttermilk: The Secret Ingredient in Old-Fashioned Cooking, by Lee Edwards Benning.