© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Buttermilk Makes Everything Taste A Little Better

It started happening about 15 years ago. I'd be paging through a new cookbook or browsing through recipes online, and I'd suddenly stop. "Mmm, buttermilk biscuits. Doesn't that sound good?" I'd bookmark the site or dog-ear the page. The next week I'd see a recipe for waffles — buttermilk waffles, as it happened. What a splendid idea. Out came the yellow stickies.

Then it was fried chicken, first bathed in buttermilk brine. Buttermilk pork chops and buttermilk cornbread. Buttermilk ice cream and buttermilk panna cotta. Buttermilk okra. It became apparent I was developing a thing for buttermilk.

Yet I couldn't quite put my finger on the cause. It's not like having a thing for chocolate, where the chocolate always plays more or less the same irresistible role, like a kind of confectionary Hugh Grant. No, buttermilk is subtle and chameleon-like — a supporting actor that makes ensembles shine and quietly steals every scene, until years later you realize it's been shamefully ignored and is overdue for its Lifetime Achievement Oscar.

Some of its miraculous properties are purely physical. Mildly acidic buttermilk activates meat's own enzymes, gently sundering protein links without leaving the surface flaccid, as stronger acids can. Like a dairy Delilah, buttermilk saps the Samson-like strength of gluten, too, making baked goods more tender even as it makes them more moist.

Personally, I just like the taste of buttermilk — the way it evokes cream without cream's over-the-top heft; the way its tanginess goes up to the threshold of yogurt and stops just shy. Buttermilk somehow seems perpetually cool and unruffled — in custardy icebox desserts, it seems to drop the temperature by 10 degrees just by being there. It's tart but not biting, rich yet understated. Never mind wanting to eat and drink buttermilk all day long — I want to be buttermilk.

Buttermilk purists will tell you that you should really make your own buttermilk — simply mix one part of active, cultured buttermilk with three parts of regular milk, shake and leave it out on the counter for a day before refrigerating. Or you can culture it with cream and make your own butter, too, in the food processor. For that matter, you can go ahead and buy a dairy cow, milk it, hand-churn the cream into butter and siphon off the left-behind buttermilk. People will tell you that store buttermilk is a sleazy substitute for the real thing, and that true buttermilk makes the store kind look like a dime-store floozy.

I've tried making "real" buttermilk with the 3:1 method, and it's true that it's spectacular. But does it matter that much? You may not have a cow. You may not have a churn. You may not even have an extra 24 hours. But don't let that stop you — no matter where you get it and no matter how you cook it, a little bit of buttermilk has 1,000 ways of making life taste better.

Recipe: Double Fluffy Buttermilk Biscuits

This recipe appears in Nathalie Dupree's and Cynthia Graubart'sSouthern Biscuits(Gibbs Smith, 2011). It seems long, but it's not really — it's just that Dupree and Graubart offer particularly thoughtful and detailed directions. It's good to pay attention to the details — they'll pay you back tenfold. You'll get different levels of rise and texture with different types of fat, but all are good.

Makes 14 (2 1/2-inch) biscuits

2 1/4 cups self-rising flour, divided

1/4 cup chilled vegetable shortening, butter, lard or a mixture, roughly cut into 1/4-inch pieces, plus 1/4 cup chilled shortening, roughly cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 1/4 cups buttermilk, divided

Softened butter, for brushing

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Select the baking pan by determining if a soft or crisp exterior is desired. For a soft exterior, use an 8- or 9-inch cake pan, pizza pan or ovenproof skillet where the biscuits will nestle together snugly, creating the soft exterior while baking. For a crisp exterior, select a baking sheet or other baking pan where the biscuits can be placed wider apart, allowing air to circulate and creating a crisper exterior, and brush the pan with butter.

Whisk 2 cups of flour in a large bowl, preferably wider than it is deep, and set aside the remaining 1/4 cup of flour. Scatter the 1/4-inch-size pieces of chilled shortening over the flour and work in by rubbing fingers with the fat and flour as if snapping thumb and fingers together (or use two forks or knives, or a pastry cutter) until the mixture looks like well-crumbled feta cheese. Scatter the 1/2-inch-size pieces of chilled fat over the flour mixture and continue snapping thumb and fingers together until no pieces remain larger than a pea. Shake the bowl occasionally to allow the larger pieces of fat to bounce to the top of the flour, revealing the largest lumps that still need rubbing. If this method took longer than 5 minutes, place the bowl in the refrigerator for 5 minutes to rechill the fat.

Make a deep hollow in the center of the flour with the back of your hand. Pour 1 cup of the buttermilk into the hollow, reserving 1/4 cup buttermilk, and stir with a rubber spatula, using broad circular strokes to quickly pull the flour into the buttermilk. Mix just until the dry ingredients are moistened and the sticky dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If there is some flour remaining on the bottom and sides of the bowl, stir in 1-4 tablespoons of reserved buttermilk, just enough to incorporate the remaining flour into the shaggy wettish dough. If the dough is too wet, use more flour when shaping.

Lightly sprinkle a clean surface using some of the reserved flour. Turn the dough out onto it and sprinkle the top lightly with flour. With floured hands, fold the dough in half, and pat dough out into a 1/3- to 1/2-inch thick round. Flour again if necessary and fold the dough in half a second time. If the dough is still clumpy, pat and fold a third time. Pat dough out into a 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick round. Brush off any visible flour from the top.

For each biscuit, dip a 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter into the reserved flour and cut out, starting at the outside edge and cutting very close together, being careful not to twist the cutter. The scraps may be combined to make additional biscuits, although they will be tougher.

Using a metal spatula if necessary, move the biscuits to the pan or baking sheet. Bake the biscuits on the top rack of the oven for 10 to 14 minutes until light golden brown. After 6 minutes, rotate the pan in the oven so that the front of the pan is now turned to the back, and check to see if the bottoms are browning too quickly. If so, slide another baking pan underneath to add insulation and retard browning. Continue baking another 4 to 8 minutes until the biscuits are light golden brown. When the biscuits are done, remove from the oven and lightly brush the tops with softened or melted butter. Turn the biscuits out upside down on a plate to cool slightly. Serve hot, right side up.

Recipe: Buttermilk Ice Cream

This subtly tart and swooningly creamy recipe — perfect for savoring with fresh blueberries — is adapted fromSweet Cream and Sugar Conesby Kris Hoogerhyde, Anne Walker and Dabney Gough, (10 Speed Press, 2012). But I use a technique fromJeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home(Artisan, 2011) to cool down the custard base quickly: Fill a deep, 2-quart vessel with ice water. Carefully tip the warm ice cream custard base into a sturdy freezer-grade sealable bag and place the bag in the ice water (with the opening kept well clear above the water level). Stir occasionally and gently, over the course of 10 minutes until the base is cool. It's much, much faster than the bowl-within-a-bowl technique.

/ T. Susan Chang for NPR
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes 1 very scant quart

5 large egg yolks

3/4 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1/2 cup 1- or 2-percent milk

1 cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the base, in a medium heatproof bowl, whisk the yolks to just break them up, then whisk in half the sugar (6 tablespoons). Set aside.

In a heavy stainless steel pan, stir together the cream, milk and the remaining sugar (6 tablespoons) and put the pan over medium-high heat. When the mixture approaches a bare simmer, reduce the heat to medium.

Carefully scoop out about 1/2 cup of the hot cream mixture and, whisking the eggs constantly, add the cream to the bowl with the egg yolks. Repeat, adding another 1/2 cup of the hot cream to the bowl with the yolks. Returning to the pan of cream on the stove, use a heatproof spatula to stir the cream as you slowly pour the egg and cream mixture back into the pan.

Continue to cook the mixture carefully over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture is thickened, coats the back of a spatula and leaves a clear mark when you run your finger across it, 1 to 2 minutes longer.

Strain the base through a fine-mesh strainer and into a clean container. Set the bowl into an ice bath, wash your spatula and use it to stir the base occasionally until it is cool. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate the base for at least 2 hours or overnight. (In this recipe, it's particularly important that the base is cold before proceeding to the next step or the buttermilk will cause the mixture to "break" and lose its emulsion.)

Add the buttermilk and vanilla to the cold base and whisk to blend.

Freeze in ice cream machine according to the manufacturer's instructions. While the ice cream is churning, put the container you'll use to store the ice cream into the freezer. Enjoy right away or, for a firmer ice cream, freeze for at least 4 hours.

Recipe: Buttermilk Roast Chicken

This is very loosely adapted from a recipe originally found inNigella Express(Hyperion, 2007). For speedier results, you could use chicken parts such as thighs or drumsticks, which would take a half-hour or so in the oven. The potatoes are my addition and they're not to be missed.

/ T. Susan Chang for NPR
T. Susan Chang for NPR

Makes one chicken

2 cups buttermilk

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 cloves garlic, bruised and skins removed

1 tablespoon crushed peppercorns

1 tablespoon Maldon salt, sea salt or 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 whole chicken, split in half or butterflied (backbone removed)

4 large Yukon gold potatoes, chopped into 3/4-inch cubes

For the marinade, in a large freezer bag, combine the buttermilk, 1/4 cup of oil, the bruised garlic, the crushed peppercorns and salt. Sprinkle in the ground cumin and add the maple syrup, then squish everything around to mix. Add the chicken halves, massaging the marinade into the meat through the layer of plastic bag. Leave the buttermilk marinated chicken in the refrigerator ideally overnight or unrefrigerated for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Film a cast iron skillet with 1/2 tablespoon of the remaining oil and scatter the potato dice over the base of the skillet. Place an oven-safe wire rack over the skillet. Take the chicken out of the bag, shaking off the excess marinade, and then arrange on the rack. Drizzle over the 1 1/2 remaining tablespoons of oil. Working carefully — the rack/skillet arrangement may be slippery — transfer the pan to the oven and roast for about 40-45 minutes, or until brown, even scorched in parts, and juicily cooked through. Serve hot or warm, scraping the potatoes out with a metal spatula and spooning over the juices.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, NPR.org and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.