Issue 05: BUTTERMILK
AKA The Story About How Buttermilk Lost It's Butter
Buttermilk, for me, belongs in the same grocery family as molasses. That family being the how-are-you-still-on-the-shelf-in-the-year-2020 family. Buttermilk has never been a fridge staple for me until this quarantine thanks to my new biscuit baking habit. The only buttermilk I could ever recall seeing was the yellow Friendship carton of low-fat buttermilk. This seemed counterintuitive, considering biscuits or pancakes or waffles are not really, yanno, low-fat in nature or nurture, but it was the only option I could find.
This, of course, led to an investigation of buttermilk offerings: is low-fat normal? Is full-fat buttermilk even an option? Is there a mustachioed man in his 30’s making an artisanal version of buttermilk for $60 a quart? Can I get it delivered? (Sad, but actual, question I considered)
Turns out, this “buttermilk” I bought from the grocery store wasn’t buttermilk at all! “True” buttermilk is a byproduct of churning butter, the liquid that is left behind once the fat has been churned from the heavy cream. Large butter manufacturers now dry their butter byproducts and sell them to processed-food manufacturers as means of adding body and texture. So “true” buttermilk is actually pretty hard to find! (The only large-scale, commercial offering of true buttermilk that I could find was from Kate’s Homemade Butter. Cruze Dairy in Tennessee is also spreading the buttermilk gospel, but is unfortunately not close enough to New York City. If you know of any smaller, artisanal brands, please share!)
The buttermilk we buy today is actually cultured milk. Most dairies will inoculate fresh, pasteurized milk with (harmless) lactic acid bacteria that transforms into a buttermilk that is thicker than “true” buttermilk. Dairies will use the low-grade milk rejects from cheese and butter companies to make cultured buttermilk, which is typically skim or low-fat milk. You’ll notice that when recipes call for buttermilk, they will usually also call for baking soda: this is to balance the acidity in the commercial, cultured buttermilk.
Suppose you’re over this buttermilk sham and want alternatives. I get it! In a pinch, you can add white vinegar or lemon juice to milk, which I have done successfully in my biscuit baking. The New York Times also suggests thinning yogurt or sour cream as a substitution. But the most exciting substitution for me was KEFIR! I live in Greenpoint and have stared at the wide selection of kefir at places like Rachel’s Garden and wondered what to do with it. (Probiotic freaks have been horny for kefir for a minute now but after baking with it, I can tell you that it is much too thick for me to just casually sip out of a glass. But I am also a bit of a weenie! So I won’t kink shame you if you were already on that Kefir train.)
Buttermilk, or any other creamy dairy product you want to substitute, will be found in the refrigerated section of the store, typically located somewhere along the perimeter. Remember, what you are buying is actually cultured milk, not “true” buttermilk. So even if all the ingredients are organic and the pasteurized milk comes from grass-fed cows, it is not “buttermilk” but may be a good choice for biscuits or mashed potatoes!
If you want to get DIY about it, there are buttermilk starters for sale online, like these ones from Cultures for Health, New England Cheese Making Supply Co., and Organic Cultures, which would be very on-trend right now!
Aside from biscuits, buttermilk is a very popular way to brine chicken, especially after the publication of Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and her famous buttermilk-marinated roast chicken recipe. I made a buttermilk folder in my NYT Cooking recipe box that you can find here.
If you are going to accept the challenge of finding true buttermilk, I’m gonna go ahead and say DRINK IT! You can even throw in some add-ons like cornbread, salt and pepper, leftover herbs, date syrup, or maybe some berries? Laura Ingalls Wilder vibes.
Today’s more common cultured buttermilk is actually categorized as a beverage, which is why you don’t typically see it for sale in quantities smaller than a quart. The good news is that this cultured buttermilk will last quite a while in the coldest part of your fridge (the back). Buttermilk separates into solids and whey, but if it comes back together when shaken, it's usable!
REMEMBER: “ENJOY BY”, “BEST BY”, “BEST BEFORE”, “BEST WHEN/IF USED BY”, ARE NOT SAFETY DATES! These dates are issued by the manufacturer, estimating how long the buttermilk will remain at “peak quality”. THE BEST WAY TO DISCERN QUALITY IS THE SMELL TEST!
Buttermilk also freezes well! Freeze in quantities that are typical for recipes, that way you don’t have to measure after thawing. Thaw frozen buttermilk in the refrigerator overnight or on reduced power in the microwave.
Buttermilk you buy at the grocery store is actually cultured milk, not a byproduct of the butter churning process. In baking, it is usually paired with baking soda to offset the acidity of the cultured buttermilk. Buttermilk freezes well and has potential health benefits thanks to its probiotics.
The freshest picked news from the world wide web
The New Yorker profiled the Cervo’s/Hart’s/Fly fam, as well as Archestratus, turning into neighborhood grocers during this pandemic. (I was especially pleased with my order from Archestratus a couple weeks ago)
How do we feel about snacking cereal, aka jumbo fruit loops made for eating right out of the box, no spoon or milk required?
CivilEats backed me up last week, reminding us all that Enjoy By dates are not safety dates!!!
The Pham sisters are looking to update the international grocery aisle with Omsom, a food startup that sells packaged “starters” to recreate authentic Asian dishes at home, including sauce, spices and aromatics.
For the handful of large meatpackers who dominate the beef industry, Covid-19 appears to be more opportunity than crisis: closing down plants can actually increase profits for the Big Four: Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and National Beef.
Did you know GrubHub charges restaurants fees on phone orders as well? The phone number on a restaurant’s GrubHub page is generated by the platform and forwards the call to the restaurant. Just when you thought you were doing the right thing…
Art that you can still see IRL at a museum? Yep, it exists. But the art is actually a collection of cherry tomato vines, not an oil painting.
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