The Magic of Buttermilk

By Dan Gill



Buttermilk does wonderful things for food and for us: It is a healthy, refreshing drink that aids digestion and helps keep our systems in balance. People who are lactose intolerant can often drink buttermilk because most of the lactose has been converted to lactic acid by “friendly” bacteria. A combination of acids, enzymes and calcium tenderize and flavor meats, poultry and seafood and are essential in making good biscuits and hot cakes. Buttermilk is used to create a classic southern pie and it is even used for skin care and cosmetics. Real buttermilk is also the best way to cool off after eating hot chili: Capsaicin is fat-soluble, so water, tea, beer or soft drinks only make spicy foods seem hotter.


Originally, buttermilk was the low-fat by-product of churned butter. The hand-churning process removes most, but not all of the butterfat and there were always a few stray flecks of butter floating on top. It could be sweet or sour depending upon the kind of butter being made. Most country folk used to let cream sour naturally before churning because the butter lasted longer, but some made sweet-cream butter. Before refrigeration, buttermilk and other dairy products were kept in a springhouse or in the well to keep cool. At 55°, it didn’t take raw milk too long to turn. Country folks always had fresh buttermilk on hand and found lots of good uses for it. Practically all buttermilk is now made from pasteurized and cultured skimmed or low-fat milk or even from powdered milk. Any yellow flecks are added during processing. Yoder Dairies makes theirs from whole milk and it is smooth and rich tasting.


Southern cooks have long known that chicken fries crisper and is more tender and juicy if soaked in buttermilk before cooking. Eastern and Mediterranean cultures use buttermilk or yogurt to improve the texture and flavor of goat and mutton. Many hunters know that a simple buttermilk brine does wonderful things to venison and wild turkey as it mellows strong, gamey flavors. It was long assumed that the acids and enzymes in buttermilk and yogurt tenderized meat. It is now known that calcium in these dairy products triggers “aging” enzymes within muscle and connective tissues, which, in turn, degrade certain proteins that hold bundles of muscle fibers together. The meat industry is now experimenting with genetic selection for these enzymes, increasing dietary levels of Vitamin D (involved in calcium absorption and metabolism), electrically shocking carcasses after slaughter, and injecting meat with calcium chloride solutions. I would rather just soak mine in buttermilk, thank you very much.


I personally believe that brines are the most effective and reliable method of flavoring meat, poultry and seafood at home. Acid and oil marinades remain popular in spite of the fact that they simply don’t work. Marinades do not penetrate, thus they can flavor and tenderize only the surface of meats. Strong acids, such as vinegar and lemon juice, can actually toughen muscle fibers. Enzymes in plants, such as papaya and pineapple, often added to marinades to tenderize, actually do too good a job and can make the surface of meat mushy without affecting the interior. Brines, on the other hand, are salt based and can actually penetrate muscle tissue through osmosis, taking dissolved flavor components and tenderizers deep into tissues. Contrary to popular belief, salt in brines actually adds water to meat and aids in moisture retention during cooking. I always add cane sugar, brown sugar or molasses to my brines and dry rubs. Sucrose reduces the salty taste, helps retain moisture and improves flavor. Buttermilk can replace part or all of the water in a brine, depending upon the characteristics of the meat. Mild meats, such as turkey, chicken and lamb, benefit from a mixture of 25% buttermilk, while strong flavored, tough or gamey meats require higher levels - up to 100% for goat and venison. Acid in buttermilk is not strong enough to toughen muscle fibers. Enzymes and calcium, with the osmotic assistance of salt, can penetrate tissues to flavor and tenderize even large cuts of meat. At “Something Different”, our Kicken’ Chicken is buttermilk brined, slathered with prepared mustard (so that the baste will adhere) and slowly cooked on the pit. It is basted a couple of times toward the end of the cooking time and then finished off with a light dusting of our KA spice, an assertive blend of (mostly) Caribbean seasonings. The chicken is moist and the flavors go all of the way through without being too spicy.


Buttermilk is also the key to making light, moist and tasty biscuits, hotcakes and corn breads. Acids in buttermilk react with baking soda to produce harmless bubbles of CO2 gas for leavening. Proportions and timing are fairly critical: Acidity varies with different buttermilks but the rule of thumb calls for one teaspoon of soda to neutralize two cups of buttermilk. Too much soda results in “off” flavors. The reaction rate decreases over time and increases with temperature so it is best to add the soda just before cooking or keep the batter cold. Corn bread, in one form or another, is the traditional and ideal accompaniment to soups, barbecue and seafood. Unfortunately, when made in sheet pans and served during the day, cornbread tends to dry out and become crumbly (in the country, a popular bedtime snack was dry cornbread soaked in buttermilk). Hush puppies can be made to order fairly quickly and are a popular alternative, but they tend to mess up cooking oil and have become somewhat of a cliché. To solve our cornbread conundrum, we resurrected the homely hoecake, so called because early settlers cooked them on the blade of a hoe over coals. Northerners call them “Johnny cakes”, a corruption of “journey cakes”, because they could be cooked ahead and eaten on the trail. Simply a cornmeal batter fried on a flat surface, hoecakes are good hot or cold, plain or buttered, or with syrup for breakfast. Our version contains chopped onions and jalapenos and, of course, buttermilk and soda.



Buttermilk Recipes

By Dan Gill


Basic, all purpose Brine


Per gallon of liquid (water, buttermilk or a combination) stir to dissolve:


1 cup of salt (preferably non-iodized dairy, kosher, or pickling)

½ cup of sugar (I like molasses)

2 tablespoons of ground pepper (I use freshly ground)

1 tablespoon each of granulated garlic and granulated onion


Just about any other seasonings or herbs can be added for flavor – I always include a little allspice as homage to the origins of barbecue. Ginger, rosemary and red pepper are popular additions. Use a non-reactive container such as plastic, glass or stainless steel (resealable plastic bags work great for small cuts). Cover completely with brine and refrigerate for about 12 hours. I don’t bother with rinsing or soaking in fresh water before cooking.


Helen’s Buttermilk Hotcakes


When I was coming along, Sunday mornings were always a special time at our house. First, Daddy put on some classical music; then Mother started cooking breakfast. Sometimes we had salt herring that we had put down in early spring, but usually Mother made her fantastic buttermilk hotcakes. If Mozart didn’t wake me up, the smell of country ham frying in a cast iron skillet certainly did. Mother was famous for her hotcakes and took them seriously. Every once in a while, we made the trip to an old water-powered gristmill in Essex County to get stone-ground white flour and some whole wheat, seconds, or middlings (intermediate by-products of milling grain) for texture and substance. She had a special ceramic bowl and a special fork that she always used to mix the batter:


2 cups of white or whole-wheat flour or 1 cup flour plus

1 cup seconds, middlings, corn meal or buckwheat

Stir in 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of baking soda

Add 2 eggs and 1 Tablespoon of bacon grease and beat the eggs a little with a fork

Mix in buttermilk until the batter drips from a spoon


Heat a lightly oiled griddle until a moistened fingertip sizzles when quickly touched. A little salt sprinkled on the hot griddle, and wiped off, supposedly keeps the hotcakes from sticking. Mother also had a special tablespoon to dip the batter and pour five cakes at a time about four inches in diameter. When the bubble holes from escaping gas stopped closing completely on the upper surface, she flipped the cakes to cook the other side.


Sometimes, if the mood strikes and I get to the store early enough on Sunday morning, I will put on some good music and mix up a batch or two of Mother’s buttermilk hotcakes.