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Buttermilk has changed over time

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For cooks living in modern times, buttermilk is a bit of a conundrum.

What’s the connection with butter? Is it fattening?

Here is a primer on this important ingredient.

Q: Why is it called buttermilk?

A: True buttermilk is the liquid left after cream is churned into butter, explains Marcia Swingle, a “foodways interpreter” at the Genesee Country (N.Y.) Village Museum who demonstrates 19th-century buttermaking.

True buttermilk is often called sweet cream buttermilk because it is made with fresh cream. Today, buttermilk is regular milk that has added cultures to give it a unique tangy flavor and thickness.

Q: Does today’s cultured buttermilk taste different than sweet cream buttermilk made the traditional way?

A: Definitely, Swingle says. “The taste is so different it is unbelievable. People who remember drinking fresh buttermilk when they were young offer to pay me to have a taste of buttermilk,” she adds.

Mac McCampbell, chief operating officer at Oatka Milk Products Cooperative Inc., says sweet cream buttermilk is similar to milk but much richer.

The butter producer makes sweet cream buttermilk, which is sold in both liquid and powder form for commercial baking and ice cream making.

Q: Why can’t consumers find old-fashioned sweet cream buttermilk anymore?

A: Consolidation in the dairy industry during the 1950s and 1960s turned old-fashioned buttermilk into the stuff of nostalgia, explained David Brown, a Cornell University food scientist and dairy expert.

Buttermilk used to be sold at local creameries where a variety of milk products were produced, from fluid milk and cottage cheese to sour cream and butter. Once processing was brought to larger plants at centralized locations, buttermilk’s perishability (its shelf life was only a few days) became problematic, he says.

“But there was a perceived market for it, so someone came up with the idea of taking (regular) milk and adding a culture to it to make that flavor.”

Hence the birth of cultured buttermilk, which is how today’s supermarket buttermilk is labeled.

Q: How is cultured buttermilk made?

A: Cultured buttermilk starts with pasteurized milk. Then a bacterial culture mix is added to room-temperature milk and allowed to incubate for several hours. This mix will have a flavor-producing culture, typically Leuconostoc citrovorum, and a lactic-acid producing culture, Streptococcus lactis.

Salt is often added for flavor. Some brands also add stabilizers such as carrageenan and guar gum.

Q:What are cultured buttermilk’s nutritional qualities?

A: Like regular milk, buttermilk is rich in calcium, vitamins D and A and protein. Some people who are lactose-intolerant might find buttermilk easier to digest than regular milk because some of the lactose has been converted to lactic acid.

Many brands are made with lowfat milk. However, if you are watching your salt intake, check the label.

Q: Can you freeze buttermilk?

A: You can, but most experts advise against it because buttermilk will curdle when defrosted.

Q: Are there other alternatives to fresh buttermilk?

A: In many recipes, one tablespoon of vinegar plus 15 tablespoons of regular milk can be substituted for one cup of buttermilk. Powdered buttermilk, made with dried sweet cream buttermilk, also can be used for many recipes. Look for it in the baking aisle.

Q: How long can you keep buttermilk?

A: Buttermilk has a longer shelf life than conventionally pasteurized milk but not quite as long as yogurt, Brown says. If properly stored, it can be used up to the use-by date, which is about 30 days from manufacturing. Buttermilk may grow a little more acidic and may separate the longer it sits around, but it still is perfectly safe and good to use, he adds.


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