Buttermilk is that liquid that remains after churning butter. This creamy and naturally cultured byproduct was long a popular beverage in rural America not unlike that of a yoghurt drink. In the South, buttermilk over crumbled corn bread was a supper classic. It is still used in cooking of biscuits, pancakes and dressings… or at least most think it is still used.
What many people do not realize is that commercial buttermilk is not really buttermilk. It is a standardized rough equivalent. Instead of rich cream, most diaries now use low-fat milk, skim milk or some other low-grade diary byproducts which is then fermented with cultures making it acidic. It is later thickened with carrageenan (a seaweed extract) or locust bean gum to make an over-thickened sour product marketed as “buttermilk.”
Authentic buttermilk is completely different. It is a light, tart and rich defatted milk with a slight taste of real butter. In times past, the buttermilk of each dairy would vary ever so slightly in taste depending on the breed of cow, feed and fermenting culture. Its extensive use in cooking and as a tangy yet refreshing beverage made it a staple of the American diet.
Needless to say, there is a world of difference between this creamy buttermilk and the commercial version that goes by the same name. The tragedy of it all is that this cheap and tasty treat used to be available to everyone before its mass standardization. Today, the simple pleasure of enjoying real buttermilk is practically lost, and our culture is impoverished as a result.
There is however a healthy reaction to standardized buttermilk. The New York Times reports that some Americans are rediscovering the tangy taste of genuine buttermilk. Small specialized dairies are starting to produce and market the real thing. Restaurant owners and chefs are using real buttermilk to give zest and great taste to their menus. While these efforts are to be applauded, they do not address the central issue of a return to a whole culture that gives value to these simple yet nonstandardized things.