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What is Buttermilk, and How Do I Make it?

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  • Tip Bones

Truth be told, if you're looking for 'real' buttermilk, you won't find it in a store. As far as crafting your own, you can make a great buttermilk substitute that functions like the real deal (don't worry; I'll tell you how to do this in a minute), but it's important to know what 'real' buttermilk is, in order to understand the process behind making-- and using-- the stuff in your cooking and baking.

Buttermilk is actually not milk or butter per se, but it does come from the process of churning butter. After churning was complete, the liquid left behind, often containing small chunks of cream, would be collected. This is 'true' buttermilk, and it's basically cultured milk. The small amount that could be collected (no more than a pint or so) was prized for its tangy flavor and long shelf life: the cultures, similar to bacteria you find in yogurt that makes it different from milk, kept it from spoiling, which was important in the days before refrigerators.

Today, buttermilk isn't made the same way. Instead of using the remnants of butter churning, producers add bacteria cultures to the milk to make it curdle just a little, enough to emulate the traditional buttermilk, and keep the health benefits that real buttermilk provides, without the long and labor intensive process for just a little bit. Store-bought buttermilk is also different in that you can buy it in different fat concentrations. Traditional buttermilk sacrificed its fat content to the churned butter, but since we today just add cultures to milk, the milk can be any fat content you like.

Homemade buttermilk substitutes won't be as forgiving in baking and cooking that requires leavening (which makes bread rise), but they're good if you run out of store-bought buttermilk, and can't get to a store. Here are a few substitutes you may be able to try:

1. Milk and Acid

Add one tablespoon of white vinegar (other types will flavor your buttermilk incorrectly) OR lemon juice to a 1-cup liquid measuring cup. Add enough milk to equal exactly one cup, and stir. Let it sit for about five minutes before you use it!

2. Sour Cream and Water

Whisk together 1/2 cup of water and 1/2 cup of sour cream. You can also try to water down yogurt, but it's more likely to be closer to 3/4 cup of yogurt with 1/4 cup of water, or more liquid for Greek yogurt. The key is getting the consistency correct: think slightly thickened milk.

3. Cream of Tartar and Milk

Add 1 3/4 teaspoons of cream of tartar (that white powdery stuff that makes egg whites stiffen for meringue) to 1 cup of milk and whisk. That's it!

4. Shake Heavy Cream

This one is probably my favorite, but it does take time. You'll need a sterilized jar and some heavy cream. You can use ultra-pasteurized if that's all you have, but the regular heavy cream will yield better results. Fill the jar halfway with the cream, and shake like you mean it! Keep shaking (this will take quite a while) until your jar develops some thick yellow stuff. The yellow stuff is butter, and you can totally harvest it and use it as you please! The downside to this method is that it's not acidic enough for a lot of recipes, so if you're leavening bread, use store-bought ideally, or a homemade culture, preferably one with added acid.

Cheers, and enjoy your buttermilk!

Photo: Pixabay