Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Secret to Success and Universal Happiness

It’s buttermilk.

There’s really nothing it can’t do.

Well, there you go, the secret to success and universal happiness. Make sure they spell my name right on the Nobel Prize.

Thanks for coming and drive safely.


You’re still here?

I see, I have to spell it out for you.


Historically buttermilk is the thin tart, tangy liquid left over from churning cream into butter – and today that liquid is referred to as traditional buttermilk – as opposed to, say, whey, which is the liquid left over from making cheese. Traditional buttermilk is not common in the West these days (though it is still very common in places like India where it is called “chaas”). Here it’s mostly used as a supplement for animal feed, or as a starter and additive for certain food products. You’d have to go to a working dairy to obtain it. In the old days buttermilk was often fed to the pigs, used to start bread, or consumed by the poor – and in the latter case often made up a significant fraction of their daily calorie and vitamin intake. Prior to the Gorta Mor (the Great Famine or the Irish Potato Blight in 1840’s Ireland), many poor Irish lived almost exclusively on the “peasant foods” of potatoes and buttermilk – and were some of the healthiest people in Europe as a result.

Nowadays, the buttermilk you buy in your local supermarket is almost always cultured buttermilk – and has nothing whatsoever to do with butter making. It is a fermented diary product made by adding lactic acid producing bacteria (Streptococcus lactis) to milk. There are several variations, including Bulgarian buttermilk, made in a similar fashion but using lactobacillus bulgaricus, which produces a much more sour product. Where traditional buttermilk is thin (though usually thicker than plain milk), cultured buttermilk is thick and creamy, more like like heavy whipping cream than its namesake and smells like really, really good sour cream.

Whether traditional or cultured, buttermilk is a tart and tangy. That sourness comes from high amounts of acid produced during fermentation, when the milk’s lactose is converted from a sugar into an acid by the bacteria. As a result of this process (either naturally fermented traditional buttermilk, or artificially diary-cultured), buttermilk itself is much lower in fat and calories than regular whole milk and cream. It is high in potassium, vitamin B12, and calcium. It is more easily digested than whole milk due to the bacteria (similar to yogurt) and allows for better absorption of protein and calcium.

Basically it’s good stuff.

I like to drink it ice cold – but where it really makes a difference is in cooking.

Not sure you’d like it? Start with something simple, use cultured buttermilk instead of butter and milk (heh, heh) or cream the next time you make mashed potatoes. It adds enough fat to the starchy potatoes to make them creamy and smooth, but without the huge load of fats that butter and cream do – and it adds a tangy sour cream flavor, without the added fat of sour cream. Cool, huh?

Making Beef Stroganoff? Use buttermilk instead of sour cream. Better flavor, much less fat. (Bulgarian buttermilk is perfect for this dish, very tangy).

A while back I gave you a buttermilk/oatmeal pancake recipe – still the best pancake recipe I’ve got.

Last night I made deep fried Alaskan Halibut. Now, traditionally, here in Alaskan you batter the hell out of halibut. Most Alaskans dunk chunks of halibut into a thick glop made from cheap beer and flour, and then deep fry the resulting mess into soggy balls of dough that bleed grease like Ronald Reagan’s hairdo. Deep fried halibut chunks are a staple in every restaurant, tourist dive, roadhouse, flophouse, and outhouse in Alaska. With few exceptions (such as the Whitespot Cafe on 4th in Anchorage) beer battered halibut chunks are an abomination. Here’s a better method – and this works with any thick fleshed white fish, such as cod – cut the fish into small bite sized pieces. Coat those in cultured buttermilk and then dredge in a mixture of flour, yellow cornmeal, Cajun seasoning or Old Bay, powdered garlic, powdered onion, and some fresh ground pepper. Shake off the excess and let sit for a couple of minutes, until the cornmeal softens and the coating becomes damp. Deep fry in 350 degree oil until lightly browned. Remove from oil, drain on paper towels, keep warm in a 250F degree oven. They won’t get soggy, and they won’t be oily or greasy, and they’ll taste better than any halibut chunks you’ve ever had.

Now that you’ve got some halibut chunks, you need some hushpuppies to go with them – and that fishy flavored deep fryer oil is the perfect thing for making them. While your fish chunks are keeping warm in the oven whip up the following recipe:

Mix together 1 3/4 cups yellow cornmeal, 3/4 unbleached AP flour, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper, 1 tbls onion powder, and 1 tbls of Old Bay seasoning. In a separate bowl mix together 1 cup cultured buttermilk, 1 large egg, 1/2 cup of finely chopped green onions (I run mine through my KitchenAid food grinder to get pureed mush, and a 1/4 cup of coarsely chopped chives (the green onion stalk), and 2 tbls of chopped fresh garlic (the pre-chopped stuff in a jar is just fine). Add the liquid ingredients to the dry and mix only until a thick dough forms. Don’t over mix, lumps are good. Say it with me, lumps are good. Let the dough stand for fifteen minutes while the cornmeal softens. Now the secret is to make small hushpuppies. Small. You’re not making donuts here. Take a regular metal table spoon (the kind you use to stir your coffee, not the measuring device), dip it in the hot grease first, then scoop a half spoon sized portion of dough and carefully drop it into the 350F degree oil. Do a couple, but no more than six or eight. Don’t crowd the fryer. Keep the oil temp no higher than 350. Be patient. Wait until the dough puffs up into full globes and the portions in the oil have turned golden brown, then bump each one with your spoon and they’ll turn over all by themselves. Fry for a minute or until the entire hushpuppy is golden brown. Remove from the oil, drain on paper towels, then put them in the oven with the halibut chunks until you’ve got the whole batch done. Don’t rush. Don’t crowd. Don’t raise the oil temperature or they will burn on the outside and the inside will be raw. Don’t do it.

I suppose you’ll be wanting desert too?

OK, how about buttermilk banana bread?

Mix together 2 large eggs, 1 cup sugar, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, 1 cup (2 to 3) very ripe bananas, 2 tsp vanilla extract (use the real stuff for crying out loud you cheap bastard). Beat until creamy, about two minutes in a stand mixer using the whisk. In a separate bowl mix together 1 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, 2 2/3 cups AP flour – mix this thoroughly, I use a hand whisk, it’s important that all the dry ingredients are completely mixed. Completely. Add the dry ingredient into the wet ingredients all at once, mix until just dampened (in a stand mixer use the paddle). Add 1 cup cultured buttermilk (or plain yogurt), and 1 cup chopped walnuts. Mix completely. Don’t over mix, you’re not making French bread or pizza dough here. Over mix and the loaf will be tough. Pour into a 9x5 loaf pan and bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for 1 hour (usually a little longer, this morning’s loaf for example took 1 hour and 20 minutes before the test stick came back clean. If the loaf top is getting too dark, tent with foil). Remove from oven, let cool on a wire rack. Top with cream cheese frosting and chopped candied pralines (oh please, you’ve already put in a cup of sugar, you might as well go all the way – besides, it’s made with buttermilk so it’s healthy anyway. See? Stick with me, Kids).


Trust me on this. Buttermilk. Secret to the universe.

You’re welcome.


  1. Buttermilk - excellent in biscuits, pancakes and salad dressing. As for drinking it out of a glass, I...just can't. But the husband likes it that way with salt and pepper.

    Mmmmmm, pancakes.

  2. One issue with buttermilk--at least what we buy around here--it's higher in sodium.

    But I'll definitely try buttermilk next time I make mashed potatoes.

  3. Michelle, you can find low sodium and fat free buttermilk, though you may have to look around for it in several different stores.

    Oh wait, that's right you live in West By God Virginia - yeah, you may need to drive to a northern state to find "fat free" products. Nevermind.

  4. So when you get the transported up and running, you're going to send me some of those battered fish chunks, right? RIGHT?

    What are your thoughts on the buttermilk powder? (I use it because I don't drink it straight, and therefor don't want to waste a whole quart on a recipe that needs 3/4 of a cup.)

  5. "Fat free"? Who would want the fat removed from their food? That's where all the flavor is.

  6. Anne, you know I've never used the powered stuff, so I really don't have an opinion on it.

    You're a hell of a cook though, so if you say it's ok, then it must be ok.

    I get it in pint cartons, which is close enough to two cups that the minor difference doesn't matter. That's any two combination of a loaf of banana bread, hushpuppies, pancakes, cornmeal waffles or etc. Or I make something that requires one cup and then use the rest in mashed potatoes, twice baked potatoes, omelets, or whatever. Or I just drink it, like Cindi's husband, with salt and pepper.

    Basically, anything that you would use sour cream in, you can replace with buttermilk with a little fiddling.

  7. maple/lemon/buttermilk sherbet

    4 cups butter milk
    2 cups maple syrup
    1/2 cup lemon juice
    zest of 2-4 lemons (to taste)

    mix well and freeze in an icecream freezer then harden in freezer for 4-6 hrs.

  8. Thordr, you just became my new favorite commenter.

    I have all of those ingredients and an icecream freezer - I am going to try that.

    I bet it goes good with banana bread.

  9. I'm with Cini. I find buttermilk undrinkable, but a wonderful ingredient in many recipes.

  10. Oooh, let us know how the Thordr Sherbet turns out.

    I've only used the powdered stuff for baking, never as the main liquid (like dressing). One of the wedding cakes was made with reconstituted buttermilk, and they turned out fine. The question is... IS there a difference in taste? I may have to do some tests. ;)

  11. I've never had a hushpuppy..but I know what I am now making for supper this weekend.
    Thanks for the ideas Jim.

  12. Having been a two time visitor to Stonekettle Station and tasted the afore mentioned Halibut chunkage and hush puppies (better than any I had before but not a big hit with the Queen of SKS that night) I must agree They were exceptional. (pardon the drool) Excuse me now as I microwave some food like substance and wait for the thousand of milligrams of sodium increase my blood pressure and haul those lovely little cholesterol globs into the few remaining clear blood vessels.

  13. Beastly! I thought you died.

    And these are much, much better hushpuppies than the ones you had. Sorry, dude, that was an off day.

    Oh, and FWIW I've got your SS ripped apart. It's refurb and cleaning week. Woohoo!

  14. Talking about buttermilk, thats a sure sign of getting old

  15. Keep talking funny boy, keep talking.

  16. OK, what does it say about me that when Beastly mentioned the Queen of SKS, I thought your wife was threatening you with a Самозарядный карабин системы Симонова? :D

  17. JTS,

    Hah, I thought the same thing. Then I thought how cool is it that Beastly abbreviated Stonekettle Station SKS. I like that. A lot.

  18. SKS how hard was that? I miss the old SS be good to it. What am I saying? Hell it's in better hands there than it was with me anyway. I have to tear apart the mini-lathe for maintenance this week. Daily use for the past year has taken it's toll. BTW I posted some stuff on ETSY (search beastly1 under vendors) you've seen these but at .20/posting it's gonna get filled up with the hot weather shutting down the markets here. (shameless plug ends here)

  19. Well, I'm not a fan of buttermilk per se, but have used buttermilk powder and baking mixes all of my life and mother uses it as well. Use the baking mix a lot for coatings on chicken and can get real creative with my spice mixtures I blend in.

    Somewhere I've got a soft sugar cookie recipe that uses buttermilk and more recently got one for peanut butter cookies that uses the baking mix.

    And before y'all start ragging on the mixes, I use fat free half & half for my coffee AND my baking. Despite the fat free moniker it gives an amazingly rich taste and texture to everything. You never miss the fat.


  20. Jim, you and my mother, always on with the buttermilk. I'm just a lazy cook, that's what I am.

    BEASTLY! We thought you fell off the face of the planet or something.

  21. Kim, good hush puppies are amongst the best things in the universe. I haven't had one since I lived in Florida when I was ten (tried one once here in California - it was awful).

    I miss them. I think I'll have to make some myself.

  22. Green onions, garlic, and fishy oil are what make them, Carol

  23. Beastly! Welcome back to the land of the online.

    I can't drink buttermilk, but use the powdered stuff a lot. Sometimes for a special occasion I'll buy the fresh stuff, but I can only get it in quarts and it goes to waste. I'd think it'd have to be better - the consistency of the powdered is thin & watery, even if the ph is right and the flavor is close.

    Jim, I need to try those pancakes. :)

  24. Marinate chicken in buttermilk for a few hours or overnight before breading / battering in the coating of your choice and frying. Yum.

  25. catfish slow poached in butter milk, salt and pepper, basic, impossible to over cook and delicious, so good infact my 4 year old who is worse than Mikey of Life Cereal fame, loves it.


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