Better With Buttermilk: The Secret Ingredient In Old-Fashioned Cooking

Better With Buttermilk: The Secret Ingredient In Old-Fashioned Cooking

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by Lee Edwards Benning
Better With Buttermilk, a comprehensive buttermilk cookbook that reveals the secrets of this low-fat, low-calorie ingredient used by Southern cooks in a delectable assortment of more than 275 tasty recipes. By the author of Oh, Fudge!


Better With Buttermilk, a comprehensive buttermilk cookbook that reveals the secrets of this low-fat, low-calorie ingredient used by Southern cooks in a delectable assortment of more than 275 tasty recipes. By the author of Oh, Fudge!

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Better with Buttermilk

The Secret Ingredient in Old-Fashioned Cooking

By Lee Edwards Benning

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 1996 Lee Edwards Benning
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5800-8


Memories of Milk and Buttermilk

Oh, Fudge! Buttermilk Fudge

Chocolate Buttermilk Fudge

I was born and raised a city girl. Milk mysteriously appeared, nicely bottled, on the front step, delivered by a milkman we never saw but whose clinking bottles we heard. Buttermilk? I never heard of it until I married. My husband's drinking buttermilk was one of those little secrets husbands and wives discover about each other after marriage.

In fact, before his courtship, the closest I ever came to a cow was driving past it. Then he took me to visit his farmer brother, but only after I'd memorized all the different breeds of cows and the differences in the butterfat content of their milk. My husband was raised on a dairy farm; he knows his milk and buttermilk. In fact, his memories of the dairy barn are still fresh and vivid: "Growing up, manhood was measured by your prowess on the milking stool. Getting the milk into the bucket was not the first challenge. Nor contending with a wet, flailing tail or a stomping foot that threatened to kick the bucket. If your hands were too cold, your grip too tight, no amount of squeezing and tugging would force a reluctant cow to let down her milk. She had to be comfortable with you.

"One knew one was a milker when the cats acknowledged it. Coming to the barn in the darkness of a wintery morning, they would be waiting. A litter of kittens lined up expectantly waiting to be sprayed in the faces with warm milk straight from the cow's teat.

"From a distance of three or four feet, you would direct the stream, with some force, at the wide-open mouths ... but at first mostly hitting eyes, nose, and ears. Still, the tiny creatures would stand their ground, later cleaning their faces by rubbing their paws on their faces and then licking them. Eventually, if one milked for enough years, one could get expert enough to bull's-eye in on one particular kitty at a time.

"Unfortunately, the milking machine made an end to that memory.

"As for buttermilk ... we were mere preteens the day we talked Mother into letting technology take over the butter churning. I can't remember why or how we convinced her to let us sterilize the clothes washer and make the butter in there. But we did and it did. But somehow the buttermilk didn't taste the same. Cleaning up that washing machine after? That is a memory I'll never forget!

"And so back we went to the old way.

"The half-hour or so of arm-wearying cranking is over ... the golden yellow globs of butter are removed from the wooden churn and worked or 'washed' with cold water using a wooden paddle in a wooden bowl. Finally, your cup dips into that heavenly white residue sprinkled with flecks of butter, and you quaff it down, ending with a satisfying a-a-h-h-h!

"Now, that was buttermilk!!"

I have to take him at his word. I am one of the many who suppress a shudder at the very notion of drinking buttermilk. As far as I'm concerned, the only thing worse than drinking buttermilk is cleaning the stuff out of the glass afterward.

However, in thirty some years of marriage, we have never been without a bottle of buttermilk in the refrigerator. I learned early that the way to this man's heart is through the lips, over the tongue, watch out stomach, buttermilk comes!

So, out of necessity and an excess of buttermilk, I became an expert on cooking with buttermilk. Never did I dream, however, that one single recipe would change my life. My husband does not, as a rule, read the food section of the newspaper. One day he happened to, and he found a recipe for buttermilk fudge that he wanted to try. That recipe was — to put it mildly — vague! To make a long story short, thanks to it, I became a self-taught expert on candy making and the author of my first cookbook. Here is my now-famous no-fail buttermilk fudge recipe. (If you'd like to read the entire story, you'll find it in Oh, Fudge! A Celebration of America's Favorite Candy, Henry Holt.)

Oh, Fudge! Buttermilk Fudge

This ten-step method produces a fudge that rivals the best that the fudge stores can produce — adapt it to any of your own recipes. This particular one is smooth, creamy, a trifle butterscotchy with a hint of something — a tang, a tartness, a je ne sais quoi people will notice but can't identify.

2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup buttermilk
¼ pound (1 stick) butter
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)

Prewarm the thermometer, Measure all the ingredients (except the vanilla and nuts) and place in a 6-quart saucepan. Butter the upper sides of the saucepan. Grease and, if necessary, line a 5-by-10-inch pan. Fill a glass with ice cubes and water and fill the sink with ½ inch of cold water.

Dissolve the sugar, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon over low heat until the butter melts, the gritty sounds cease, and a spoon glides smoothly over the bottom of the pan. Increase the heat to medium and bring to a boil.

With a pastry brush dipped in hot water in a thermometer bath, wash down any crystals that may have formed; use as little water as possible. Introduce the prewarmed thermometer. Reduce the heat while retaining the boil. Stir as little as possible. Watch carefully — the mixture will really swell up. Cook until the mixture thickens.

Test in ice-cold water when the mixture thickens and the bubbles become noisy. A ball, formed in ice water, should be al dente (slightly chewy) and should hold its shape until heat from your hand begins to flatten it. Because of the acid in buttermilk, it will ball at a comparatively high temperature, approximately 238-242 #176; F.

Shock the mixture by placing the saucepan in the sink.

Add vanilla without stirring. Allow to cool.

Stir when lukewarm and a "skin" forms on top (110 #176; F). Return the thermometer to its water bath. Stir fudge thoroughly but not vigorously — either by hand, with an electric mixer, or food processor. Pause frequently to allow the fudge to react.

Watch for the fudge to thicken, lose its sheen, become lighter in color or streaked with lighter shades, give off some heat, or suddenly stiffen. If stirring by hand, fudge will "snap" with each stroke; by mixer, mixer waves will become very distinct; by food processor, fudge will flow sluggishly back to the center when the processor stops.

Add nuts if you wish before the fudge candies completely.

Pour, score, and store the fudge when cool in an airtight container in the refrigerator or at room temperature. This recipe can be doubled if you have a large saucepan.

Yield: 1 pound


To the sugar-buttermilk mixture, add 2 squares (ounces) of unsweetened chocolate broken into small pieces.


Why Buttermilk Is Good for You

If there is one food that deserves to be called Nature's Own Perfected, it must surely be milk. Yet man has never been content to leave well enough alone. And to that continual quest for the new and different, we are indebted for all the many varieties of cheese, for butter, for fermented foods like yogurt, for ice creams and more. And when we could think of no new variations on milk, we looked to change milk itself.

Some of our tinkering has been beneficial; pasteurization has virtually wiped out undulant fever ... enzyme technology has made milk more digestible for allergics ... vitamin enrichment has improved our diet ... and low-fat versions have probably kept a zillion arteries unclogged.

But for all the technological advances, there is a downside that Columbus couldn't have envisioned when he brought cattle to the New World on his second westward voyage in 1494.

Though few, if any, food producers will admit it, today's dairy products just aren't as delicious as they were a few decades ago. They last longer, yes, and we have many more choices than we did then. But that variety and convenience have come at the expense of taste.

Take buttermilk, for example. Made on the farm the old-fashioned way, the taste is a singular combination of sweet and tart. But when technology enabled the dairy industry to make buttermilk from skim or low-fat milk, the flavor was changed — tamed! No longer is it yesterday's rich, pleasingly tangy liquid; today, it is rather bland, something on the order of diluted yogurt. Not a change for the better according to old-timers, but yogurt lovers disagree. Cooks know that old-fashioned or modernized buttermilk remains a recipe's — and a diet's — best friend.

Think of it this way: Buttermilk is Nature's most perfect food — with almost all of the fat removed. Where did the fat go? Into the butter, of course.

By the way, it is technically inaccurate to speak of the butterfat content of milk. The correct terminology is milk fat content. And truly whole milk is not that 4 percent liquid sold in the dairy case; whole milk is "full-fat milk," meaning that no amount of cream has been removed.

But if there is no butter in buttermilk, why is it called butter milk? Because it is the milk left after the cream has been churned to remove the butter.

You might even ask, "Doesn't all the goodness leave with the butter?" And the answer is a resounding "No!" What's left, after the butter is removed, are all the milk solids, minerals, fatty acids, protein, ash — all beneficial. In fact, buttermilk is better for you in a dozen different ways:

• Buttermilk is low in calories, especially when made from skim or low- fat milk. It contains 88 to 120 calories per cup, compared to 149 to 159 for whole milk. Yogurt contains 50 to 100 percent more calories than buttermilk.

• Buttermilk is rich in complex carbohydrates, the body's preferred energy source. Complex carbohydrates are vital for mental health because the brain is the body's only organ that cannot use glucose metabolized from protein or fat. Ounce for ounce, buttermilk contains more carbohydrates than comparable amounts of whole or 4 percent milk.

• Buttermilk is high in calcium. Calcium, that essential element needed to stave off the effects of bone degeneration and osteoporosis, is more abundant in buttermilk than in whole milk — 295 grams average vs. 288 grams. A cup of buttermilk can supply 36 percent of the recommended daily requirement for adults.

• Buttermilk is also high in minerals such as phosphorous, magnesium, and potassium but, like every other dairy product, is not a very good source of iron.

• Buttermilk is low in cholesterol. Buttermilk from skim or low-fat milk has 10 mg cholesterol per cup, or only one-third the cholesterol of whole milk — the same or less than yogurt, and 55 percent of the cholesterol in 2 percent uncreamed cottage cheese.

• Buttermilk is high in essential amino acids. As mammals, our bodies are primarily protein, and protein is made up of twenty amino acids, eight of which are essential (the body synthesizes the rest). Buttermilk can supply all eight, which is more than whole grain can claim. Compared to whole milk, buttermilk is higher in five of the essential amino acids, identical in one, and slightly lower in two. Bran muffins, often touted as cholesterol reducers, contain incomplete protein unless made with buttermilk.

• Buttermilk is vitamin rich. There's more riboflavin and thiamine in buttermilk than in whole milk, while niacin and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) are present in about the same amounts. A good buttermilk will be fortified with Vitamins A and D — check the label. Many commercial ones aren't.

• Buttermilk is more easily digested than either whole or skim milk. That's because the clabbering process modifies the casein so that it is more soluble. This is good news for those who are lactose intolerant. And when used in cooking, most allergics can tolerate it, which is good news for cooks. By the way, buttermilk is just as digestible as yogurt, which has been touted for years as being easy on delicate stomachs. And it is far less expensive. For example, 8 ounces of plain yogurt costs 89 cents in my supermarket; 32 ounces of buttermilk costs 79 cents! Quite a savings!

• Buttermilk is tart, not sour. The tartness (slight acidification) of buttermilk counteracts sweetness in many desserts, making them subtle, not sickeningly sweet. Delicately flavored vegetables are enhanced, not overwhelmed, by buttermilk.

• Buttermilk is cream-thick but not as rich. As a thickener for stocks, sauces, soups, and dressings, buttermilk is a favorite of famous chefs and amateur cooks alike. Unlike cream, it thickens while reducing the caloric content. Mollie Katzen, of vegetarian cooking fame, automatically finishes every bowl of cream soup at her Moosewood restaurant by adding a dollop of buttermilk.

• Buttermilk is versatile. In The New York Times Food Encyclopedia, Craig Claiborne endorses buttermilk and its use wholeheartedly. "There are many ways — most of them not so well known" — for using buttermilk.

• Buttermilk is the baker's friend. Lactic acid in buttermilk gives baked goods a tenderness that they otherwise wouldn't exhibit. Cakes, pies, muffins, biscuits, and breads will keep fresh longer because of the buttermilk you substitute for whole, low-fat, or skim milk.

But don't take my word for it.

Check out any cookbook from the American Heart Association and notice the frequency with which buttermilk is specified in its recipes.

Robert E. Kowalski, the cholesterol guru, repeatedly recommends buttermilk in his two million-selling books, 8-Week Cholesterol Cure and 8-Week Cholesterol Cure Cookbook. As do Dr. Ron Goor and Nancy Goor in Eater's Choice.

Eventually some sharp Madison Avenue types will develop clever slogans to promote buttermilk as the healthiest of liquids. But you already know ...

everything and anything is better with buttermilk!


History of Buttermilk

Batter Butter

Baking Butter

Homemade Buttermilk from Starter

Homemade Buttermilk from Live Cultures

Dried Buttermilk

In the beginning, there was milk. Even before there was the Word, there was milk: goat's milk, camel's milk, reindeer milk, sheep's milk, yak's milk, mare's milk, mother's milk — and the most fruitful of them all, cow's milk. Interestingly, all of these milks have essentially the same composition, but they differ in proportions of fat to protein to carbohydrate, and so on.

The earliest known depiction of milking is a mosaic from Mesopotamia that shows a cow being milked, goat style, from the rear — a dangerous position if your hands are cold or you squeeze too hard, as any farmer can tell you. Milk arrives from the udder in Nature's own form of homogenization, with cream integrated into the milk. If the milk stands long enough, gravity causes the cream to rise to the top of the milk, separating the milk into the curds (cream) and whey (skim milk) of Little Miss Muffet. The skim milk is now poured off, and attention is turned to the cream. If one agitates or churns the cream, it will further separate into a fat and a liquid: butter and buttermilk. Of the three basic products we end up with — butter, buttermilk, and skim milk — the most valuable to man was the former, the least the latter. This relationship remained constant for more than four thousand years, or until modern technology began to look upon skim milk as a new profit center. Now we have skim-milk cheese and skim-milk buttermilk and, most important, nonfat dried milk, which is the same thing as skim milk.


Excerpted from Better with Buttermilk by Lee Edwards Benning. Copyright © 1996 Lee Edwards Benning. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Lee Edwards Benning is the author of Better with Buttermilk: The Secret Ingredient in Old-Fashioned Cooking and Oh,Fudge! A Celebration of America's Favorite Candy.

Lee Edwards Benning is the author of Better with Buttermilk: The Secret Ingredient in Old-Fashioned Cooking and Oh,Fudge! A Celebration of America's Favorite Candy.

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