Q: Years ago when dairies in Illinois sold pure buttermilk it was awesome. Today most buttermilk is too far pasteurized and does not taste the same. I have been searching online for places to buy the good old-fashioned buttermilk and to my amazement, no luck. My question is: Would you have an idea where I can get good old-fashioned buttermilk?
—Ralph Vendegna, Countryside, Ill.
A: This question is a real stumper because when you write of "good old-fashioned" buttermilk I suspect you are thinking of buttermilk in the really old-fashioned way: The liquid left over from churning and making butter.
This type of buttermilk "would be very rich, thick and get fermented by natural bacteria,'' said Debbie Moose, author of "Buttermilk," which will soon be published by the University of North Carolina Press as part of its "Savor the South Cookbook" series. It would be thinner than yogurt but have a similar tang, she said.
The rise of large commercial dairies in the last century led to how buttermilk is made today. Active cultures are added to regular milk or "sweet" milk, as Southern old-timers call it, Moose said. The milk ferments in controlled conditions — just as with yogurt — to create a tart taste and aroma. But much of the buttermilk today is made with reduced-fat milk, she said, which results in a different flavor and "mouth feel" or texture.
"Some wines and cheeses are better than others, and it's the same with buttermilk,'' Moose writes. "Some kinds are thick and rich additions to cooking, others thin impersonators. How can you tell the good ones? To talk buttermilk quality, we have to look at the milk it comes from."
Small dairies are the likely best sources for the highest quality milk to make buttermilk, Moose opines, but finding those dairies and buying their products can be a challenge. You'll have to talk with dairy farmers, check dairy association Web sites, and ask around like I did.
Grant Kessler, a Chicago-based food photographer who writes about food, farms, chefs and markets on his blog, MyFoodshed.com, pointed me to a company in Kalona, Iowa, selling organic buttermilk and a variety of other products under the Kalona SuperNatural label.
Lucky for you, Whole Foods Market stores in the Chicago area sell Kalona's buttermilk, according to Kate Klotz, a company spokeswoman.
As for that "good old-fashioned" buttermilk made from the butter-making process, good luck finding that. I checked with experts in three states and got few leads. If any reader out there has some ideas, do share.
Researching this column left me wondering why great buttermilk is so hard to find.
"I think part of the buttermilk question is scale," Kessler wrote in an e-mail. "Who is buying it? Is there a market for it? Why would a producer make a bunch of it if current society doesn't consume it? It has an old-fashioned, out of fate ring to it, that's for sure. Yeah, pancakes, but why else?"
Moose, of course, has the answers for that in her book. She said the greater availability of good buttermilk, at least in the South, is inspiring chefs and home cooks to use it in more dishes. Her book features recipes for lavender ice cream, sweet tea buttermilk pie and fried chicken. She even offers a recipe for a buttermilk facial cleaners.
Here are some of Moose's tips for using buttermilk in cooking:
1. Look for the "best thick and tangy" buttermilk you can find. Check the fat content on the label; a higher fat content makes a difference, especially in ice creams. Avoid buttermilk with added gums or stabilizers. Look for active cultures. Shake well before using.
2. Buttermilk curdles easily when heated. Place on low heat until it feels warm on your finger, Moose said. Avoid stirring buttermilk into hot dishes.
3. Buttermilk keeps well in the refrigerator but does not freeze well.
4. Powdered buttermilk is used in baking when you want the flavor but don't want to add more liquid. Refrigerate open canisters to keep fresh.
5. Experiment using buttermilk in place of regular milk, cream or yogurt in recipes, adjusting the quantity to reflect the different taste and texture of buttermilk.
6. To make a buttermilk substitute: Add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar to 1 cup milk; let it stand for five minutes, until the milk curdles from the acid of the vinegar. "You will get an approximate of buttermilk by doing this, but it's a pale shadow of the real thing,'' Moose writes.
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