Better with Buttermilk Dairy elixir brings rich but low-fat goodness to recipes


Supposedly, Cleopatra used buttermilk as a facial mask. Advisers told Scarlett O'Hara a buttermilk bath could fade freckles.

Today, skeptics may question its merits as a beauty aid, but its culinary talents are incontrovertible.

"Buttermilk has become very trendy," says Rozanne Gold, cookbook author and consulting chef to the legendary and tony Rainbow Room and Windows on the World in New York City. "It gives great flavor with an undefinable tartness and acidity. Unlike yogurt, it has a very rich feel. Emotionally, it has an appealing, old-fashioned connotation."

Gold loves buttermilk in a variety of desserts. She says when you balance buttermilk with sugar, something very pleasant happens. Top her delectable, easy-to-make Lemon Buttermilk Ice Cream ("Recipes 1-2-3," Viking, 1996, $22.95) with fresh berries and you have a springtime treat that juggles sweet and tart flavors to perfection. But Gold is quick to add she adores buttermilk in salads, too.

"We're starting to really appreciate tartness in foods, especially salads. The acidity of buttermilk is like a spark plug for other flavors. In salads it is so refreshing and so delicious. When you add it to warm barley, the starch comes off the barley and thickens the buttermilk. Add salt and chopped fresh cilantro to heighten the flavors, and you have got a simple, delicious salad."

And buttermilk-based, creamy ranch dressings marry well with fresh herbs, too. Add a little reduced-fat mayonnaise, and buttermilk has enough body to richly coat lettuce leaves or serve as a zesty dip for fresh vegetables. You get a lot of flavor without a truckload of fat and calories.

Buttermilk is a taste-bud trickster. Its appearance and flavor - in fact, its buttery, high-fat name - suggest a product oozing with fat grams. But now it's made with nonfat or low-fat milk. Years ago, it was the liquid left over from churning butter. However, today's commercially produced buttermilk is made by culturing either nonfat or low-fat milk with a lactic-acid culture. So it's a great asset for the low-fat cook. Especially the low-fat baker.

Buttermilk "is a welcome ingredient in low-fat baking, because it is ... low in fat and its acidity slows the development of gluten in wheat flour, tenderizing baked products," says Susan G. Purdy, author of "Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too" (William Morrow, 1993, $25) and "Let Them Eat Cake" (William Morrow, 1997, $25), two groundbreaking baking books that concentrate on fat-reduced recipes. "Buttermilk produces a tender crumb in cakes, muffins and biscuits. It does a much better job than, say, heavy cream, which has no acidity.

"And chemically, I don't know what buttermilk does to chocolate, but it sure brings out its flavor. It adds just enough tang to bring up its unctuousness. And the buttermilk doesn't cut the sweetness."

Whether it's in cake, brownies or puddings, chocolate and buttermilk make great partners. My favorite buttermilk-chocolate dessert is a rich chocolate cake surrounded with crispy meringue. Because the meringue forms a shell around the brownie-like cake, no frosting is required. It looks glamorous, and the flavor is irresistible.

If you are substituting buttermilk for whole or skim milk in baked goods, Purdy recommends adding a little baking soda to balance the acidity - approximately one-eighth teaspoon baking soda for up to two cups buttermilk.

"And any kind of buttermilk will work in most baked goods," Purdy adds, "whether it says low-fat buttermilk or nonfat buttermilk - cultured or not. And buttermilk powder works, too. I always keep a container in my pantry. It saves buying a quart when all you need is one-half cup. For low-fat baking, I like to add it with the dry ingredients, then add the appropriate amount of water to the wet ingredients."

Or, although it lacks some of the rich flavor, you can make a soured milk substitute for buttermilk by combining one tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice with one cup of 1 percent fat or 2 percent fat milk and allowing it to sit for a few minutes at room temperature (sometimes this mixture is called clabbered milk). Or blend one cup of nonfat milk with two-to-three tablespoons of plain, nonfat yogurt.

It's been said that symptoms of lactose intolerance (the inability to digest and absorb lactose or "milk sugar") are reduced or eliminated when buttermilk rather than milk is used in a recipe. Nana Farkye, specialist in dairy-product technology and dairy-product chemistry at California's Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, says the negative symptoms may be milder or even nonexistent with buttermilk, but that some people will still have a reaction.

"During the fermentation of cultured buttermilk, not unlike yogurt, the milk sugar [lactose] is fermented by the lactic-acid bacteria," Farkye says. "But not all the milk sugar ferments, so some will be present. If the live microorganisms survive in the gastrointestinal tract, they help to break down the lactose."

Flavor booster and texture tenderizer? Absolutely. The cure-all for lactose intolerance? Maybe not.

And although buttermilk is a boon to the discerning, health-minded cook, it has a long, flavorful history in comfort foods not generally associated with fat reduction. Stirred into waffle, pancake or corn-bread batter. Whisked into creamy mashed potatoes. A marinade for catfish fillets or Southern-fried pecan chicken.

Buttermilk pie. Buttermilk biscuits.

Buttermilk beauties, indeed.

Meringue-Crusted Chocolate Cake

Makes 12 servings

butter for greasing pan

flour for dusting pan

1b cups cake flour

1/2 cup cocoa powder

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/3 cups plus _ cup sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

3 large eggs, separated

1 large egg

1 cup low-fat buttermilk

1/2 cup miniature semisweet

chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Generously grease with butter a 9-inch springform pan with 2 3/4-inch high sides. Dust with flour; invert and shake out excess flour.

Sift together cake flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt; set aside.

Using an electric mixer, beat 1a cups sugar, butter, 3 egg yolks and 1 whole egg until blended. Beat in flour mixture alternately with buttermilk in 3 additions each. Mix in chocolate chips.

Using clean, dry beaters and a clean bowl, beat 3 egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually add 3/4 cup sugar, beating until stiff, glossy peaks form, about 5 minutes. Spread two-thirds of meringue halfway up sides (not bottom) of prepared pan. Spoon batter into meringue-lined pan; top with remaining meringue by dropping in large spoonfuls in a single layer on top of chocolate batter. Using tip of knife, swirl top meringue and some of chocolate batter together.

Bake 80-85 minutes. Cool 10 minutes on rack. Release pan sides. Cool completely.

Per serving: 326 calories, 12.2 grams fat, 7 grams saturated fat,

92 milligrams cholesterol, 321 milligrams sodium, 32 percent calories from fat

- Adapted from Bon Appetit magazine, March 1998

Ranch-Style Buttermilk Salad Dressing

Makes about 1 2/3 cups, or about 27 tablespoons

1 cup low-fat buttermilk

1/2 cup low-calorie mayonnaise

3 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced

3 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon fresh tarragon, chopped

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients together. Cover and chill.

Per tablespoon: 16 calories, 1 gram fat, 0.2 grams saturated fat, 1 milligram cholesterol, 46 milligrams sodium, 57 percent calories from fat

Lemon Buttermilk Ice Cream

Makes 8 half-cup servings

2 cups superfine sugar; see note

6 large lemons

1 quart low-fat buttermilk

1/8 teaspoon salt; coarse salt, such as kosher salt, preferred

Note: To produce superfine sugar, process sugar in food processor fitted with the metal blade for about 2 minutes.

Place sugar in a medium bowl. Grate the zest (colored part of the peel) of 2 to 3 lemons to produce 2 teaspoons of zest. Juice as many lemons as needed to get 1/2 cup lemon juice. Add zest and juice to sugar. Mix well.

Add buttermilk and salt. Stir until sugar dissolves. Chill 4 hours or overnight.

Freeze in an ice-cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions.

Serve with strawberries, blackberries or blueberries. Or serve with chilled Strawberries in Grappa: Combine 2 pints ripe strawberries (cut into fourths) with 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar, 1/4 cup grappa and a few grinds of black pepper.

Per serving: 243 calories, 1 gram fat, 0.6 grams saturated fat, 4 milligrams cholesterol, 153 milligrams sodium, 4 percent calories from fat

- From "Recipes 1-2-3," by Rozanne Gold (Viking, 1996, $22.95)

Buttermilk Pie

Makes 8 servings

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, room


2 cups sugar

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 eggs, beaten

1 cup low-fat buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 (9-inch) unbaked pie shell, crimped to create a high ridge

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In an electric mixer, combine butter and sugar using medium-high speed. Add flour and eggs; beat until well-blended.

Add buttermilk and vanilla; mix until blended. Pour into prepared pie shell and bake 45-50 minutes. Place on wire rack to cool completely.

Serve with berries or sliced peaches or sliced mangoes.

Per serving: 477 calories, 21.7 grams fat, 7.9 grams saturated fat, 117 milligrams cholesterol, 444 milligrams sodium, 41 percent calories from fat

- Adapted from "Holiday Home Cooking" by Francis McCullough (Cooking and Crafts Club, 1986, $15)

Buttermilk Corn Bread

Makes 8-9 servings

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup low-fat buttermilk

2 large eggs

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a medium bowl, mix flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking soda and salt.

In a separate bowl, using a fork, beat buttermilk and eggs to blend. Add egg mixture to dry ingredients; mix just to moisten. Pour into an 8-inch square or 9-inch round nonstick cake pan.

Bake in preheated oven until bread springs back when gently pressed in center, 20-22 minutes. Cut into squares or wedges. Serve warm.

Per serving: 165 calories, 1.8 grams fat, 0.6 grams saturated fat, 51 milligrams cholesterol, 382 milligrams sodium, 10 percent calories from fat

- From Sunset magazine,

January 1998

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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