Expert Q&A

Benefits of buttermilk

What is buttermilk and how do you use it?
Carolyn Axelsen, via email
The name buttermilk was originally the term given to the slightly sour liquid left after butter was churned from cream. Today, buttermilk is intentionally made from no-fat or low-fat milk to which specific bacterial cultures have been added during the manufacturing process.
As to how to use it in cooking ... how long have you got? Many Indian chefs use it in their cooking rather than yogurt (which has a tendency to split under heat) and, indeed, it is a requisite ingredient in certain Indian soups. It can be substituted for part of the cream or mayonnaise called for in some recipes, notably salad dressings and sauces, to lower the fat content. It is a mandatory ingredient in a classic ranch salad dressing and in buttermilk pancakes, biscuits and muffins. Buttermilk can often be substituted for milk in much baking, and if you haven't got it on hand when a recipe requires a very small amount, you can approximate the product by blending equal parts low-fat natural yogurt and no-fat milk. Another but somewhat less adequate substitute is diluted light sour cream.
Not only is it a fantastic cooking ingredient, it’s a tasty and healthy drink as well, being low in fat, but high in calcium and "good" bacteria. Many of the world’s most popular cultured dairy drinks — India’s sour lassi, Lebanon’s laban, Turkey’s ayran, Eastern Europe’s kefir — are spin-offs of buttermilk, so it’s somewhat of a mystery to me why more of us don’t quaff the stuff. Try it first with a little added fruit blended into it then try it on its own, quite chilled.
In Australia, buttermilk is readily available in the dairy department of supermarkets in 600ml and 1-litre cartons (and occasionally can also be found in 2-litre plastic containers).

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