I was about eight years old the first time I tried a glass of buttermilk. I thought I was in for a treat, something creamy and luscious…like melted ice cream. What a letdown. It was tart and sour and didn’t taste like butter at all. Buttermilk…talk about false advertising!
At one time, most buttermilk was the by-product of butter making. It was light and low-fat with a faint taste of butter. Some of it was sweet and some sour, depending on the freshness of the milk used. So how did buttermilk turn into a thick, tangy, yogurt-like drink?
Before the 18th century, three different products were known as buttermilk: the sweet by-product of butter made from fresh cream, the soured by-product from butter made with soured cream and regular old soured milk. Few people cared about this lack of clarity because most people didn’t drink “buttermilk”. It was usually fed to farm animals.
By the 19th century, buttermilk became more specific and its use changed. Cookbooks started calling for the soured version for baked goods made with baking soda. Church & Co., (Arm & Hammer) saw an opportunity. In 1846, they started packaging and marketing their brand of baking soda.
They claimed it was more reliable and faster to use than yeast. As part of their marketing strategy they published instructions for making cornbread, biscuits, muffins, pancakes and waffles using baking soda – recommending the use of sour milk as the activator.
Commercial dairies, spotting an unfilled niche, began to produce a soured milk product. They added lactic acid bacteria to milk and let it ferment for several hours. It was sold as buttermilk. That product was similar to the buttermilk we find in grocery stores today and it has absolutely nothing to do with the making of butter.
So basically, it was commercialization that caused the relationship between buttermilk and butter to curdle.
I must say thought that buttermilk does make light, fluffy baked goods and adds a nice tartness to salad dressing. Here’s a few recipes where I used buttermilk: Zucchini Cheese Bread, Cinnamon Brown Sugar Biscuits and Ranch Dressing.
Adapted from an article by L.V. Anderson.
Anne Mendelson, a culinary historian has written a wonderful book about the history of milk.