Despite its name, buttermilk is not buttery at all. The name refers to its origin as a byproduct of butter making. In olden times, the liquid left over after butter was churned was allowed to stand, becoming thick and sour as airborne bacteria consumed its sugars and produced tasty lactic acids. Today, commercial buttermilk is made by adding a bacterial culture to low- or nonfat milk to produce a similarly thick and tart liquid.
I've always known that buttermilk was low in fat, because my Dad used to drink it as a satisfying snack when he was on a diet, which was about every other month of my entire childhood. He also insisted that it settled his stomach and was the reason his own mother lived to be almost 100.
What I didn't know until I grew up to become a baker is that buttermilk improves the taste and texture of baked goods. Buttermilk adds moisture and tangy richness without a lot of fat. The acids in buttermilk have a relaxing effect on gluten. That's why biscuits made with buttermilk are more tender than biscuits made with regular milk. Buttermilk also has a lightening effect. The chemical reaction between buttermilk and baking soda produces plentiful bubbles of carbon dioxide, which lift baked goods to great heights.
If you'd like to substitute buttermilk for milk in a favorite recipe, take care to adjust the leavening ingredients to take into account buttermilk's acidity. For each cup of buttermilk you use in place of regular milk, reduce the amount of baking powder in the recipe by 2 teaspoons, and add 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda.
Keep in mind that baking soda, unlike baking powder, loses its lifting power shortly after it is mixed with liquid ingredients, so it is best to mix your recipe quickly and get it into the oven right away.
You may worry that if you buy a quart of buttermilk to make a batch of biscuits or a quick bread you will wind up throwing out 3 cups of it before you have a chance to bake again. Let me reassure you that this won't happen. Because it is highly acidic, buttermilk has a much longer shelf life than milk. It will keep in the refrigerator for at least 2 weeks and probably well beyond its sell-by date. I'll admit that I've used month-old buttermilk in waffles and biscuits and it tastes great.
Just be sure to shake the carton vigorously before pouring, as buttermilk will thicken and get a little lumpy after a couple of weeks.
If you don't have any buttermilk on hand for spur-of-the-moment baking, it is easy to make your own. Simply mix 1 cup of low-fat milk with 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice and let it stand for 10 minutes. Or thin 3/4 cup of plain low-fat yogurt with 1/4 cup of milk.
BUTTERMILK BREAD WITH PARMESAN, OLIVES AND THYME
Recently, I served this bread with bowls of cream of tomato soup. It would also be good with osso buco or breaded and pan-fried chicken breasts.
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/4 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan
1/2 cup green olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-inch-by-5-inch loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray.
2. Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and dry mustard in a large bowl. Whisk together eggs, oil, and buttermilk in a large glass measuring cup.
3. Pour egg mixture into flour mixture. Add cheese, olives and thyme. Use a rubber spatula to mix until just moistened. Do not overmix.
4. Scrape into prepared pan and bake until golden on top and a toothpick inserted into center of bread comes out dry, about 45 minutes. Let stand in pan on wire rack for 15 minutes before turning over, reinverting, and letting cool completely. Makes 6 to 8 servings.