Most of my children make a sour face at the very mention of buttermilk. Some people give me the impression they would rather die of thirst and/or hunger before they would take even a sip of buttermilk.
But to those of us raised on buttermilk and cornbread, those two were a mainstay, a delight, and even now they’re a tasty treat. So when someone asked me recently what exactly buttermilk is I was happy to explain, probably more fully than they wanted!
Basically, buttermilk is a byproduct of the production of butter. The process involves the fermentation of whole milk to the point that it clabbers. Then it’s a matter of moving, shaking, churning the milk until butter forms. This can be done with milk in a large jar as we did in nursery school, allowing each child a chance to shake. Or the process might be implemented in a glass churn with a crank. I guess the commercial process uses a huge vat or cylinder. But the most interesting way to make buttermilk is with a simple old crockery churn.
Mamma’s method of making buttermilk when we had a milk cow was to let each day’s supply of milk set until the cream rose. She would skim that cream off and save it for churning day. On churning day she put whole milk soured to a clabber in the churn, added the reserved cream, and let it all warm to room temperature sitting by the wood stove. The milk needs to be warm enough that butter will form but not too warm or the butter will not hold together. Mamma knew just when it was right. The churn had a wooden disc top with a hole in it so a rod with paddle at the bottom could move up and down. Once the milk was ready Mamma assigned a child to churn if she needed to be doing something else. In about an hour the paddle hitting the milk changed its sound. Mamma would lift the lid to see if butter had formed. If it wasn’t ready, then churning resumed until yellow islands of butter floated in the milk. Mamma scooped out the butter, rinsed it in cold water, packed it in a mold to make beautiful cakes of butter. She took pride in the perfect cakes with a flower imprint on the top. Naturally, the milk left in the churn is buttermilk.
Buttermilk purchased from the store is apt to taste pretty horrible compared to the fresh lively taste of home churned buttermilk. But often we find brands that are really good. The taste takes me back to Mamma’s kitchen, the churn sitting by the warm stove, the cat nearby hoping for a splattered drop. It seems Mamma’s weekly churning day often coincided with her wheat bread baking day so we could have hot bread and fresh butter.
But sometimes when she didn’t have time for the long process of making yeast bread Mamma made quick thin cornbread in shallow iron pans on top of the stove. The smell of that bread cooking could bring us out of our books or in from chores in a hurry.
One of the very good things about buttermilk and cornbread is how tasty they are together as leftovers. I can see us now, a line of hungry children sitting on a long bench. Mamma and one of the older girls would pour buttermilk (or sweet milk sometimes) into peanut butter mugs (remember those glass mugs?) and give one to each of us along with a generous piece of cornbread. We had the option of crumbling the bread into our mugs and eating with a spoon or eating/drinking them separately. I always took the crumbling option. It was filling and so good. That was our supper.
Buttermilk is a fantastic ingredient in many recipes. For instance, I don’t think I can make cornbread without buttermilk. As I said, not all commercially made buttermilk is really good. But it does just fine for cooking. You can even make a form of buttermilk instantly if you’re out of the real thing. Pour a cup of sweet milk, add a teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice and voila! you have buttermilk for your cornbread baking.
Buttermilk, paired usually with a teaspoon of soda, makes for other delicious bakery products like muffins, coffee cake, pancakes, biscuits and more. There’s even a good recipe for buttermilk pie. It’s one of those desperation recipes that turn out surprisingly delicious.
I always get a sour look when I recommend buttermilk or yogurt to a kid with mouth ulcers. I only know it heals because I’ve tried it. Then again, I just like buttermilk. I’d far rather have my sister Suzanne’s freshly churned buttermilk but I’m happy with com-mercial also. Cornbread (made with buttermilk) makes it even better!
I confess we don’t now usually have cornbread crumbled in buttermilk. But last night we did and it was ever so good! Whether beans and squash, meatloaf and potatoes, or buttermilk and cornbread, it’s good to give thanks to God, our provider.
Give us day by day our daily bread. Luke 11:3