If you have the time and inclination to churn your own butter, you have access to old-fashioned buttermilk, the liquid that's left after the butter is made. But if your buttermilk comes from the grocery store, it's made from low-fat or nonfat milk mixed with acidic bacteria. This thick, tangy liquid can be used in many of the same ways milk is used, but in some dishes, buttermilk works magic that milk can't.
Bake It Up, Up, Up
Buttermilk gives sweet and savory baked goods tangy flavor and tender texture. It's often used in biscuits, breads, cakes, muffins and scones. The acidity of the liquid pairs well with sweet elements such as fruit or sugary crumb toppings. Buttermilk pie, a custard pie that's common in the southern United States, gets its creamy texture from its namesake. Buttermilk also acts as a leavener, but only in combination with baking soda. The liquid's acidity activates the baking soda and creates gas bubbles that make baked goods rise.
Make Fluffy Pancakes
Although they're not baked, pancakes get the same leavening and flavor benefits from buttermilk that bread or muffins would. As long as your recipe includes baking soda, substituting buttermilk for regular milk makes the pancakes tender and fluffy.
Tenderize Tough Cuts
Soaking tough meat in buttermilk makes it tender without turning it mushy like some marinades do. Use a marinade of buttermilk mixed with spices such as dill and aromatics such as garlic with poultry, red meat or fish. Buttermilk does double duty with fried chicken, first tenderizing the meat then giving the finished dish a little kick. Soak chicken pieces in buttermilk before dredging them in seasoned flour. Some recipes call for buttermilk to be used just for moistening the chicken, not for tenderizing.
Dress Your Greens
Make homemade ranch dressing that tastes fresh using mayonnaise, minced garlic and scallions, mustard, dill, salt and pepper. Once you've stirred those ingredients together, start mixing in buttermilk until the dressing is thin enough to drizzle over salad. Toss the mixture with shredded cabbage and carrots to make coleslaw. Buttermilk also may be used in blue-cheese dressing or a simple lemon and herb dressing. Thicken either one with mayonnaise or sour cream.
Savor It in Savory Dishes
Substitute buttermilk in many savory dishes that typically require milk. Stir it into mashed potatoes, add a splash to an egg omelet or use it in soups. Buttermilk producer Diane St. Clair suggests using it in the basic white sauce called bechamel, then using that sauce in lasagna or on pizza. Buttermilk can curdle when it gets close to boiling, so use it in sauces and soups that cook over low heat. Starches such as flour also help stabilize buttermilk and prevent it from separating.
Drinking a glass of straight buttermilk is a tradition that has gone out of style, but you might be pleasantly surprised by the flavor of plain buttermilk, especially if you enjoy kefir as buttermilk tastes similar to this slightly sour, yogurt-like drink. If you don't care to drink buttermilk on its own, try adding it to a berry smoothie. The tartness balances the sweetness of the fruit, and the finished smoothie will be thick and creamy.