Friday, August 19, 2011

We are 40 Light Years Outside of the Buttermilk Nebula

“A quarrel is like buttermilk, once it's out of the churn; the more you shake it, the more sour it grows”
- Irish Saying
            Wow. That was fast. Vacation is officially over. A couple of notes before today’s post. First, we’ll be making a couple of changes to the website: new design, new logo and yes, unfortunately, advertising. I would prefer to be without it, but we all got to make a living (writers included!). But the upside is that hopefully with the new design changes, you’ll have a better reading experience – or at least a prettier reading experience.
            Second, I will be live blogging and tweeting from the Copenhagen MAD Symposium and Nordic Food Festival at the end of August. It’s a crazy week of David Chang, reindeer jerky, science, NOMA, sea buckthorn, Icelandic purple seaweed, molecular gastronomy, foraging, and who knows what else. I’m especially excited about roasting an entire cow. Stay tuned!
            And onto today’s post!
        There are certain foods that have people have a love affair with. Chocolate. Cheese. Pasta. Any pork product. And then, there’s butter.
If you ask any classically trained chef, they will swear by butter. Sauces, pastries, bread, Indian food, steaks – there is very little in this world that can’t be improved by the addition of butter. And for others, butter should be declared a human right (My husband’s grandmother hung her head in shame when she described Polish migrant workers received margarine rations for their bread.)
The basic science of butter is pretty simple.[1] Milk out of the cow is composed of fat (in the form of cream), protein, lactose (milk sugar), minerals and water. The majority of it is water, around 88 percent. To make butter, the fat must be allowed to separate (about 12-15 hours, undisturbed) from the milk. The cream is skimmed off leaving the rest as “skimmed” milk. At this point, the cream is about 20 percent fat (“light” cream at the grocers).  But it’s still not enough fat to be considered “butter” which is about 65-80 percent fat. [2]
This is where the magic comes in. The butterfat in cream will not readily surrender its happy little globules of goodness. Each fat globule is covered with a coating of phosolipids and protein that prevent the fat globules from coming together. Churning, the process in which butter is made, breaks those membranes to allow the butterfat to come together. The liquid is drained and the butter is salted (or not) and packed. That’s it.
But what happens to that liquid? The remaining liquid is buttermilk. For generations of farmers, buttermilk was used in cooking and feeding to livestock. But at least this generation of Americans, buttermilk, unless you are in the South or at brunch, usually generates a giant “HUH?” at the grocers.[3]
But if you are in Northern Europe, South Asia or the Middle East, buttermilk is everywhere. Not only is it a by-product of butter making, but it is also one of the few milk products that resists spoilage. How? Your friend Lactococcus lactis.
Lactococcus lactis are naturally occurring bacteria in milk. Freshly milked milk, within a couple of hours, will start to ferment. The bacteria metabolize lactose, milk sugar, into energy and lactic acid. This process is the reason why buttermilk has that tangy, lemony flavor[4] – it’s due to the acid. And it’s also the same reason why buttermilk has a long shelf life- most other bacteria cannot tolerate acidic environments.[5] Furthermore lactic acid will coagulate the remaining proteins in milk-thus the viscosity generating the particular viscosity of buttermilk.
Now I don’t recommend drinking buttermilk straight, unless you are used to or like the particular sourness and texture of buttermilk. (Germans do it all the time. It is also the basis for lassi-type drinks in South Asia.) But it lends itself nicely to many recipes – not just baked goods. Buttermilk is the basis for a lot of cold soups and dressings. Buttermilk also is excellent as a meat tenderizer – the acid helps to break down meat fibers as well as a coating for fried foods (buttermilk’s thickness protects the food from overcooking as well as let coatings stick properly).[6]
And here’s another reason to like buttermilk. It’s good for you. Not only is it low fat, but also the bacteria cultures used to make buttermilk are good for intestinal health. Mr. and Ms. Bacteria already pre-digest the lactose. But further down the pipeline, they stick to the lining of the intestinal wall and get busy doing stuff like guarding the intestinal wall, producing antibacterial compounds, break down cholesterol and bile acids and eat up potential carcinogens.
So please. Give buttermilk a chance. Lactococcus lactis needs a new home.


             As mentioned above, Northern Europeans have been eating buttermilk for quite some time. In the summer, it becomes the basis for many cold soups that can be served as a light lunch or dessert. Koldskål is one of those dishes. A sweetened buttermilk soup, it is served traditionally with little sweet biscuits or cookies called kammerjunkere. In Denmark, they are easy to find, but anywhere else, you’ll have to make your own, or in a pinch, substitute broken biscotti or cantucinni bits. Other people serve it with fruit but that is frowned upon by the Danish food orthodoxy. Whatever. It’s all good. And you don’t have to cook it. Even better.

61/2 c. buttermilk (organic is good if you can find it)
2 eggs (see note)
1/2 c. sugar
zest from 1 lemon
juice from 1 lemon
seeds from 1/2 vanilla pod (can use vanilla sugar-just omit pod or 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract)

1.     Beat eggs and sugar together in a large bowl until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture turns pale yellow and thick. Stir in buttermilk, lemon zest, lemon juice and vanilla seeds until well blended.
2.     Place into refrigerator for at least 2 hours to cool and meld flavors. Serve cold in bowls with broken biscotti, digestives, kammerjunkere or fruit.
Note: I don’t get really ooged out by raw eggs, but I know plenty that do. No worries. You can easily used refrigerated egg product or coddle them to kill any bacteria. (To coddle an egg, boil water and gently place egg into pot. Turn off heat and let egg sit for 1 minute. Egg now ready for use.)

[1] Making it is also really simple, but we will leave that for another post!
[2] In making commercial butter, the cream is concentrated to about 45 percent fat. The cream is concentrated by evaporating excess water.
[3] This is not to say that Americans don’t use buttermilk. In fact condensed buttermilk and dried buttermilk are commonly used in commercial ice cream and other food products. Ever had pancakes from a box? Dried buttermilk is in there. Ranch Doritos? Dried buttermilk.
[4] This is the same reason why European or European-style butters taste a bit tangy compared to American butters. Europeans use slightly cultured milk versus sweet milk in their butters.
[5] For many cultures, the practice of drinking buttermilk comes from this fact. Buttermilk resists spoilage even at room temperature for several days. If you lived before modern refrigeration, this is a good thing. If you have a husband who doesn’t remember to place the milk in the fridge, this is also a good thing.
[6] Southern cooks have known this for years. Fried chicken anyone?
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