Sweet cream butter and the demise of “real” buttermilk

Professional cookbook (especially baking book) writers frequently rend their garments in grief over the demise of real buttermilk. This recipe originally called for real farm buttermilk — oh for those happy wholesome carefree days! For indeed there is no actual buttermilk anymore, at least as it was once known and enjoyed. Today store buttermilk is made by adding a culture to skim milk, which both thickens it and give it its characteristic tang.

But why? Part of the reason has to do with the way butter is produced now, as I mentioned, from leftover whey instead of from-the-cow cream. But even if butter were made from whole cream today, there would still be no real buttermilk. Why? Because of refrigeration. If you remember from earlier posts this week, farm butter was originally made from sour cream, skimmed from sour milk that had been allowed to sit outdoors (or in a barn) for up to a day or so. Churn that sour cream into butter and the by-product is a sour buttermilk, perfect for chilling and drinking.

Ugh, drinking you say? Oh yes indeedy. People — especially farm boys and laborers — once loved drinking buttermilk. Why on Earth? Well, partly because there wasn’t much else to drink on a farm way back when. But imagine you’ve been out in the field working hard all day. You come in for lunch tired and hot. How about a glass of whole milk? Not bad, though it’s a little warm and fatty tasting, not exactly what your dry mouth wants. Buttermilk on the other hand is extremely light, feels much cooler on the tongue, and on top of that has a nice bright tang. Talk about the pause that refreshes!

It’s funny, I’ve been going to the Indianapolis 500 ever since I was 12 (the age when my father decided I could handle the sight of drunk, naked bikers taking showers in car washes by the track…it still made me to throw up). There, the traditional victory drink is whole milk, but once upon a time (say back in the 30’s and 40’s) it was buttermilk, for the very reasons I just told you. Back then there was no such thing as a “professional racer” at least not as we know them now. People who raced cars in the plain states were typically farm boys who tinkered with engines when there wasn’t work to do. For them, after a long day of sweating behind the engine of a racecar, a deep swig of buttermilk was really something to look forward to.

Did I drink the buttermilk I made yesterday? Why in fact I did, over ice. It tasted like skim milk with a slight inflection of cream. But it was nothing like the real thing I’m sure, which requires the starting point of sour milk (either on the farm or at the creamery), and is no more because of consumers’ very understandable preference for sweet cream butter. But maybe when the weather gets warmer I’ll just make me some more buttermilk — and let it sour on the back porch — just to see.

2 thoughts on “Sweet cream butter and the demise of “real” buttermilk”

  1. That reminds me of when I was a kid visiting my grandparents. My grandfather had a dairy farm. We’d get fresh milk straight from the dairy and I hated it. First it was too warm for my taste and I didn’t like the rawness. I wonder now if I would think the opposite and appreciate the rawness and less polished flavor. Great blog but then when aren’t your blogs fun?? 🙂 Thanks, Joe.

    1. Ha! Thanks Linda!

      Most of us have to work up to milks with real flavor, we’re so used to the sanitized versions. I’m not sure my little ones will ever like whole milk from the local dairy. It tastes like cow. In a good way! Maybe someday. Thanks very much for the compliment, Linda! I do my best to have a good time whenever I sit down to post. Cheerio,

      – Joe

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