Beguiling buttermilk

I've always been intrigued by buttermilk. I had a friend in the seventh grade who liked to drink it straight from the carton which made her very eccentric in my eyes. I never did try it--i couldn't fathom downing a glass of milky butter. When I became a chef I realized that it doesn't contain any butter at all. At some point I learned that buttermilk is the leftover liquid after cream is churned into butter. Since it fit my frugal nature, I started finding all kinds of reasons to use it in my cooking.

Come to find out, the buttermilk I've been cooking with for years is NOT the by-product of butter. A little recent culinary education</a> has taught me that it's actually milk to which a special buttermilk culture has been added and fermented till it's thick and tangy. Okay. That was a little disappointing to my zero waste fantasy but cultured buttermilk is still one of my favorite ingredients. It's incredibly versatile and has a very long shelf life. I buy it as a matter of course, and I always find uses for it. Not only is it low in fat, it's high in calcium as well as lactic acid which is said to be good for your digestion.

The lactic acid in buttermilk makes it great for marinating poultry and meat. It's tangy flavor and thick texture are assets to many savory dressings (mix it with dill, blue cheese or avocado) and sauces (like top chef Bobby Flay's Roasted Serrano Chili Buttermilk Sauce). It can dress coleslaw, hearts of palm, lobster or potatoes. It's great in fried chicken and onion ring recipes that call for dipping the food in a buttermilk batter before frying. I like it in mashed potatoes.

Don't forget the sweet zone. Of course it's quintissential in biscuits, donuts, pancakes and waffles but I've experimented with using it as the liquid in other baked good recipes including chocolate, spice, pound and coffee cake. Buttermilk can be a somewhat hidden ingredient or take the starring role as in buttermilk pie, tart or ice cream.

Because of its creamy nature, it pairs well with strong flavors like dill, basil, lemon, spicy peppers, coffee and chocolate. I used it in the main dish at my wedding: grilled parmesan basil buttermilk chicken. I recommend always having a carton of buttermilk on hand--you never know what recipe will need some old-fashioned tangy charm.

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