The Return of Real Buttermilk
The Return of Real ButtermilkFebruary 28, 2013
Slowly but steadily, Southern cooks are rediscovering the ingredients that once formed the foundation of our region’s cuisine. Old-fashioned standards like stone-ground grits, slow-smoked bacon, and heirloom peas make traditional recipes come alive with a depth and richness of flavor that a cook cannot achieve using new-fangled industrial versions.
One former staple, though, remains maddeningly hard to find: genuine buttermilk. The “buttermilk” found on supermarket shelves should not bear the name, for it lacks even a passing acquaintance with butter. Manufacturers make the stuff from low-fat milk, adding cultures to create lactic acid and thickening agents for texture. The resulting product might bring a touch of acidity to biscuits and cornbread, but it is a pale shadow of the ancestor that it imitates.
In the hills of East Tennessee, though, the Cruze family still does things the old-fashioned way. Patriarch Earl milks pasture-raised Jersey cows and churns the buttermilk himself. Donning an old-timey gingham dress and tempting would-be customers at Knoxville’s Market Square Farmers’ Market into sampling straight shots, daughter Colleen handles the marketing.
(From top: Margaret Houston and Tec Petaja)
Those shots turn heads, for Earl Cruze makes his buttermilk the same way that his grandfather did. Cruze begins with the liquid left over from butter-making—an acidic, largely defatted milk with traces of butter still in it. In the days before refrigeration, farmers left that liquid in uncovered pitchers, where natural cultures fermented, thickened, and soured it.
Cruze adds cultures to his buttermilk more deliberately, but the end result is the same. In place of industrial whiteness, Cruze Farm buttermilk is a pale yellow. Behind sour notes lie body and warmth, a dessert-like richness reminiscent of panna cotta or lemon cream.
Proper buttermilk makes pancakes fluffy and light and biscuits softer. It tenderizes meat and thickens salad dressings. You can bake it into cornbread or use it to batter chicken for frying. Or, you can take a cue from the old-timers and enjoy a tall glass of it straight.
Right now, Cruze Farm buttermilk is only available at a handful of East Tennessee farmers’ markets and stores, and at some Earth Fare supermarkets in Knoxville and Chattanooga. But as Colleen Cruze sends samples to more and more curious consumers, the word could well begin to spread. One day, real buttermilk may retake its rightful place on the Southern table.
With a dressing this creamy and rich, you don’t need anything more than fresh salad greens to serve it on. You’ll forget that you ever heard of a thing called “ranch.”
½ cup Cruze Farm buttermilk
½ cup sour cream
¼ cup mayonnaise
2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and black pepper to taste
Mix all the ingredients together and pour into a jar. Place the jar in the refrigerator to chill for a few hours before serving.
Some otherwise reasonable Southerners will argue that cornbread is no good without sugar in it. I suspect many of these folks would repent if they had a chance to taste the kind made in a cast-iron skillet with stone ground cornmeal and real buttermilk.
1 cup stone-ground cornmeal
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 cup Cruze Farm buttermilk
3 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 tbsp. butter
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Put an 8” cast-iron skillet inside to heat.
In a mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Mix the buttermilk, egg, and oil in a separate bowl, then pour into the dry ingredients. Stir until blended and smooth.
Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven and add the tablespoon of butter, swirling till it is melted. Pour in the batter and place the skillet back in the oven. Bake for approximately 25 minutes until the top is golden brown. Remove from the oven and immediately turn the cornbread out onto a plate to cool.