Yesterday I wanted to make my favourite Grain Free Pancakes for breakfast for everyone but, I realised at about 6am that I didn’t have any buttermilk in the house. Boo. But then I remembered that when baking cupcakes before now I haven’t been able to get hold of buttermilk so I’ve made a sort of substitute version.
Buttermilk is the liquid which is left when you have churned butter. Have you ever churned your own butter? As a child I visited my Baba in Macedonia in the summer holidays and we often churned butter on her porch. If you want to have a go at churning your own butter you can have a go quite easily. You need non-homogeonized milk, the sort where the cream sits on the top, or, cream from a more traditional dairy. Put it in a jam jar and then shake. Keep shaking till you get butter. We also used to do this as kids as milk was not generally homogeonized then, and we would spoon the cream off the top and have fresh butter for breakfast. A few tablespoons takes only about 5 minutes of shaking. What you have left is “buttermilk”, with a few differences!
As you beat the milk or cream the fats all bind together to form the butter and what you are left with is buttermilk. The buttermilk is almost fat free as all the fats are in the butter. You had to leave the milk to stand so that the cream naturally seperates from the milk, so you can skim the cream to make the butter. If the milk is not refrigerated while you do this it begins to ferment. The Lactobacillus bulgaricus bacteria begin to digest the lactose sugars in the milk and it becomes slightly acidic or sour, which is where the distinctive sour taste of buttermilk comes from. This actually makes it easier to make butter as the fats bind together more easily. The acidic buttermilk also has a longer shelf life as the acidic environment is hostile to microrganisms.
Unfortunately these days buttermilk is not quite made in this way! Why do we mess with everything? Older generations knew something and even in warm climates, without refrigeration this method did, and does, make milk last. It occurs to me that is why fermented milk and other fermented drinks are also popular. More on those another day!
So, these days the milk is pasteurised and that means all those lovely lactose digesting bacteria and the good enzymes get killed along with the bad bacteria. To make buttermilk in the west we “culture” it, that means we add the bacteria back in! And, it is not naturally occuring bacteria, it is grown in a lab so it is uncontaminated. What a lot of effort for nothing! Anyway, some places start with the leftover watery milk from churning but most mainstream commercial buttermilk uses skimmed or semi-skimmed (1% or 2% fat) milk which is also kind of not the point! I love the fact that the point of buttermilk was to not have any waste, even the watery milk left after churning butter was useful and not thrown away.
Buttermilk works because of its slightly acidic nature. If you bake soda bread or scones or pancakes with buttermilk and use bicarbonate of soda as the raising agent a wonderful chemical reaction occurs and carbon dioxide is released. All those lovely bubbles of carbon dioxide get trapped within your baked goods as they set in a hot oven and provide the rise. The buttermilk usually ensures a delightfully soft texture too.
I love that cooking is really chemistry. When you cook with buttermilk and bicarbonate of soda you have to work fast to get the full benefit of that reaction. If you’re baking cupcakes it’s best to work in small batches as you don’t want the mix standing around for 30 minutes while your oven is full, the reaction will be over and you won’t get the rise. Make sure whatever it is you are cooking, you have everything ready (tins lined, oven hot etc). Mix all of your dry ingredients together and add the buttermilk last, you’ll see the reaction happening before you’re eyes.
It’s pretty much impossible to make proper buttermilk at home unless you have a stash of bacteria ready to go somewhere, because all commercially available milk is pasteurised and the bacteria are gone. So you can make acidified buttermilk. It’s quick and easy and because the chemical reaction relies on the acidity of the milk rather than specifically the cultures in it, largely it works.
You will need:
1 tablespoon of white distilled vinegar (this is pretty much colourless and tasteless acid)
or 1 tablespoon of lemon juice
1 cup or 250ml less 1 tablespoon of milk. Most people use whole milk (4% fat) for baking as it makes a thicker milk
Combine the two and leave to stand at room temperature for at least 10 minutes. Effectively this sours the milk. Give it a good stir before using.
I have used this successfully in cupcakes and the like where there was buttermilk and baking soda and baking powder to give the rise, however, it sadly was not so successful in the Grain Free Pancakes. They came out ok, but they were not the fluffy clouds of delight that we had with actual buttermilk (cultured). I could see them rise but they fell again, so I can’t quite recommend it for that.
What do you think? Have you tried any of these methods?