Americans spend a shocking 90 cents of every dollar on processed foods. This love affair with all things factory made has caused many of us to no longer be able to distinguish Real Food from the counterfeits at the store.
Case in Point: Buttermilk
Having run Real Food buying clubs of one form or another for almost 9 years, I have found that there is no single product that gets as many questions as buttermilk. When folks get real buttermilk from the farm for the very first time, they immediately discover that it differs from what they have been using at the store. The dissimilarities between the two is where the confusion and questions arise.
Buttermilk is, in essence, a very simple food. It is the thin, milky, beige colored liquid leftover from the process of churning cream into butter.
Maureen Diaz, author of Traditional Food Preparation Techniques, says that in the days when people churned their own cream into butter, slightly soured cream was the cream typically chosen for the task. Nowadays, fresh cream is preferred to soured cream as this results in a milder tasting, less strong smelling butter.
Buttermilk that comes from churning naturally soured cream into butter is already cultured meaning that it is already inoculated with an abundance of beneficial lactic acid bacteria that have proliferated by fermenting the lactose (milk sugar) in the cream. This naturally cultured buttermilk is acidic enough (from the lactic acid) to be used for soaking flour for making pancakes and the like.
Buttermilk that comes from churning fresh cream into butter is not yet acidic enough for this purpose, however, and needs to be either left on the counter for 1-2 days until it sours naturally or it can be cultured using a buttermilk starter.
Another way to make cultured buttermilk is to culture the fresh cream before making the butter. Using fresh cultured cream results in both cultured buttermilk and cultured butter!
Store Buttermilk is Not Real Buttermilk!
Be aware that the “gourmet” buttermilk sold at the stores is not really buttermilk at all. It is actually regular Grade A pasteurized whole milk that has been cultured with buttermilk starter. In addition, annatto is added to make the color of store buttermilk beige instead of white.
Real buttermilk from cows on pasture is naturally off white to beige in color, but fake buttermilk made from milk (from confined cows eating grain and not pasture) is white. Hence, the coloring is added to fool the consumer and to make the fake buttermilk look more real! Incidentally, annatto is frequently added to store butter also to make it yellow to look like butter from pastured cows. Butter from confined cows with no access to pasture is white!
Even Dairy Inspectors Don't Recognize Real Food
Even dairy inspectors can mistake fake food for the real thing. One farmer I know who makes Real Buttermilk told me that an inspector that once visited his farm told him that his Real Buttermilk wasn't real at all because it was 30% butterfat. The inspector was apparently comparing the Real Buttermilk to the fake stuff from the store that is typically only 3.5% butterfat. The reason for the difference is because Real Buttermilk comes from churning cream into butter, while fake, watered down store buttermilk is made from whole milk.
So, don't feel bad if you are new to Real Food and the whole buttermilk thing is a tad bit confusing. If you have read and understand this post it seems that you are way ahead of even some dairy inspectors!