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What is Buttermilk?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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Two different dairy products carry the name buttermilk, depending upon where in the world the consumer is. Traditional or old fashioned buttermilk is the liquid left over after churning butter, and it is popular in India and Southeast Asia. Cultured buttermilk, the product commonly found labeled with this name in American supermarkets, is a fermented milk product. In both cases, it is creamy and rich, and both varieties can be drunk directly or added to baking projects.

Old fashioned buttermilk is far thinner than cultured and tends to be paler and more acidic than conventional milk. It is created when butter is churned. Traditionally, farms would skim cream from the top of fresh milk and collect it in a vat for churning. Several days would often go by before there was enough cream to churn into butter, and as a result, it would sour slightly. Slightly soured cream is easier to churn and lends a specific flavor to butter that some consumers prefer.

After churning, the butter was removed and washed in cold water to remove the excess milk before being salted for preservative purposes. The liquid remaining in the churn after the butter was removed came to be called “buttermilk” and was characterized by being rich, acidic, and sour in flavor, often with flakes of butter floating in it. This sour, creamy beverage is drunk in many parts of the world, although it is difficult to obtain in the United States.

Cultured buttermilk is created by fermenting milk so that milk sugars turn into lactic acid, causing milk proteins to become solid, as they are no longer soluble in more acidic conditions. This results in chunks of material and a thicker milk, called clabbering. The beverage is also more tart than regular milk because of its increased acidity. Buttermilk can last longer than regular milk, because the acidic conditions keep harmful bacteria from thriving. Sour cream is created using a similar process, using cream instead of milk during the fermentation.

Many bakers use cultured buttermilk in scones, biscuits, pancakes, and other similar products because of the tangy flavor it imparts. Consumers need to be careful with it, because it is a soured product. Although harmful bacteria should not be able to thrive in it, if the flavor is slightly off, it is better to dispose of the buttermilk than to experience minor gastrointestinal distress as the result of stray bacteria or molds.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon311709 — On Jan 03, 2013

If soured milk, eggs over easy, raw milk, butter (and being left on the counter), and all the stuff the experts tell us are bad for us and going to kill us were true, I would be dead a billion times over. When in fact I'm in better health than all the vegetarian, health food, no gluten eating experts.

By anon180525 — On May 26, 2011

As children we drank it ice cold in the summer. The type with the yellow flakes of butter in it. Excellent thirst-quencher.

By anon99502 — On Jul 26, 2010

Yes. Raw, soured milk is perfectly safe to cook with. Pasteurized milk putrefies and smells horribly. Raw (unpasteurized) milk simply sours and is still usable for several months if kept refrigerated. Just make sure your raw milk is from healthy, grass-fed/pastured cows and all should be well.

By anon62959 — On Jan 29, 2010

Is soured unpasteurized milk safe to cook with? We have made great things with this, like waffles!

By anon39335 — On Jul 31, 2009

Fact regarding milk that has gone sour. It is not toxic and is still edible, adding healthy lactobacilli to digestive tract to aid in reinforcing our immune system. It is known as Jocoque in mexico. If a gallon is left out of the refrigerator for enough time that the curd will separate from the milk plasma, and the curd with a little salt taste great with warm corn tortillas also adding a homemade salsa. Thanks

By bananas — On Feb 13, 2009

Milk that sours on its own would not be safe for consumption in my opinion. Harmful bacteria might be present in the spoiled milk, causing potential health problems.

You can make cultured buttermilk by adding starter, which contain good bacteria, to fresh milk.

Old fashioned buttermilk is the result of butter making process. It is the liquid that remains after butter is removed.

By anon6553 — On Jan 02, 2008

I buy raw unpasteurized milk directly from the farmer...jersey cows, rich in butter. Recently a quart soured while I was out of town. Is that a substitute for buttermilk in pancake recipes? Is soured unpasteurized milk safe to cook with?

Catherine Parker

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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