It’s all about square footage, as they say in real estate. And the square footage of my refrigerator is like New York City; space is limited, so whatever is in there better be good. Besides the obvious refrigerator staples (olives, butter, prosciutto), buttermilk always has a place on the shelf. It’s one of my go-to ingredients and yet it has to be one of the most misunderstood foods around.
Mention buttermilk and immediately diet-conscious people will visibly cringe, while a few Southerners will start beaming. Someone needs to stand up for buttermilk, so here is what could be called a love letter to this luscious ingredient.
First, a few facts set the record straight. As with many tasty foods, it all comes down to bacteria. Traditionally, buttermilk is made from the liquid left over after churning butter. (The bacteria in milk ferments the milk’s lactose, and it’s lactic acid that gives buttermilk that tangy flavor.) Today, you most often see “cultured buttermilk,” which is pasteurized 1- or 2-percent milk that has been inoculated with bacteria “culture” to ferment the lactose.
Now it’s time for the science lesson: When an acid like buttermilk is combined with a chemical leavener like baking soda, gas bubbles are produced. This is what makes buttermilk a baker’s best friend — amazingly light cakes, breads and pancakes are the result of this chemical reaction.
Healthy and inexpensive
Besides baking, I use buttermilk in savory dishes such as salad dressings and dips. It adds a creaminess without that mouth coating you get from heavy cream or mayonnaise, and the tang it brings is just what a snack dip needs. Really, truly, you cannot make pancakes without it. If this pancake recipe doesn’t convince you, nothing will.
And calorie counters, take note: Buttermilk has less fat than regular milk because the fat has been removed. (A glass of buttermilk has 99 calories versus a glass of regular milk with 157 calories.) And it’s high in potassium, B12 and calcium. If you need yet another reason to try it, it’s inexpensive. (The pH level of buttermilk gives it a longer shelf life and thus a lower price than regular milk.)
If you’re really in a pinch and need a buttermilk substitute, you can make your own with milk and an acid. (But it’s not the same as using real buttermilk.)
- Add the vinegar to a measuring cup and add enough milk to bring it to the 1-cup line. Mix and let stand for at least 15 minutes.
The Best Buttermilk Pancakes
What better way to start a holiday morning than a stack of pancakes? These not-too-sweet pancakes fluff up to about ½-inch thick, so don’t forget the syrup. And they’re guaranteed to make you a buttermilk lover.
Makes eight 3½-inch pancakes; serves 2 to 4
¾ cup all-purpose flour (see note)
¾ cup whole-wheat flour
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 large egg
1 cup buttermilk
canola or vegetable oil, for greasing the griddle
maple syrup, for serving
- Place the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and baking powder in a medium-size mixing bowl and stir to combine.
- Place the melted butter and the egg in a bowl and whisk to blend. Add the buttermilk and whisk thoroughly to combine.
- Pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients and mix until combined, but do not over-mix. The batter should be thick and lumpy.
- Heat a griddle over high heat until very hot (a drop of water should sizzle on contact). Lightly grease the griddle with a small amount of oil and lower the heat to medium. Pour the batter onto the griddle. Don’t crowd the pancakes; you want the batter to spread easily, leaving enough room between the cakes to be able to flip them.
- Cook the pancakes until they begin to firm up and bubbles appear on the surface (watch closely; sometimes the cakes firm up before the bubbles show up), 2 to 3 minutes. Use a spatula to lift a pancake to check its bottom side; if it’s nicely browned, flip the cake. Check all pancakes before flipping.
- Continue cooking the pancakes until the second side is nicely browned, about 1 minute more.
- Serve the pancakes immediately with syrup, if desired.
Note: You can use any combination of flours that you have in your pantry. The whole-wheat flour makes them a bit more nutritious, but using only all-purpose flour results in even fluffier pancakes. Also, this recipe doubles easily.
Zester Daily contributor Laura Holmes Haddad lives with her husband, daughter and son in Los Angeles, where she writes about wine and food and runs her website, gourmetgrrl.com. Her latest collaboration is “Plats du Jour: A Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country” with the girl & the fig restaurant in Sonoma, Calif., released in November 2011.
Photo: Buttermilk pancakes. Credit: Laura Holmes Haddad