The delicious mystery of buttermilk

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Just a Pinch by Janet Tharpe

Have you ever thought of buttermilk as being mysterious? Does its mere mention make you shake in your oven mitts, the James Bond theme song playing in your head? 

Oh wait, maybe it’s just me.

For years, this humble ingredient has had me stumped.

What do you do with it? Is it for baking or am I supposed to put it in savory dishes?

The answer, it turns out, is a simple “yes.”

Home cook Mary Lundschen is shedding light on buttermilk and all its many uses in her discussion group, “Cooking with Buttermilk,” at www.justapinch.com.

“It is amazing what this ingredient can do for a recipe and how many recipes call for it,” says Mary, whose group members are constantly sharing new dishes that highlight the ingredient.

Buttermilk, I’ve learned, is simply the liquid left over from the butter-making process. And, like butter, it is a delicious addition to both savory and sweet recipes.

Like many, I have fried chicken to thank for my first positive buttermilk experience.

It was Virginia Dean’s Southern Fried Chicken that got us pulling our way up onto the buttermilk bandwagon. Her recipe will make you look like you’re kin to the Colonel.

“Folks young and old enjoy good fried chicken, especially home-cooked. My husband says I’m the champion fried chicken cooker. Don’t know about that, but everyone who has ever tried mine really loves it, and wants to know how I get it so crispy.”

Her secret?

Combine a buttermilk soak with a shower of self-rising flour.
The richness of the buttermilk adds a truly unique flavor to the chicken and permeates the meat to help seal in the juices.

The result is crunchiness to the max.  

With buttermilk fried chicken under our apron belts, the crew and I decided to give old-fashioned buttermilk scones a try.

Only we mixed it up a bit and tried our hand at Sarah Byrne’s savory take on the traditionally sweet dish.
“[Cheddar-Bacon Buttermilk Scones] are a great breakfast alternative to a sweet scone,” Sarah said. “They are a great grab ‘n’ go breakfast when running late for school or work.”

The recipe was borne of Sarah’s love of all things buttermilk.

She began with a recipe that called for cream and baking powder, and swapped those standard ingredients out for her buttery milk substitute. Simple as that.

The more we cooked, the more recipes I wanted to try. The crew and I even experimented making our own buttermilk by combining milk and simple white vinegar.

Start with a tablespoon of vinegar and add just enough milk to come up to the 1 cup line of your measuring cup. Voila, homemade buttermilk. (Insert “Rocky” theme song here.)

But before you go blending your own buttermilk, make sure you truly understand the power you hold in your hands.

When used correctly, buttermilk will make you the lightest, moistest and  tastiest darn cake you’ve ever had. It’s true.

For proof I point you in the delicious direction of  Mollie Hubenak’s Nanny’s Italian Cream Cake.

“My grandmother has made this cake since I was a little girl,” Mollie said. “For our birthdays she would always make us the cake of our choice. This was always my choice. I surprised her one year and made her one, and she was so excited. Mine was as good as hers, if not better.”

In fact, one of the reasons I love this cake so much is that everyone can create a true dessert masterpiece.

Pure Mexican vanilla is combined with coconut and pecans to flavor the tremendously tasty cake.

The richness of the buttermilk creates a moist, supple texture that springs back just slightly with that first jab of your fork.

Top it off with vanilla-infused pecan cream cheese icing and, well, you’ll be the hit of any party.

So there you have it, I’ve made a new friend in the kitchen.

Buttermilk is now a regular performer in my cooking and, dare I say, my new secret weapon.

What ingredient mystery shall I tackle next?


Nanny’s Italian Cream Cake


1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
5 large eggs, seperated
1 cup pecans, in pieces
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1 stick butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 teaspoon pure mexican vanilla
1 can angel flake coconut
1 stick butter, softened
1 package cream cheese (8 oz.)
1 teaspoon pure mexican vanilla
1 pound powdered sugar
1 cup pecans, in pieces


  • Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Beat egg whites and set aside.
  • Add baking soda to buttermilk and set aside.
  • Cream sugar, shortening and butter. Add egg yolks; beat well. Add buttermilk, flour and vanilla.
  • Fold in egg whites, then pecans and then coconut.
  • Pour into three round, greased and floured, cake pans.
  • Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until done.


  •  Cream butter, cream cheese and vanilla. Add powdered sugar and mix well. Stir in pecans.