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September 19, 2007 | 31 Comments

Mr. Keillor,
I'm a huge fan of buttermilk. It's rich, creamy, tangy, and delicious. What more could a guy want?

So what's the difference between powdermilk and buttermilk? Can they be used interchangeably? Is one better than the other? Have you ever had buttermilk biscuits? Do you have any thoughts on buttermilk drinking, and it's apparent decline over the years?

All the best,

Peter R.
Olympia, WA

My father loved buttermilk, Peter, and what's more, he believed in its health-giving qualities. He especially loved it in the summer and would pour himself a glass and drink it with great relish and feel refreshed and ennobled. For the rest of us, the thought of drinking buttermilk was akin to the idea of drinking cow vomit, in other words something that Communists might force a child to do in order to renounce God and give up nuclear secrets. And we might have done it, too. The thought of drinking it made us tremble with revulsion. There is no connection between buttermilk and Powdermilk Biscuits. I suppose you could make Powdermilk Biscuits by adding buttermilk to the biscuit mix (in the big blue box with the picture of the biscuit on the cover) but what you would get you should be careful about offering to your friends. Why has buttermilk drinking declined over the years? I suppose for the same reason that eating mud is on the wane. Because there are better things.


The letter made me smile. The reply made me laugh. Thank you for both.

I love buttermilk. When my son was young I would switch my glass with his at the dinner table. Very satisfying!

My Grandmother drinks buttermilk when she makes crepes. She says it reminds her of her childhood in Poland before the Nazis took her off the street and sent her to a work farm. I marvel at how strong a woman she is. Then I'll catch her eating pickled pigs feet and head-cheese. An inch thick slice of white onion covered in salt. She enjoys blood sausage, coagulated pig blood and or a cow tongue she must sneak into the cart at the Polish grocery. Pickled herring and raw potatoes with salt. Some sort of cow foot-jello and salt. Raw pig fat and salt. Boiled chicken heart boiled chicken liver and if my mom doesn’t catch her boiled chicken neck and feet. Vinegar pickled mushroom stems. Homemade pickled cabbage which is nothing like sauerkraut, and occasionally she’ll put chopped lemons in milk and suck it down after letting it stand at room temp all night long.

Buttermilk sounds great.

I use fresh buttermilk in several of my bread recipes. It can be a bit hard to find (w/o additives which affect both tste and texture) but I get it delivered by a local dairy.

Dear Garrison,

I loved your description of your father drinking buttermilk because it uncovered a buried memory of mine; that of my father doing the same when I was a wee lad in Cleveland in the 1950's. My siblings and I would watch because we couldn't believe he was actually drinking it!


Toeldo, OH

My mom and I just had a conversation about buttermilk---wondering why her mother, my grandmother, loved it. Any drink that is made by SOURING a perfectly good glass of midwestern milk is, at best, questionable and at worst: WRONG!

Mr. Keillor: It's no wonder that tastes have changed re buttermilk. The old and the new buttermilks are completely different products. I remember drinking real buttermilk in 4th grade after churning some butter from cream as a class project and it wasn't half bad. We cook with the new buttermilk but would never drink it.

This from Wikipedia:

Buttermilk is a term used to describe two types of fermented milk products: traditional buttermilk and cultured buttermilk.
Traditionally, buttermilk has been the liquid left over after producing butter from cream during the churning process.[1] It has a slightly sour taste since the liquid has been fermented by naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria found in raw milk.
In more modern times, commercially available buttermilk sold in supermarkets is instead cultured buttermilk, that is, milk to which lactic acid bacteria have been added to simulate the traditional product. During the 1910s, this product was called artificial buttermilk, to differentiate the product from natural buttermilk/ordinary buttermilk (traditional buttermilk).[2] The sour taste, or tartness of cultured buttermilk is a result of a fermentation process in which the bacteria turn lactose into lactic acid. As the pH drops in this reaction the milk becomes tart. At this point, casein, a milk protein, precipitates as it is no longer soluble under acidic conditions, causing what is called clabbering or curdling.

Best wishes, Steve Vessey

I thought about 'trying' buttermilk My mom always said you had to try something before you criticized it. Your response has convinced me that on this point perhaps she was wrong.

The thing about running with scissors however . . .

Oh! Garrison! Buttermilk biscuits are/were the staple of Southern Cooking. The trick is to add a little sugar to the dry ingredients before adding the buttermilk, to cut the tart taste. But a lighter, flakier, richer biscuit you won't find. A buttermilk biscuit is made with both baking soda and baking powder - the combination of the soda and the buttermilk creates a first rising of the dough in the bowl, then the baking powder does it's thing in the oven. Try them, try them and you'll see the difference. Add a side of cream gravy and sausage, and you have true southern nirvana!

Ran my car battery down (or thought I did...) listening to NPR the other day. Now I know why... LOL! Good one!

I too like buttermilk (but not regular milk) and I have a sister who has the same opinion of buttermilk and does not hesitate to describe to me how awful it is in similar terms. I also make biscuits,but from scratch not from the big blue box. The acid in the buttermilk combined with the baking soda as part of the levening makes for wonderful light fluffy biscuits. There is absolutely not taste of the wonderful tangy buttermilk.

Reason No.1 that buttermilk is not a popular drink nowadays is that butter aint hardly never made in countryside creameries. Because there aint hardly no creameries around. Without the one you don't have the other. If there's another reason (like No.2, my good Mr. Keillor), it's not that it tastes like Communist medicine akin to poison. You wanna taste "bad"? Try sour buttermilk. That's what my good Gramma had me get at the New Richland Creamery when she wanted to make the best chocolate cake this side of powdermilk biscuits. Come to think of it, I drank that, too, because I saw her do so. It wasn't really sour. It was cultured. And heavens, it was expeditious and good for you.

Although I now live in California, I grew up in Texas. I am a true buttermilk fan as are my siblings. But, alas, neither of my children are. My sister and I have buttermilk tastings when she visits from Arizona. My father worked for Cloverlake Dairy when I was in junior high. During a buttermilk promotion he was required to strap a lifesize buttermilk churn replica to the top of his car. I thought I would die of embarrassment to be seen getting picked up at school by him. But I didn't. One of their promotions (on the side of the carton)was a bumato cocktail (half buttermilk/half tomato juice). One day when he was extoling its virtues my mother asked if he had ever tried one (knowing that he hadn't). She then made him an offer he could not refuse (to prepare one for him). He drank the whole thing down, smacked his lips, etc but never asked for another even though I offered to make him one many times after that.

My Polish father also drank buttermilk, which made me gag just to see him do it. Note to Paul: He also ate all those same things your grandmother ate. Must be in the genes.

You are seldom wrong, Garrison, but about buttermilk you are. It makes the best, tenderest pancakes and some muffins and breads that you could ever sink your teeth into--less blah than those made with sweet milk.

I particularly like buttermilk with lots of freshly ground black pepper in it. I suppose, however, in your case, Mr. K, this would only mean that it would taste like very spicy cow vomit. Now about this cow vomit thing - just how do you have this rather unusual bit of information in your ditty bag? Not many, few even, would be able to tell what tasted like cow vomit unless . . . well, is there a story here or not?

Count me in the pro-buttermilk camp. Yum! It's like liquid sour cream! (And you eat that, don't you?)

Don't worry about its taste being detectable in baked-goods recipes. I have a chocolate-cake formula using buttermilk that's among the very best out there -- moist and chocolately.

Thanks for the post.... I think I'm going to buy some on my way home from work tonight.....

I don't understand the disparity.I like buttermilk and am enjoying a glass as I write. My brother, raised in the same household as I, and raised in the same way, had feelings about it akin to the ones you described.
I once met him on the river for a fishing trip. When he saw I had brought buttermilk, he stated, "well, at least you don't have to worry about it ruining. It was ruined when you bought it"

I love buttermilk and make homemade biscuits everyday of my life for my 6 chidren and all the neighbors, they say my buttermilk biscuits are best ever,and 70 years old and still make them by hand the old fashion way, I have a friend who has to have them to get well when she is sick.
We use to milk the cow and churn our own milk when we was kids, i couldnt wait until mom took the butter off the top to get a fres glass, I am the healthest off 8 children and never had any heart problemslike all my family.

Mr. Keillor WRITES: Why has buttermilk drinking declined over the years?

Kirk writes:
The fact of the matter is, the dairy companies removed one essential important part of the recipe and that is the FAT content. I was born in Chicago, live in Los Angeles, (not by my wishes)and have to travel to Mount Airy, North Carolina's, (home of my sister Georgette & actor, Andy Griffith) Wal-Mart dairy section to get true, 4% Butter Fat, Buttermilk. With just a sprinkle of black pepper and a dash of the little red bottle HOT sauce and served over ice.
WHAT A TREAT! Hmmmmmmmmm-Good!

Mr. Keillor, When are you coming to visit us in California? My family LOVES your show!!!

I loved your treatise on buttermilk and mud. I feel very much the same. I remember a comedian, Shelly Berman, who said, "It's not the butermilk so much as the way the glass looks after you drink it." I agree. Keep up the good work, Stan

Oh, Garrison, what kind of champion of Scandinavian culture in America could frown on butermilk, or "filmjölk" as it's known in Sweden? How could you compare this relaxing, nurturing, quitely spritely and altogether homey food with something from the front end of a cow? But then again, what could I expect from the man who compared zucchini with styrofoam? Heathen!

buttermilk is great and refreshing. your dad was right and buttermilk biscuits are way better than just plain biscuits. have a glass of cow vomit for me. bon appetit!!

I'm not a big fan of buttermilk by itself - but, buttermilk mixed with a little bit of frozen orange juice and a dash of vanilla - mmmmm. Now that's just wonderful!

Ah, My sainted mother Helyn and her sainted mother, Grannie Willie to me, made very good cornbread with buttermilk. Then we would break up the cornbread in a glass and pour either sweet milk or buttermilk over it. Yes, we did eat it that way sometimes. It was delicious. Of course the best buttermilk in the world was what was left after Mother churned the butter in the crock churn with a dasher and lid carved and assembled by Grannie Willie. She was a resourceful woman! I hadn't thought about that churn for years!

Oh, yes, buttermilk makes the BEST biscuits! Although I'm not a personal fan of buttermilk, I find my mouth watering at the sound of a commercial back home, advertising the local dairy's product. It's Gustafson, owned by Mama and Papa Gus, and although they offer "sweet" milk, as it's often referred to in the south, so as not to confuse it with buttermilk, the commercials always talk about their "sweet, creamy, farm tasting" buttermilk. It's that kind of buttermilk my Mama was raised on and still dreams of: the kind that was left after churning the butter, and had little flecks of butter floating in it.

I have drank buttermilk, as a medicinal fix for a case of thrush that I developed as an adult somehow. I actually chugged almost a quart in my desperation, but found that the more I drank, the more I liked it. And, low and behold, the thrush was all but gone the next morning.

My dad had a friend who would go on a drinking diet for about two weeks. When he finally came to his sense, my father would force him to drink buttermilk to help his stomach. It was a four to six week constant cirle, Beer, Beer, Beer, Sickness, Buttermilk, Buttermilk, Buttermilk, and back to Beer, again.

Never had much money, but always found the comfort of buttermilk to help him overcome what my father said was "his only real problem in life".

Some of us who live in the 21st century LOVE buttermilk. the secret is to get buttermilk that does NOT have salt in it (Friendship brand is one example). It tastes like cream but does not have the calories (Buttermilk does not have butter in it unless added. It originally was the liquid that rose to the top when churning butter.) some of us with a lactose intolelrance and a need for calcium drink it every day and pour it on our cereal because it has live cultures (like yogurt) that break down the lactose for us. Lynda Lees Adams

Mr. Keillor,

Have you ever tried Danish buttermilk soup (kaernemaelkskoldscal)? Wonderfully refreshing on a hot summer's evening, it was a favourite of my mother's family in Copenhagen. Here's how to make it:

Beat two egg yolks together with 3 to 4 ounces of sugar and the juice and grated rind of one lemon. Cut a vanilla pod in half and scrape the seeds into the egg mixture (or use vanilla sugar to taste). Stir this into 3 pints of buttermilk, then chill thoroughly in the refrigerator. Serve with whipped cream and small macaroons.

Buttermilk isn't my idea of a good time when it comes to drinking it as a beverage, but it's second to one for making pancakes, waffles and biscuits, and probably some other breadstuffs as well.

If you make any of the foregoing with regular milk, you have to use baking powder, which is made from baking soda and an acidic powder that causes the baking soda to fizz when liquid is added to it. With buttermilk, you have to replace at least part of the baking powder with plain baking soda, because the acid in the buttermilk makes the baking soda fizz.

The net result is wonderful. Pancakes, waffles and biscuits made with buttermilk are simply wonderful. The problem, of course, is that after you've made any of those items, you'll have buttermilk left over. It's hard to find, but powdered buttermilk is ideal for making those things -- you just mix up the amount you need for your biscuits, for example, and the powder will keep in the cupboard for a long time.

In that case, I guess you end up with powderbuttermilk biscuits.

I just tried a bumato, it is outstanding. Use a touch of grey goose with it in the evening.

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