Best of buttermilk: what is it, how to use it and the best local producers

Kingfish with buttermilk dressing at Bar Nacional.
Kingfish with buttermilk dressing at Bar Nacional. Photo: Richard Cornish

Buttermilk waffles. Buttermilk-soaked fried chicken. Buttermilk mash. Honey and buttermilk panna cotta. Chefs are driving a buttermilk-powered resurgence, one course at a time. But hands up who knows what buttermilk is?

“Buttermilk is not a byproduct!” says artisan butter maker Naomi Ingleton. “It's an ingredient in its own right. It is to butter as cream is to milk.” Ingleton has made a name for herself producing cultured butter at the Butter Factory in the north-east Victorian town of Myrtleford since 2010. Since the day the first pat of butter emerged from her churn she has been championing the tangy, rich-tasting liquid that is created when the cultured cream is churned into butter.

In Ingleton's factory a great stainless-steel drum slowly turns. Through the glass you can see the rich, thick cream sloshing about. A rich, buttery and mushroomy aroma fills the air. The cream has been cultured with lactobacillus, which turns lactose into lactic acid, and other cultures, which add complexity to the butter. “As the fat globules are mixed about they cling together and form bigger and bigger pieces of butter,” she explains. “At the same time much of the water, protein and lactic acid is released from the cream,” she says. “That's buttermilk.” Her buttermilk is mildly acidic, about as acidic as tomato or pineapple.

Churning out the good stuff: Pepe Saya buttermilk.
Churning out the good stuff: Pepe Saya buttermilk. 

Sydney chef Mike McEnearney harnesses this acidity to make his popular slow-cooked lamb at Kitchen by Mike in the southern Sydney suburb of Rosebery. McEnearney sears a lamb shoulder before placing it on a trivet of onion, celery and carrot, then submerges the lot in buttermilk. He then seals it with foil and slow-cooks it at 100C for 12 hours. While the acid breaks down the muscle fibres in the lamb, the milk protein in the buttermilk coagulates into cheesy curds that brown during the cooking. The result is a delicious crust of slow-baked curd overlaying the incredibly tender shoulder meat, with the delicious fat of the lamb balanced and undercut by the acidity of the buttermilk. “Since we opened we have used the buttermilk from Pepe Saya,” says McEnearney, referring to the artisan producer in Tempe, Sydney. “It is the real deal,” says McEnearney.

He and other chefs are dismissive of the industrial "buttermilk" available in supermarkets, made from skim milk to which cultures are added. “Real buttermilk is complex and changes with the seasons,” McEnearney says.

At Bar Nacional in Melbourne's Docklands, chef Alex Drobysz uses the Butter Factory's buttermilk to dress a cured kingfish dish. “I love its slight earthiness and acidity,” he says. “It has the ability to cut through a dish and carry flavour.” The acidity in buttermilk helps emulsify dressings, just as the acid in mustard or vinegar helps oil and eggs blend together. Drobysz's dressing involves confit garlic, lemon-infused olive oil and seasoning to complement elderflower-cured kingfish served with pear, candied walnuts and charred and pickled shallots.

The Myrtleford Butter Factory buttermilk.
The Myrtleford Butter Factory buttermilk. 

Adding buttermilk to pancakes, scones and cakes gives a more moist and tender finished product. Combined with baking soda, it creates carbon dioxide that lightens the batter.

“Expect more small butter and buttermilk makers soon,” Ingleton says. "There are a lot of small dairy farmers and cheesemakers who are planning to be making butter, buttermilk and cultured milk.”

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