Monday, June 27, 2011

A Southern Table: Buttermilk and Lemon Buttermilk Ice Cream

Buttermilk.  Buttermilk has always, always been around, like a trusty, reliable friend.  How can you cook without it?  Buying buttermilk in the south is a very different experience than in the northeast where I am.  Low fat and non fat buttermilk is the only types available in our local grocers.  I am good with low fat or 1% buttermilk but I am very lucky that I live in an area with small farms that provide produce, dairy, eggs, poultry and meats.  So when I run across a market that has fresh, local buttermilk, I grab it.

What exactly is buttermilk?  Originally it was the liquid left over after churning butter so it really had very little fat unless there were some tiny chunks of butter left in it.  Natural enzymes that the milk contained fermented the buttermilk so that it was slightly thickened with a soured, tangy flavor.  This milk became popular in the south because regular milk would sour quickly and buttermilk would last for days.  This is one of the reasons that it became a staple in southern kitchens and remains so today.  Even today the shelf life of buttermilk outlasts regular milk and beyond it own expiration date by weeks sometimes.  I generally go by sight and smell and it is pretty clear when it has passed its prime.  It rarely lasts that long in my kitchen anyway.
In America today, buttermilk is cultured which means that lactic acid bacteria is added to milk and allowed to ferment for 12 hours or more at low temperatures.  The resulting milk is acidic and tangy.  There is a difference in taste between pasteurized and unpasteurized buttermilk.  I know people who go out of there way to get unpasteurized dairy products because they like the taste and believe in the health benefits of the "good bacteria" that it contains.  Pasteurization kills all the bacteria, good and bad, and in this world of mass production it is probably a good idea.  If you want unpasteurized dairy products and can find a local farm that follows guidelines to produce their milk, you have found a delicious, natural source for milk and other dairy products.  Commercial buttermilk sometimes has salt added to it and you should check the label if you are concerned.  One final important note, unpasteurized buttermilk does not have the same long shelf life that pasteurized does.

I know people who drink buttermilk daily and think it is delicious and some who thinks it taste so nasty, why bother with it at all.  The benefits of cooking with buttermilk is one reason and why it is a staple in many southern kitchens.  Added to baked goods it produces a tender crumb and a slightly tangy flavor.  Buttermilk biscuits and buttermilk pancakes are two very popular, delicious examples of this.  Buttermilk is commonly used in unison with baking soda or sodium bicarbonate as leavening for baked products. We all know how fluffy and delicious buttermilk pancakes and biscuits turn out! 

To showcase how outstanding buttermilk can be, I have included a delicious lemon buttermilk ice cream recipe that I got out of the Austin American Statesman food section about a million years ago. Seriously, it was a long time ago.  The combination of the tart lemon and the tangy buttermilk is divine.  Lemon lovers you will not be disappointed.  No mild lemon flavor in this recipe.  This recipe is also for all you calorie counters (who isn't) out there because it can be made with low fat buttermilk and you won't even know it.   I don't really recommend the no fat buttermilk because you need a little fat for some creamy consistency, but then again, if that is how you roll then go for it.  The consistency of this recipe is somewhere between a sorbet and an ice cream and in my opinion would make great popsicles.

Ice cream mixture that has sugar, lemon peel and juice.
And then add the buttermilk.  I could actually drink this at this point!

Lemon Buttermilk Ice Cream adapted from recipe from Austin American Statesmen
makes a little more than a quart

2 cups (383 g) superfine sugar (see note)
4 to 6 lemons for zesting and juicing
1 quart (473 mL) Buttermilk, low fat (1%) to full fat (3.25%)
1 teaspoon vanilla, optional (see note)

Place the sugar in a large container to chill in the refrigerator.  Zest 2 lemons for 2 to 3 teaspoons of lemon zest and place in the container with the sugar.   Juice enough lemons for 1/2 cup of lemon juice and add to the sugar and mix.  Add the buttermilk and stir until the sugar is dissolved.  Chill the mixture for 4 hours or overnight.

Freeze in your ice cream maker according to their instructions.  Place in containers and finishing freezing in the freezer.


Notes:  For this recipe I used unpasteurized whole milk buttermilk that I purchased at a nearby farm.  I have also made this with commercial buttermilk and I will say that there is a difference.  They were both really, really good but the local buttermilk was definitely better and I don't think it had as much salt as the commercial (I am guessing because there was no ingredient list).  My husband and I did a taste test before I made the ice cream and I was amazed how different tasting the buttermilks were.

Superfine sugar:  Place granulated white sugar in a food processor and process for 1 to 2 minutes and voila, you have superfine sugar!

Vanilla:  The addition of vanilla produces a smoother, creamier lemon flavor and it seems you can taste the milk more.  If you like a tangy tart, lemony flavor forgo the vanilla.

And just in case you can't find or are out of buttermilk, here is a quick recipe for it:  1 cup of milk (1% to whole) to 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar.  Allow to sit for a couple of minutes.  The milk curdles a bit and becomes thickened and you are ready to go.  This does not taste the same as cultured buttermilk and is not as good to drink.  But that is up to you!

Print Recipe

Lemon Buttermilk Ice Cream with a couple of blueberries added.  Blueberries
and lemon is a combination that is hard to beat.
 Or just plain, it definitely stands along flavorwise.


  1. Great and very educational post!Ending in a yummy treat!

  2. Mmm, this looks so good! I think I would want to drink that lemon juice/peel/sugar mixture! :)

  3. Maris - thank you. I am still surprised how different commercial and farm fresh buttermilk is!

    Lindsay - I was amazed how good it was myself. Something I plan on working on! Thank you.

  4. I never knew people actually drank buttermilk; I love it, but strictly for baking, and pancakes of course.


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