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Churn out new recipes with buttermilk

Cultured buttermilk is tangy, fatty and has layers of complex flavour that enrich an array of dishes

No mayo ranch dressing (left); and buttermilk khichadi. (Istockphoto and Nandit Iyer)

By Nandita Iyer

LAST PUBLISHED 16.09.2023  |  09:00 AM IST

Janamashtami is over and after churning fresh butter for Krishna, we are left with a pot of buttermilk. Tangy, creamy, with tiny pellets of butter floating in it, buttermilk is a uniquely textured and flavoured beverage.

When I was in the US in 2004-05, I was surprised to see cartons of buttermilk sold in the supermarkets. This is mainly sold in north America. What I didn’t know then was that packaged buttermilk sold in the US is not a by-product of butter production, and it had nothing to do with butter. Skimmed milk with around 0.5% fat is homogenised and fermented with lactobacillus culture for 12-16 hours at 22 degrees Celsius to obtain cultured buttermilk, with a tangy complex taste and a texture that is thicker than skimmed milk. It is sprayed with butter flakes to make it somewhat richer, cooled down to 5 degrees and then packaged.

Also read | How to churn fresh butter and have your ‘ghee’ too

Butter can be obtained by churning cream or fermented cream (sour cream), the latter is called cultured butter, which has a tangier taste.

The cultured buttermilk that we make in Indian homes is a by-product of churning home-made butter, which I end up with a bottle of every week. To make butter, I collect the cream floating on the surface of boiled and chilled milk and save this cream in a box in the freezer. When the box is full after a few days, I let it thaw outside. Then I mix in some dahi (which works as the culture to ferment the cream), stir it well and keep it covered overnight to get soured cream. The following morning, I add water to this and either handchurn it or use an electric whisk to separate out the butter from the soured cream and what is left behind is buttermilk. The butter usually gets made into ghee.

Cultured buttermilk is tangy, fatty and with layers of such complex flavour that even mixing it into plain rice with salt makes for a delicious curd rice.

Back to the cartons of buttermilk in American supermarkets—buttermilk is used in making mostly southern-style biscuits and pancakes. The acidity in the buttermilk reacts with the baking soda, leavening the dough and giving a tender product. The very popular ranch dressing has buttermilk as a key ingredient providing the all-important tanginess and creaminess. Southern fried chicken uses buttermilk as a marinade before dredging it in seasoned flour, which helps tenderise the meat and give it a tangy flavour. Added to mashed potatoes, it lends a creamy tangy texture. When used as the liquid ingredient in baked goods like tea cakes, scones and muffins, it makes them soft and fluffy. Buttermilk is also an excellent addition to waffle and pancake batters, inhibiting gluten development.

Back home, freshly made buttermilk (called vennai edutha mor in Tamil) was served to us with a dash of salt on hot days, the creamy texture felt like a treat in comparison to the neer mor (watered down dahi with spices) that was the usual drink with lunch. Those who make butter at home, like yours truly, are left with the buttermilk which is then repurposed into several dishes. Kadhi is one such dish, made across north and west India in its many avatars, where soured buttermilk with spices or sugar, aromatics like garlic, curry leaves, whole spices and thickened with some chickpea flour, is a delectable alternative to dal. Fry some pakodas and turn it into a Punjabi kadhi.

In the south, a lot of dishes make use of leftover buttermilk—such as majige huli in Karnataka, mor kuzhambu in Tamil Nadu, mor kootan or moru curry in Kerala. Cultured buttermilk can also be used to aid fermentation of breakfast and snacks such as idlis, rava idlis, dosa batters made using a variety of flours, handvo (lentil savoury cakes from Gujarat), dhokla etc.

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Buttermilk can also be added to coconut chutneys or green chutneys for a touch of sourness instead of adding tamarind or lime juice, respectively.

Also read | Chutney recipes according to science

If you are not the type to churn your own butter and be left with a vat of buttermilk every week, and if you don’t have access to the cartons, you can still try the scones, pancakes and dosas with cheat’s version of buttermilk.

Method 1: 1 cup milk + 1 tbsp lemon juice or white vinegar—mix and let it stand for 10 minutes and use as required. I would not recommend using this one for kadhis.

Method 2: 1 cup dahi + one third cup water and whisk well, use as required.

BUTTERMILK KHICHDI

Serves 2

Ingredients

Two-thirds cup rice (any variety)
One-third cup split yellow moong dal
1 tbsp ghee
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black pepper corns
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp grated ginger
One-fourth cup chopped cabbage
One-fourth cup chopped carrot
Half tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk
2 tsp ghee for garnish

Method

Wash the rice and dal well. Soak in a bowl of water for 20 minutes.

In a pressure pan, heat the ghee and fry cumin seeds and black pepper. Add the garlic, ginger and chopped veggies and saute for 3-4 minutes. Mix in the turmeric, coriander and salt and toss well. Add 2 cups of water and the soaked rice, dal (use 3 cups water for an extra soft khichdi) and bring to a simmer.

Mix in the buttermilk, stir well. Keep the flame on lowest setting and cook for two whistles. Turn off the flame and let the pressure subside naturally.

Serve hot with a garnish of ghee.

NO-MAYO RANCH DRESSING

Ingredients

1 cup Greek yogurt (plain, unsweetened)
Half cup buttermilk
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
Half tsp crushed black pepper
Half tsp dried mixed herbs
1 tsp salt
Half tsp red chilli powder (Kashmiri)

Method

Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl and store in an airtight bottle in the fridge. Use on any salad as a dressing; can be used as a dip too.

Double Tested is a fortnightly column on vegetarian cooking, highlighting a single ingredient prepared two ways. Nandita Iyer’s latest book is The Great Indian Thali—Seasonal Vegetarian Wholesomeness (Roli Books). She posts @saffrontrail on Twitter and Instagram.

Also read | Bust the myths and relish the sweetness of honey