Divine, Full-Fat Buttermilk
words & photography John Golden
If you’re looking for the next big farm-to-table comestible, consider old-fashioned buttermilk. This treasured cooking staple is giving purists an agog moment beyond the usual hyped-up world of artisanal food, where even kale is finally losing its crunch.
Besides store-bought varieties, there are several classes of buttermilk. The genuine, old-fashioned kind, often called full-fat, is made with the liquid whey left from churning cream into butter, yielding a milky, acidic liquid used in baking and, for some, a great drink that’s an acquired taste. Then there’s cultured buttermilk, which is fermented by adding lactic acid cultures to skim milk. This produces a thicker, tangier milk. There’s a third variety, perhaps the most exquisite: full-fat buttermilk made from raw cream either left uncultured or cultured, both retaining those luscious butterfat globules.
Farm fresh cultured buttermilk is widely available from such Maine farms as Balfour Dairy of Pittsfield and Smiling Hill of Westbrook. Balfour’s buttermilk is a staple at farmers’ markets and farm stores in many parts of Maine. Theirs is typical of small-batch buttermilk derived from skim milk—either raw or pasteurized—to which cultures are added. It’s as tangy as yogurt and nearly as thick. And because it’s cultured it has a very long shelf life, improving with age, thickly rich and delicious, giving pancake batter and biscuits their inimitable flavor.
Until recently I thought this buttermilk was the bona fide nectar until I discovered the glories of full-fat old-fashioned buttermilk. This is buttermilk in its purest form, with butterfat that rises to the top. And the best is made from raw cream. Unfortunately, few farmers make this kind anymore because they’re more interested in using the whole milk and cream to make butter and cheese.
Yet farmers Bill and Darcy Wilson of High View Farm in Harrison make one of the purest buttermilks around. Their small herd of Guernsey cows, raised on pasture, produce whole milk that’s exceedingly rich. For the buttermilk, they separate the raw cream from the milk. It’s churned into butter and the liquid leftover has those cherished flecks of butterfat because it’s left unstrained.
You can use this buttermilk in biscuits without having to add fat to the dough because it’s so rich. I’ve become so hooked on the purity of High View’s dairy products (including raw milk, cream, butter, sour cream and yogurt) that I now regularly make the 80-mile round trip from Portland to their farm (they also sell at the Harrison farmer’s market on Fridays) to replenish my dairy stash. The butterfat content in the butter, for instance, is off the charts, and when used in baking, the difference in taste and texture is umami rapture.
Kate’s Butter in Biddeford also makes a classic old-fashioned buttermilk. Pasteurized cream is churned for butter and the leftover whey is then cultured. It has microscopic flecks of butter in the milk (it’s mostly strained out), but nothing as rich as the Wilson’s buttermilk.
I made three versions of my standard buttermilk biscuits using High View’s genuine buttermilk, Kate’s full-fat cultured and Balfour’s cultured. My standard recipe is 3 cups self-rising soft winter wheat flour to 1½ cups buttermilk. It’s a very wet dough that gets gently kneaded with dusting flour until it’s workable. I don’t use any fat in the dough because with full-fat buttermilk it’s unnecessary to render perfect, high-rising tender biscuits. I do brush the tops, however, with melted butter before baking and pour on more melted butter after baking.
The biscuits made with the pure buttermilk from High View were the clear standouts in the trial; without adding butter or lard to the dough, the other cultured milks didn’t work as well. And as long as the best, purest ingredients are available, the extra effort to use them is worthwhile indeed.