According to Anne Mendelson, the author of "Milk," there is no set definition of buttermilk. The term was first used in reference to the liquid left over after milk was churned into butter, but today, buttermilk almost always means the tart, creamy liquid produced by fermenting milk with lactic-acid cultures. This cultured buttermilk is much thicker than its traditional predecessor. Buttermilk is a cousin to several popular fermented milk drinks around the world, including filmjolk in Sweden, kefir in the Middle East, lassi in India and ayran in Turkey.
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With traditional buttermilk, fermentation occurs naturally during the churning process. As the cream and milk are left to sit and separate, bacteria produces lactic acid, dropping the pH of the milk, speeding up the production of butter and preventing unwanted micro-organisms from growing in the churn. Cultured buttermilk is produced for commercial consumption by adding a bacteria culture to low-fat milk. It is then pasteurised, and sometimes flecks of butter are added to the liquid in imitation of traditional buttermilk's appearance.
Buttermilk is used in many baked goods, including biscuits, pancakes and waffles. When added to baking soda, it is a popular leavening agent, and it is said to make foods airy and light. It is often added to soups and salad dressings and used as a coating for fried chicken. Within the United States, buttermilk is associated with the South, where the warm climate made buttermilk preparation quick and easy.
Despite its deceptive creaminess, buttermilk has less fat and calories than regular milk---98 calories per cup as opposed to whole milk's 157 calories per cup---and because of its high lactic acid content, it is easier to digest. It is high in calcium, phosphorus, potassium and riboflavin.
Buttermilk has acquired something of a legendary quality in areas of the South. It is said to be effective as a hangover cure, an aid to libido or a youth potion. But buttermilk's more established health benefit is its gastrointestinal one--it soothes and aids digestion. Like yoghurt, buttermilk is probiotic, and its lactic bacteria is said to strengthen the immune system.
Buttermilk is available in nearly all grocery stores. However, there are many proponents of making buttermilk at home, a process requiring only the careful combination of fresh cultured buttermilk and regular milk. A substitute for buttermilk can also be created by adding a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar to a cup of milk, stirring, and allowing the mixture to stand for 5 minutes.
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