When I started sharing cheese and homemade dairy recipes and teaching workshops on making cheese last year, you learned how to use a simple starter to make yogurt and an acidic kitchen staple to make cheese. But to expand the range of dairy products and cheeses you make in your kitchen, you’ll need to become familiar with powdered starter.
These magical little packets of bacterial cultures do the same thing as yogurt and lemon juice: they acidify, or ripen, warm milk, letting the good bacteria grow. But the beauty of them is in their specificity. Each starter culture has particular strains of bacteria that create different flavors and textures from the same milk. The range of available cultures is impressive, and I recommend reading about them in Mary Karlin’s and Gianaclis Caldwell’s books to really understand how they work. Here, I’ll give a quick intro that will let you make and use cultured buttermilk.
If you like to bake, chances are you’ve “made” buttermilk in a pinch by stirring some vinegar or lemon juice into a cup of milk and letting it sit for a few minutes until it sours. Or you keep a tub of powdered substitute on hand. Still, you know that buttermilk should taste better—tangy, creamy, and slightly thick. But real, traditional buttermilk is nearly impossible to find: the liquid left after making butter can only be created by cow owners churning raw milk. Even cultured buttermilk is increasingly difficult to find: many commercial cartons today are a blend of water, milk components, and salt, along with thickeners, additives, and preservatives. So there are plenty of reasons to culture your own.
For that, you need two things: the right milk and the right starter culture. Unless you know the cows supplying you with raw milk, culturing really only works well with pasteurized milk, not ultrapasteurized or ultra-high-temperature milk, which has already been heated to such a high temperature that it won’t ferment properly. And culturing works best in nonhomogenized (or cream on top) milk, in which the fat globules haven’t been broken apart and suspended in the milk.
The right culture could come under a few names, but you want a mesophilic culture, which does its magic at the lowest temperatures. Look for one labeled Aroma B; it will give the best buttermilk flavor and be useful in other culturing recipes. You can also find culture sold specifically as buttermilk starter. My favorite sources for starter include New England Cheesemaking Supply, Cultures for Health, and Hoegger.
1/8 teaspoon mesophilic starter, such as Aroma B or buttermilk culture
Pour the fridge-cold milk into a sterilized, wide-mouth glass pint jar. Add warm water to a 3-quart or larger saucepan until it is half full, and then set the jar of milk into the saucepan to rest for about 30 minutes, until the milk and water are the same temperature. Sprinkle the powdered starter over the milk and let it sit for 5 minutes to rehydrate. Use a fork to stir the starter into the milk, using about 20 strokes in an up-and-down motion to work it into the entire jar. Set a sterilized canning lid loosely on the jar. Leave the jar in the water bath for 12 hours or overnight to let the culture develop.
Remove the jar of buttermilk from the water bath, and then screw a canning ring over the lid. Let the buttermilk sit at room temperature for another 6–36 hours, until it ripens to your desired flavor. Use immediately (see below), or transfer the jar to the fridge and let it sit overnight to develop a fuller flavor. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Makes 1 pint.
Tips & Tricks
- You won’t be sealing your buttermilk jar, so this is a great reuse for a used canning lid. If you aren’t yet canning and stashing away jars, any glass pint jar will do. Just sterilize the clean jar and lid to ensure safety and prevent off flavors by immersing them for 5 minutes in water that’s at a rolling boil.
- I prefer the flavor of buttermilk made with whole milk, but you can use 1% or 2% milk if you’re worried about the fat content. Be sure to check the label; the supplier may have put salt, sugar, or other additives and thickeners into lower-fat milk to “enhance” the flavor, and these could affect the taste and texture of your buttermilk.
- In addition to the right milk and right starter, the key to cultured dairy products is time. The longer you let the milk sit at its holding temperature, the better the flavor. Thickening also takes time. So check your jar throughout the process and let it sit up to the maximum time to get the tang and texture you want.
Twice as Tasty
Buttermilk is a classic component of many recipes that want a hint of tang, but I mainly use it in biscuits. As a kid, my mom usually made biscuits when she needed a bread on the dinner table at the last minute. Instead of the bite of buttermilk and baking soda, a combination that helps biscuits rise, she usually made them out of skim milk and baking powder. They would still rise and flake apart in your hands, and I’d happily drizzle them with honey, but they lacked the tang I’ve always loved.
Now that I’ve discovered home-cultured buttermilk, I’ve wrapped all of my favorite flavors into them: buttermilk, baking soda, and honey. But even though I’m offering them up this week as a use for your newly made buttermilk, I’ll share a little secret: these biscuits are a great way to use up the ultra-sour whey left after draining homemade Fresh Yogurt.
Honey–Chili Buttermilk Biscuits
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons salted butter at fridge temperature
2 tablespoons coconut oil
4 teaspoons honey, divided
3/4 cup Cultured Buttermilk or yogurt whey
2 tablespoons salted butter at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon ground hot paprika
pinch of ground cayenne pepper
In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Slice the cold butter and add it, the coconut oil, and 2 teaspoons of honey to the bowl. Use your fingers to work the fats into the flour, as you would for pie crust, until the mixture becomes mealy. Pour in the buttermilk or whey and mix with your hands or a fork until the dough just begins to cling together. Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface, knead a couple of times until it starts to maintain a ball shape, and then flatten the ball into a rough circle about 1/2 inch thick. Cut it into 10–12 wedges with a knife or rounds with a biscuit cutter, and space them out on a lightly greased baking sheet.
Prepare the honey–chili butter by combining the room-temperature butter, remaining 2 teaspoons of honey, and spices in a small bowl and whipping them with a fork until they form a smooth paste. Spread the spiced butter over the top of each biscuit.
Bake at 425°F for 15 minutes, until the biscuit tops and bottoms are lightly brown. Serve immediately or move to a wire rack to cool. Makes 10–12 biscuits.
Tips & Tricks
- Honey–chili butter is so delicious that you may want a supply. I usually spice up a stick of butter at a time and then keep the extra in a small jar in the fridge. It’s delicious spread on Sourdough Pancakes, brushed onto fish or shrimp before grilling, or tossed with carrots or snap beans sautéed with ginger and garlic. If you like more heat, boost the ground pepper.
- Plenty of other flavors work too. Top biscuits with grated Parmesan, with or without the chili butter. Or brush with butter or egg white and sprinkle on Salt-Preserved Herbs or cinnamon and sugar.
- Another variation is to fold flavorings into the biscuits. Roll the dough into a 1/2-inch-thick rectangle, and make two double-letter folds as you would for Sourdough Cabin Bread, sprinkling on your chosen flavor between folds. Roll out again, and then cut into squares.
- It’s easy to make up a double or triple batch of biscuits but shape and flavor each batch differently for a gathering. Or keep them to yourself, storing them in the freezer and pulling them out as needed to accompany soup or frittata.
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