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Cooking with buttermilk

Buttermilk is richer tasting than regular milk, yet is low in both fat and calories. Submitted Photo

Buttermilk is one of those foods that some health-conscious cooks don't give a second thought.

It often falls under the misconception that it's buttery, high-fat milk. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"Traditionally, buttermilk was the byproduct of churning butter," said Lynn Holum, licensed registered dietitian with Altru Health System. "But today, it's made from skim milk, water, live culture, lactose and a small amount of butterfat."

And that makes buttermilk a low-fat way to include richer-tasting dairy in your diet without extra calories and fat.

One cup of buttermilk has only 99 calories and 2.2 grams of fat, comparable to skim milk.

Buttermilk also is a good source of potassium, phosphorus, vitamin B12, calcium and riboflavin, Holum added.

Another healthful property of buttermilk is that it's a probiotic.

Probiotics are the good bacteria that promote healthy digestion and build immunity.

Most are fermented, at least partially, like buttermilk.

The flavor of buttermilk is a bit tangy -- more like yogurt -- and has a thicker texture than regular milk. These characteristics make buttermilk a great addition to many recipes.

Just recently, I prepared a savory buttermilk chicken dish -- using pheasant breasts -- that was quick and easy to prepare and was a big hit in our house.

The breasts were dipped in buttermilk -- instead of milk -- before they were rolled in a seasoned flour mixture and then baked in the oven in a small amount of butter.

After cooking for 45 minutes at 450 degrees, I topped the pheasant with a can of cream of mushroom soup combined with another cup of buttermilk for the final 20 minutes of cooking.

I've also used buttermilk in banana bread, another favorite.

A long history

Buttermilk has been around for a long time. It is known to have been used by the ancient Hindus up to 5,000 years ago.

My memory isn't quite that old, but I remember as kid when my dad would bring buttermilk home in a half-gallon glass jug from a dairy in

Twin Valley, Minn.

He liked to drink it seasoned with a bit of salt and pepper, something my brother, Kevin, and I soon copied and which I still do to this day.

These days, it's hard, if not impossible, to find that kind of buttermilk, which probably was fermented by natural bacteria.

Now, with the rise of large commercial dairies, much of the buttermilk today is made with reduced-fat milk instead of the old-fashioned way of adding active cultures to regular milk or "sweet" milk.

Tips, suggestions

Here are a few tips and some more cooking suggestions from Altru's Holum for buttermilk:

• Buttermilk can be used to replace milk and most of the butter in baked goods.

• Add buttermilk to a favorite smoothie recipe. Using half yogurt and half buttermilk results in a smoothie with a great taste and texture.

• Replace most of the cream and/or whole milk in your favorite ice cream recipes. Buttermilk ice cream is creamy and delicious. The addition of fresh or frozen fruits creates endless options.

• Use buttermilk to make homemade salad dressing. Combine equal amounts of light sour cream, light mayo and buttermilk. Add your favorite spices, herbs and cheeses for a great-tasting dressing.

If you're looking for more reasons to use buttermilk besides its nutritional value, there are some old wives' tales as to other benefits.

In India, buttermilk has been used as a cure for an overdose of bhang, an ancient native Indian drink (similar in taste to Chai Tea), consisting of various spices, creamed milk and copious amounts of cannabis ground up with a mortar and pestle.

Early U.S. settlers thought a glass of buttermilk protected a person from poison ivy.

And pioneer women often washed their faces in buttermilk for a soft and creamy complexion.

I'm just going to stick to using it for cooking.

Jeff Tiedeman is the food editor at the Grand Forks Herald, a publication of Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 780-1136, toll-free at (800) 477-6572, or by e-mail at