Column: Buttermilk brings the background flavor to Appalachian dishes

By Candace Nelson - 10:37 AM


Here's my latest column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

The word buttermilk makes anything seem more indulgent. Buttermilk pancakes. Buttermilk fried chicken. Buttermilk biscuits.

But what is buttermilk?

Traditionally, buttermilk is the liquid that is left over from churning butter out of cultured cream. It is what is left in the churn after the butter has floated all the way to the top.

It is not to be confused with “sweet milk,” a term common in Appalachia that refers to whole milk.

Buttermilk has been a staple in the Appalachian diet for years due to its versatility, and because it has a higher level of acidity, it spoils at a slower rate than sweet milk. That made it especially popular in warmer climates before refrigeration was commonplace.

Its flavor is a bit tart, which works well in baked goods or even as a beverage. It is often found in biscuits, pastries, or in a glass with crumbled cornbread. Sometimes it was served on its own as a drink alongside meals.

The fermented dairy drink’s flavor adds contrast to sweets and is nostalgic for many in the region.

Today, buttercream, for the most part, is not made with cultured cream - but uncultured sweet cream. Instead, buttercream is now cultured separately.

Though the process may be different for creating buttermilk, Appalachians’ taste for the stuff has not changed. It is still popular as both a drink and part of meals - even though the advent of refrigeration has lessened the need for its hearty qualities.

Buttermilk’s integration into recipes draws on nostalgia for many. While it is valuable in its own right for its flavor, buttermilk also is reminiscent of earlier times in Appalachia. Times when things moved at a slower pace and that buttermilk was likely made less than a few miles away - if not a few feet.

It is often playing a supporting role in dishes; it is not the star. Buttermilk, though, pulls it all together. It is a background layer woven throughout the dish that adds richness and flavor.

It is not necessarily flashy or showy, which in many ways is not unlike Appalachia itself. Instead, both buttermilk and Appalachia are utilitarian, humble and hardworking.

Appalachia values these characteristics in food, but they extend to the collective community as well. Working together to create something bigger and better is at the heart of the region and reflected in the foodways of Appalachians.

How do you best enjoy buttermilk?

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