Creamy, twangy buttermilk has long been a favorite in fried chicken and all kinds of rich desserts. But its refreshingly sour flavor and milky consistency adapt well to lighter, brighter uses beyond those standards. We asked a panel of pro chefs from around the country for ideas on how to use it morning, noon, and night.
Soft, Tangy Cheese Spread
Originally from Missouri, executive chef Rachel Dow of Chicago's The Betty has lived and worked in Chicago for over a decade. She honed her skills at classic restaurants like Perennial, Blackbird, Maude's Liquor Bar, and Avec.
If you simmer buttermilk, the solids separate and form into a chevre-like curd. Strain out the whey, spin the solids in a blender or food processor to turn them smooth, and use the resulting mixture like a goat cheese. You can add flavorings to it, or spread it on a plate underneath proteins.
...Or Farmer's Cheese
Formerly of Momofuku Noodle Bar and French Louie, Ian Alvarez recently opened Bara in New York City's East Village, where he blends the culinary and atmospheric influences of a French wine bar with a Japanese izakaya.
Since it's acidic, use buttermilk to acidulate other types of dairy to make cheese. You can make a version almost like a farmer's cheese or a delicious cottage cheese by taking four parts milk, one part cream, and one part buttermilk. Put it on the stove, cover it, bring it up to a low heat, and let it stay for an hour or so. Skim off the curds from the top and you have fresh cheese without adding more acid—the buttermilk has enough to form the curds on its own.
What you can do with that cheese is endless: press and age or smoke it for something like a ricotta salata, or eat it fresh and keep it in its larger curd form, or whip it to break the curds down and emulsify it for something like a mascarpone. Using buttermilk rather than lemon juice reduces the sharpness that tastes more obviously ricotta-like. It's mellower, a good vehicle for folding in other things like herbs.
Dmitry Rodov inherited his love for the culinary arts from his father before attending the Ukrainian Culinary College, then moving to New York and continuing at the French Culinary Institute. As the Executive Chef of Duet Brasserie, Rodov focuses on "home cooking, beautifully presented."
I do buttermilk cherry soup. It's a chilled Hungarian soup with blood cherries, buttermilk, sour cream, vanilla bean paste, and honey. I halve and pit the cherries, macerate them with sugar for five to six hours so that the juices come out, then take that syrup and mix it with buttermilk, sour cream, vanilla paste, honey, and a little cayenne pepper for kick, and then that's it. The cherries go in at the end and keep their bite in the soup.
Perfectionist Tony Messina graduated as valedictorian of his class at Cambridge Culinary School before working with Ken Oringer at Uni in Boston. As sashimi chef, Tony turns out beautifully plated sashimi dishes that pull flavors and ingredients from his Mediterranean roots.
Use buttermilk in place of vinegar for a simple mignonette for oysters. It already has a natural acidic quality and it can stand up to big flavors and even a good amount of heat; mix in some black garlic or even sriracha for good measure. The trick, since there's no standard recipe, is to make sure that you use the buttermilk for its acidity and not its flavor. It's all by taste—if the mignonette needs more even acidity, add vinegar to it. For a fried oyster, I usually find that the buttermilk with black garlic is perfect as-is.
A Smarter Pancake
Chef Anthony Russo is the founder of Russo's Coal-Fired Italian Kitchen and Russo's New York Pizzeria in Houston. His Italian-inspired menus in each of his restaurants reflect his heritage.
Buttermilk ricotta pancakes! Add buttermilk, orange zest, ricotta cheese, and a little sugar into your flour-egg mix, and it makes a really nice ricotta pancake—the buttermilk brings out the sourness of the ricotta, and makes the batter lighter and more flavorful than milk would.
Creamy Salad Dressings and Marinades
Chef Gavin Kaysen worked at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, CA, L'Auberge de Lavaux in Switzerland, L'Escargot in London, and El Bizcocho in San Diego, where he was named a Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef. He then earned a James Beard Rising Star Chef award and Michelin star working with Daniel Boulud at Café Boulud in New York City, before moving to Minneapolis and opening his first solo venture, Spoon and Stable. Kaysen was also a Bocuse d'Or contender in 2007, and as head coach recently led 2015 Team USA to a record-breaking second place victory, the first medal for the United States in the history of the competition.
I use buttermilk in creamy dressings at home. I blend a dressing base of a bit of buttermilk, some yogurt, mustard, and white wine vinegar. You can add avocado for an avocado dressing, dill for dill dressing, or lot of herbs for a green goddess dressing. It has a great sourness to it, so you can use it for a marinade, too—I use that a lot in crock-pot cooking.
DIY Crème Fraîche
Chef Matthew Tropeano spent eight years at the famed New York restaurant La Grenouille, receiving a 3-star rating from the New York Times during his tenure as executive chef before helming the kitchen at Cape Cod's Pain D'Avignon.
For house-made crème fraîche, we take about a quart of heavy cream and a half-cup of buttermilk, mix the two, and leave it out at room temperature, covered with cheesecloth or a really clean dish or kitchen towel. Depending on the temperature of your kitchen, it should take four or five day to settle into crème fraiche. Check it by taking a clean spoon and stirring gently to see if it's nice and thickened up; it should have the consistency of thick sour cream. The only time I've screwed it up, I clearly saw blue mold, and had to throw it away. But as long as you keep everything very clean—your bowl, your towel, your spoon—it's really simple and there's not much to it. Refrigerate it and save it up to two weeks.
Tangy Ice Cream
Classically trained in Italy, Amalia Scatena uses refined Mediterranean techniques, seasonal ingredients, and local products at her Charleston newcomer Cannon Green.
Buttermilk ice cream is the bomb. I could eat it all day. If you're making ice cream at home, a typical custard ice cream recipe will call for milk, eggs, and cream, where the heavy cream gets added cold at the end of the custard process—I substitute the cream with buttermilk. It gives it a really tangy flavor, and it pairs great with summer fruits like peaches. I add some lemon zest, too, to make the fruit flavor pop.