While farmers’ wives and other home cooks were using sour milk in their baked goods, America saw an influx of immigrants from parts of the world where sour milk was considered a refreshing everyday beverage. Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, who have a tendency toward lactose intolerance, may have been especially inclined to drink it, since the bacteria make it more digestible. The nonimmigrant American public was generally mistrustful of sour milk as a beverage until 1907, when Russian biologist Elie Metchnikoff concluded that the relative longevity enjoyed by people living in the Balkans was a direct result of their consumption of sour milk. Health-conscious Americans started going crazy for sour milk, thinking it would prevent aging. At his sanitarium in Battle Creek, Mich., holistic doctor and breakfast-cereal enthusiast John Harvey Kellogg began serving an ultra-tart, deliberately soured version with the catchy name “Bulgarian buttermilk.”
Naturally-occurring sour milk had in the mean time become increasingly rare, thanks to modern refrigeration. So commercial dairies, spotting an unfilled niche, began to culture it themselves, and sold the new product widely as buttermilk starting in the 1920s. This was much like the buttermilk we find in grocery stores today: Made from low-fat milk and lactic acid bacteria that grow best under moderate heat conditions. Dairies used low-fat milk because it was cheaper than whole milk, but still took on a thick, creamy body when cultured. Low-fat buttermilk also appealed to what Mendelson calls “a nascent fan club of dieters brought into existence—just at this time—by a new 1910s and 1920s cult of slenderness.”
With the combined purchasing power of immigrant populations, health nuts, and bakers, cultured buttermilk was selling at a peak rate of 1,140 million pounds annually by 1960. Today’s buttermilk sales are less than half that—yogurt has ascended as the cultured-milk product of choice among health-conscious folks over the past few decades, even though both yogurt and buttermilk contain healthful probiotics.
Butter-byproduct buttermilk, meanwhile, remains mostly the province of small farmers and DIYers. Large butter manufacturers now dry their butter byproducts and sell them to processed-food manufacturers as means of adding body and texture. (If you’ve ever eaten ice cream or a candy bar with “buttermilk solids” on its ingredients list, you’ve consumed the byproduct of butter.) In other words, the “good, fresh buttermilk” I’d read about as a child isn’t exactly easy to get your hands on. But I wanted to know what the original buttermilk, the byproduct kind, looked and tasted like. Was it anything like the tart stuff popularized by J.H. Kellogg and sold around the country starting in the 1920s? If I’d had a swig of real buttermilk when I was 7, would I have liked it?
I set out to make some myself, which meant making butter from scratch. That didn't turn out to be so difficult: After vigorously whisking a carton’s worth of heavy cream for 20 minutes or so in my stand mixer, I found myself with a big lump of yellow fat and a thin, white liquid.
The liquid had several bubbles dotting its surface but was nowhere near as thick as cultured buttermilk. I strained it and took a sip. It tasted at first a lot like milk, then my mouth filled with a faint butter flavor—maybe there were a few tiny globules of fat floating around in there—followed by a watery aftertaste. There wasn’t a hint of acidity; in fact—though it wasn’t bad—"good, fresh buttermilk" was kind of bland. But at least I understood what Laura Ingalls Wilder had been talking about.
My homemade buttermilk was definitely more drinkable than the cultured stuff. (To make sure, I tasted a bit of store-bought buttermilk right after sampling the butter byproduct. Yep: still thick and sour.) But it’s not something I’d drink every day for the flavor, and it’s not particularly healthy, either. Uncultured, churned buttermilk is relatively low in calcium (compared to other dairy products) and doesn’t contain any “good” bacteria. Further, my homemade buttermilk didn’t reveal any special attributes when I tried to bake with it: A batch of buttermilk biscuits made using the DIY stuff (sans baking soda, since there wasn’t any acidity in the liquid) were indistinguishable from any biscuit made with regular milk: dry, crumbly, ho-hum.
Given its unremarkable flavor and texture, I can only conclude that traditional buttermilk is a thing of the past for good reason. But that doesn’t mean I’m happy with the state of the buttermilk section at my local supermarket. Why is cultured milk still low-fat, as a rule? Cult of slenderness be damned: Whether you’re drinking your dairy in a glass or baking it into a biscuit, the kind with higher fat content usually tastes better. I'm guessing the same goes for buttermilk, too.