Riding the wave of nostalgia for old-fashioned foods, buttermilk has come roaring back into vogue alongside other 19th-century pantry staples like lard and sorghum. Back in the day, buttermilk referred to the liquid left after butter was churned, but today’s product is made by adding bacteria directly to milk to create the thicker texture and characteristic tang and acidity.
Taps strong regional connection
The phrase “buttermilk sky” originated in the South to describe fluffy clouds that resembled the froth of freshly made buttermilk and hinted at the product’s indispensability to Southern cooks. It has maintained its crucial role in contemporary kitchens. At Buttermilk Sky Pie Shop in Atlanta, the namesake pie features a smooth, sweet filling akin to custard. Buttermilk is absolutely requisite to an authentic biscuit, a link that sibling operations Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. have exploited; recent promotion of their Made from Scratch Biscuits touted the use of “real buttermilk.” McDonald’s followed a similar path last year when it introduced Premium Buttermilk Crispy Chicken.
Arby's Buttermilk Chicken Sandwich line
The latter underscores how well buttermilk pairs with another Southern staple: fried chicken. Its acidity provides a nice balance to the fatty protein. The Golden Chicken Sandwich at The Habit Burger Grill is hand dipped in house-made seasoned flours and buttermilk not once, but twice, before being fried. The limited-time Sweet Heat Chicken Sandwich at the Burger 21 chain included a buttermilk-dipped crispy chicken burger topped with sweet-heat sauce, creamy avocado and sweet watermelon. Shake Shack, which has had barn-burning success with its chicken sandwiches, reportedly has been testing its latest entry in the New-York market, where the Salt & Pepper Honey Chick’n Sandwich is slow-cooked in buttermilk before being topped with salted honey and ground black pepper. Late last summer, Arby’s launched a Buttermilk Chicken Sandwich line built on chicken breasts marinated in buttermilk, then coated in buttermilk breading for good measure.
Ubiquitous in batters
Buttermilk tenderizes the gluten in flour, which explains its importance in baked goods like biscuits, as well as its starring role in Denny’s new Buttermilk Pancakes. Introduced in July to great fanfare, the revamped breakfast favorite contains only four ingredients: eggs, vanilla, flour and the eponymous buttermilk, which replaces buttermilk solids used in the previous recipe and results in a puffy pancake twice its former thickness. The Pittsburgh-based Burgatory Bar chain features a Sunday Brunch Burger, in which the coffee-crusted patty is topped with cheese, onion, egg and maple aïoli, then served on buttermilk pancakes.
Buttermilk is also key to crispy coatings, as with California Pizza Kitchen’s Spicy Buffalo Cauliflower, which is made from fresh cauliflower florets in buttermilk batter, fried to a golden brown and tossed in homemade Sriracha Buffalo sauce.
Buttermilk Fried Onion Rings are standard on the side-dish menu at Bobby’s Burger Palace, a better-burger chain founded by celebrity chef Bobby Flay.
California Pizza Kitchen's Spicy Buffalo Cauliflower
Essential to popular salad dressing
The NPD Group reports that ranch dressing, which was created in the 1950s at Hidden Valley Ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif., is the top ready-made dressing in foodservice. Typically comprised of buttermilk, herbs, spices and a combination of sour cream and mayonnaise, the cooling properties of buttermilk-based, ranch-style dressings have made it a natural companion to spicy foods. At Parish in Atlanta, the Nashville Hot Chicken Wings are served with dill pickles, white bread and buttermilk dipping sauce. It plays well with non-incendiary items, too. At The Loyalist in Chicago, the Smoky Potatoes are served with sauerkraut, an egg and buttermilk mayonnaise, while the Fresh Kale Salad at The Cheesecake Factory is tossed with buttermilk-black pepper dressing.
In fact, it perks up a wide range of dishes, like the Buttermilk Whipped Potatoes at 101 Steak in Atlanta, which also offers a buttermilk-blue cheese steak sauce. Buttermilk Panna Cotta is a signature dessert at Chicago’s Ada Street, and the house bread at Kali in Los Angeles is made with buttermilk that is a byproduct of the restaurant’s house-made butter.
We can expect more aggressive promotion of buttermilk use. Like its first cousin butter, it has rebounded in consumption because it represents the real, simple food ingredients favored by today’s consumers.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. As one of Linked In’s Top 100 Influencers in the US, she blogs regularly on food-related subjects on the LinkedIn website.