The problem with buttermilk is there isn't a lot of "real" buttermilk around.
The good news is that the newfangled buttermilk available at most grocers isn't all that bad. Better yet, it's easy to make the real stuff yourself.
But first, a buttermilk primer. As its name suggests, buttermilk is the tangy milk-like liquid left behind when cultured cream is churned to make butter. At least that's how they made it in the old days. Today, it's usually commercially produce by adding cultures (think the bacteria that produces yogurt) to low- or no–fat milk.
Either way, you end up with an acidic, thick, milky liquid. But why is this considered an ingredient that's off the beaten aisle? After all, we've all had buttermilk pancakes and waffles. It's because what most people don't realize is just how versatile an ingredient buttermilk is. And it belongs on the dinner table as much as at breakfast.
Let's start with buttermilk's signature tang. It's tangy because it's acidic, and acidic ingredients make for great marinades. Give chicken, pork or turkey a buttermilk bath and you'll get especially tender, flavorful meat.
And that same tang turns out killer mashed potatoes. Use it in place of regular milk, then mash away. Ditto for sweet potatoes.
Next time you're making vinaigrette, add buttermilk for rich, luxurious flavor. Try a blend of olive oil, buttermilk, lemon juice, strawberry jam, salt and black pepper.
Buttermilk also is delicious in fruit smoothies. Substitute buttermilk for a quarter to half of the liquid you'd normally use.
When shopping for buttermilk, most of what you find at the grocer is labeled "cultured buttermilk," which generally refers to low-fat or skim milk that has been cultured. But a number of regional dairies now sell "real" buttermilk, a smart use of the liquid leftover from their butter making operations.