In the May issue we visit Animal Farm, the small Vermont dairy that produces some of the best butter in the country. In recent years, the farm’s founder and owner, Diane St. Clair, has started to bottle and sell buttermilk—a natural by-product of butter-making that was once a staple of American kitchens. “Good old-fashioned buttermilk is nothing like the sour, tasteless stuff made that you find in most grocery stores,” she says. In her new book, The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook (out in June), St. Clair offers more than 80 tantalizing recipes and explains how you can make your own tasty, tangy buttermilk at home. We talked to St. Clair about her latest passion project.
In the Little House on the Prairie books, buttermilk was a delicious treat. So why does the buttermilk from the grocery store taste so terrible?
Most commercially sold buttermilk is made out of skim milk that’s had a lactic-acid culture added to it. So when you’re starting with skim milk, you’re culturing something that already has very little taste. The overwhelming flavor you get is the sourness.
How do you make your buttermilk?
I take my cream, pasteurize it, and then culture it with a lactic-acid culture. The cream rests, and then we churn it. Once the cream “comes,” you’re left with butter grains and a white liquid—which is buttermilk.
Why do you culture it?
By law, I can only sell pasteurized dairy. But if I didn’t have to follow health regulations, I could take my raw milk, let it sit by the stove, and let it sour naturally. I wouldn’t have to add any lactic acid, because all the bacteria would naturally be there.
What are some of your favorite recipes in the book?
If I had to pick, I’d say the chicken potpie, the green-bean and potato salad, and the gingerbread. The potpie crust comes out like a cross between a biscuit and a soufflé, and it will rock your world. The salad has a buttermilk-and-chive dressing that’s an amazing balance of creamy and acidic. And the gingerbread—it’s nice and light but with incredibly intense flavors. There’s just something about the juxtaposition of the acid in the buttermilk with the ginger and cardamom.
What’s the trick to cooking with buttermilk?
If you overheat it, it will break. Always heat buttermilk gradually and stir it gently. The more fat in your recipe, the less chance your buttermilk is going to curd.
And if you use flour, say in a roux, and then add the buttermilk, there’s even less chance of its breaking.
What’s another great use for buttermilk?
Sunburn. Put some cool buttermilk on your skin and you’ll feel better instantly.
Photographs by Colin Clark, excerpted from The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook: Recipes and Reflections from a Small Vermont Dairy, by Diane St. Clair, with permission from Andrews McMeel Publishing.