Buttermilk is practically non-existant in Italy, and I get so many emails, comments and questions about it that I decided to dedicate a post to the issue. So here is my attempt to answer all your questions, once and for all! Let me know if I missed anything!
Q: What is buttermilk?
A: Originally buttermilk was the tart, fat-free liquid left behind after churning butter out of cream. In modern times it is made by adding lactic acid to milk.
Q: Why use buttermilk for baking?
A: Because it is an acidic ingredient, like yogurt, buttermilk adds a pleasant tang to desserts and quick breads. This acidity not only helps baked goods rise, but also tenderizes the gluten in batter, lending a softer texture and more body to cakes, breads, biscuits and pancakes. It is also effective as a meat tenderizer and is commonly used as a marinade for chicken.
Q: Where can I buy it?
A: It’s hard to come by in Italy, but not impossible to find. Some specialty stores and international supermarkets sometimes carry it (try Superpolo, NaturaSi, Lidl, Todis or Eurospin)
Q: Can I substitute buttermilk with more common ingredients?
A: The good news is yes, you can substitute buttermilk easily, and will barely be able to taste the difference in the final product:
- The quick and easy buttermilk substitute: mix together 1 part nonfat yogurt and 1 part skim milk with a spoonful of lemon juice. Let stand at room temperature for 5-15 minutes before using in your recipe.
- The longer and harder way: beat whipping cream until it separates into butter, the clear liquid that has separated from the fat is your buttermilk. If you want to use and store the butter, rinse it first under cold water and squeeze out all of the liquid before transferring to an air-tight container. Store in the refrigerator.