Genuine churned buttermilk is a rare luxury these days. Just ask Chef Sean Brock, who's been trying to get his hands on a supply of the real stuff for three years. "Buttermilk has been on my list," he says, showing off some "ice cream" and blobs of "cheese" made from the cultured buttermilk that he and his crew have been messing around with.
Like many Southerners, Brock grew up eating redneck cereal — you know, crumbled day-old cornbread made soggy and soupy with tangy buttermilk. It's a classic breakfast in these parts, mainly because buttermilk is one of those ingredients that became a staple out of necessity. Before refrigeration, sweet milk curdled pretty quickly in the southern summer heat, which left buttermilk — the liquid byproduct of churned butter — a much longer lasting option. Cooks came to rely on this magical milk for its ability to make breads and cakes tender and light.
Today, most buttermilk is cultured buttermilk — created by adding bacteria to skim milk. But if you're determined, like Brock, you just might be able to get your hands on some of the real stuff. During a trip to Tennessee for the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium back in January, Brock visited the Cruze Dairy Farm in Knoxville and brought home a couple half-gallons of their churned buttermilk. By the time I got over to McCrady's to taste some, he was already down to a mere cup or two. No doubt, the pastry chef couldn't resist.
Inspired by cookbook authors Matt and Ted Lee, who waxed poetic on the qualities of buttermilk at a fall cooking class, I went in search of dishes that rely on buttermilk for its amazing ability to brine, lighten, and tenderize all sorts of things, from chicken and squid to pie and biscuits. And then I called Brock to see what interesting things he could do with buttermilk and discovered a whole new world that included things like buttermilk crackers and bacon ice cream.
Buttermilk fried calamari with marinara ($8)
171 East Bay St.
Fried squid doesn't seem a likely dish in which to find buttermilk being used, but at Blossom, Chef Adam Close has found a perfect application for the tangy tenderizer — buttermilk-fried calamari with marinara. First, the fresh squid is marinated overnight in a tub of buttermilk, tenderizing the rubbery tentacles and getting them ready for the big deep-fry. After a night basking in buttermilk, the squid is dredged in a seasoned flour (salt, pepper, garlic powder) and dipped in a buttermilk egg wash, then dusted in flour and dipped in the egg wash again before being coated one last time in the seasoned flour, making sure the squid is thoroughly covered before being lowered into a very hot vat of vegetable oil. At the table, the calamari comes served with marinara for dipping and inevitably disappears in a matter of minutes. The breading is light and tasty, but doesn't overpower the delicate flavor of the calamari. Even the tentacles with the suckers on them are tender; some would say they're the best part of the dish.
Sausage gravy with two biscuits ($6)
The Glass OnionWest Ashley.
1219 Savannah Hwy.(843)
Over at the Glass Onion, a southern "soulful" food joint, they go through 13.5 gallons of Coburg buttermilk each week. They make cornbread and fried chicken with it. They marinate chicken livers in it. They coat oysters and quail in a batter made from it. But most spectacularly, they use it for the buttermilk biscuits that show up on the Saturday brunch menu. The recipe, adapted from famed cook/chemist Shirley Corriher, turns buttermilk into a leavening agent by mixing it with baking soda. Co-owner Sarah O'Kelley says she wouldn't have trusted the recipe had she not seen Corriher demonstrate it several times. "It's super wet dough," she says, making it seem completely incapable of rising to the occasion. But when the biscuits come out of the oven, they are a delicious combination of light and air. They sit side by side on a little plate, drenched in a gloopy ugly mess of sausage gravy. But who cares about looks. Tucked inside the drab-looking slop are bold bites of housemade sausage with a sprinkle of bright green scallions. Corriher called her biscuits "A Touch of Grace," and we'd say that O'Kelley has mastered the graceful art of making tender biscuits.
Buttermilk fried chicken ($14)
Huck's Lowcountry TableIsle of Palms.
1130 Ocean Blvd.
Buttermilk's been the not-so-secret ingredient of the best fried chicken for generations. Chef JJ Kern and Chef de Cuisine Joseph Martin use it to great effect over at Huck's Lowcountry Kitchen. When the chicken arrives in the kitchen, it immediately gets broken down and plopped into a soak of buttermilk with salt, pepper, garlic, and fresh thyme. There it sits, marinating, for at least 24 hours. The buttermilk breaks down and tenderizes the chicken while keeping it nice and moist. When someone orders a plate of fried chicken, they dredge it — twice — in a mix of seasoned cornmeal and flour alternating it with the same buttermilk soak. The final result is a crisp, tender, and flavorful fried chicken — just like your grandma used to make.
Buttermilk Pie ($5.50)
207 Rutledge Ave.
If you're not a buttermilk fan, then Robert Stehling's buttermilk pie at Hominy Grill will be a revelation for you. There's not a more perfect dessert. Chocolate cakes are too heavy, crème brulee is too common, and tiramisu is easily screwed up. But buttermilk pie — it's light, tangy, not too sweet, and so very delicious. It's like a lemony version of chess pie, or a Key lime pie, but with lemon instead of lime. It's one of those pies that someone created eons ago simply by combining the ingredients on hand. And as this pie affirms, simple is sometimes the best way to go.
Bacon ice cream with a buttermilk cracker on buckwheat dirt
2 Unity Alley.
Most of us would probably give up on finding ways to heat buttermilk since dairy curdles so easily, but not Chef Sean Brock. This guy loves a challenge. He and his crew have figured out how to clarify buttermilk and bake it. He adds a bit of methyl cellulose to the buttermilk to push the water out, then spreads it on sheets for baking. The oven browns, caramelizes, and dehydrates the buttermilk. Out of the oven, the crispy brown sheets are broken up to create tangy buttermilk crackers, which are then used in a variety of ways. One is as a companion to bacon ice cream. Alan Benton's famous bacon turns Brock's ice cream into a savory delight. Sprinkled with a bit of dried buttermilk and sitting on top of some buckwheat crumbs, the dish is kind of an anti-dessert, or a breakfast ice cream, or the perfect dish to serve on opposite day.