Interview: Debbie Moose on Buttermilk

Buttermilk: a SAVOR THE SOUTH(R) cookbook by Debbie MooseReplete with helpful tips and advice for finding the best quality buttermilk available, Buttermilk: a SAVOR THE SOUTH® cookbook explores the rich possibilities of this beloved ingredient and offers remarkably wide-ranging recipes. Debbie Moose provides readers fifty recipes—most of which are uniquely southern, with some decidedly cosmopolitan additions—from Fiery Fried Chicken to Lavender Ice Cream to Mango-Spice Lassi. For each recipe, Moose includes background information, snappy anecdotes, and preparation tips.

In the following interview, Moose reflects on the rich cultural history of buttermilk and its place in Southern cooking.


Q:  The SAVOR THE SOUTH® series features a wide variety of ingredients. What inspired you to take on writing a whole book about buttermilk?

A:  Well, buttermilk is just a classic. It’s such a fantastic ingredient, and really underappreciated these days. If I had a nickel for every person who’s told me “I’m so glad you wrote this book, because I buy a carton of buttermilk and make pancakes and don’t know what to do with the rest.” Buttermilk is way more than pancakes and biscuits, people. It’s southern history. It’s science. And you can do so much with it.

Q:  In your prologue, you describe buttermilk as “magical.” What do you mean by this?

A:  It does so much. It provides that nice tart flavor that balances out sweet cakes or pies. And it works behind the scenes to make fried chicken tender or salad dressing nice and thick. How much more magical does an ingredient need to be? Buttermilk can be a lead actor or a supporting player. It should get an Oscar, really.

Q:  How has buttermilk changed over time?

A:  Back in the farming days of the south, buttermilk was what was left after you churned the butter out of fresh whole milk with the old wooden butter churn. But that isn’t all that makes buttermilk. You kept that buttermilk to find ways to use it, and you put it in a pitcher on the counter. Then fermentation would take place naturally. Buttermilk, once it’s buttermilk, is more akin to yogurt than what my mama called “sweet milk” because it’s cultured. Today, milk companies add commercial cultures to milk to make buttermilk, and they pick from a range of cultures. Very few do a churn style.

Debbie Moose, author of Buttermilk: a SAVOR THE SOUTH(R) cookbook. Photo courtesy of Robert VatzQ:  You point out that not all buttermilks are the same. How can one select the highest quality buttermilk?

A:  I tested the recipes for the book with all kinds of buttermilk, and they work fine with any type. But, as with anything you cook, the better the ingredients, the better the taste. As the folks at the N.C. State University dairy department told me, making buttermilk is like making cheese in a way. There’s Velveeta and there’s Stilton, and there’s quite a bit of difference there. We’re so lucky that a number of small dairies are popping up in the south, and I encourage you to seek those out for high-quality buttermilk. It should be thick and rich, and have a nice tangy smell and flavor. Always shake it up before using it.

I believe you’ll notice the difference between small-dairy and mass-market buttermilk, especially in baked goods. And everyone asks about fat-free. Well, I say the more fat the better for cakes and such. Live a little.

Q:  In your prologue, you mention buttermilk in song. What inspired these writers about this ingredient?

A:  The south was a poor region for some time, and there were times when buttermilk might be the only thing around to eat. The old, hard, dry versions of corn cake, you crumbled those up in buttermilk to make a meal. So, buttermilk was always there. Shouldn’t be surprising that it made its way into southern literature. My gosh, when I started looking, Faulkner mentioned it so much that you’d think it was his favorite drink instead of bourbon.

Q:  What things can buttermilk be used as a substitute for?

A:  Yogurt and buttermilk can be used interchangeably, because they are similar cultured milks, but you do have to make allowances for the texture difference. You might have to use less buttermilk or thin out the yogurt.

Q:  People usually drink buttermilk straight up, but you offer a few beverage options, including a cocktail. Why does buttermilk work so well for these recipes?

A:  Indian lassi is great, and uses buttermilk a lot. I got a recipe from an Indian friend that is very refreshing on a hot day because it’s not sweet. It has the zing of buttermilk, some salt and lovely smoky flavored roasted cumin. We’re so used to things being sweet, try buttermilk in your regular smoothie and you’ll be surprised. And the cocktail—lots of cocktails use cream or milk. Why not buttermilk? I got the recipe for The Vanderbilt Fugitive from a very creative bartender in Houston.

Q:  What are some of your signature dishes from the book?

A:  Some favorites when I’m sampling for signings have been Jan’s Buttermilk Poundcake, which freezes fantastically, by the way, and Joe’s Blue Cheese Dressing, a recipe I got from a contractor who was working on my house while I was finishing the book. I also thought about how traditionally southern buttermilk pie is and wondered how I could make it even more southern. So I combined it with the flavor of sweet tea and loved it.

Q:  Do you have any hard and fast rules for making a great cornbread?

A:  Always use buttermilk, of course. And a super-hot cast-iron frying pan, if you have one. It makes a nice crust.

Q:  How did you go about collecting and developing these recipes?

A:  I started thinking about how many things I could do with buttermilk, how it’s used in other countries, like India, and what other ingredients might go with it.

For every book—this is my fifth—I spend a lot of time wandering around specialty markets and ethnic grocery stores, looking for ideas. I’m lucky to have a lot of friends who like to cook and who were generous enough to share their recipes with me, which I still tested to be sure they would be clear to even new cooks. I spent a delightful afternoon learning to make ricotta cheese from buttermilk with an expert Italian cook.

Q:  What buttermilk fact would your readers find most surprising?

A:  You can poach fish in buttermilk. If you know people who don’t like fishy-tasting fish—I’d say if your fish doesn’t taste like fish, you might want to check the label—but some people don’t like a strong flavor. Buttermilk smooths it all out. It’s more magic.

Q:  Tell us about some of the buttermilk lovers you’ve encountered while promoting this book.

A:  So many people remember their parents or grandparents crumbling corn bread up in a glass and pouring buttermilk over it, then eating it with a spoon, like my daddy did. Or they remember their family churning butter with the old wooden churn. Buttermilk has such a place in people’s memories, and I’m excited to tell them ways to use it today.

Debbie Moose is author of Buttermilk: a SAVOR THE SOUTH® cookbook and an award-winning food writer and author of four other cookbooks, including Deviled Eggs: 50 Recipes from Simple to Sassy and Potato Salad: 65 Recipes from Classic to Cool. Follow her on Twitter @DebbieMoose and keep up with recipes, events, and more on the Savor the South Facebook page.