My mom just had a big birthday, so we celebrated with a cupcake tasting party! For my contributions to the party, I decided to use recipes that include one of my mom’s favorite foods—buttermilk.
Yes, you read that right—buttermilk. You won’t believe this, but my mom loves to drink buttermilk straight! Unusual, right? I finally decided that she thinks of it like yogurt.
Apparently, as a kid, Mom learned to love what is known as traditional buttermilk. When they visited her grandparents on a farm, it was considered a treat. Mom explained that the buttermilk was the milk left after making butter from cream. This means that contrary to its name, it is milk minus the butter rather than milk with the butter, so it is really rather low in fat. Who knew? Interestingly, if the butter was made from fresh cream, then the leftover “buttermilk” was actually sweet. But before refrigeration, in warm climates milk started going sour fairly quickly. If the butter was made from this sour milk, then as you would guess, the resulting “buttermilk” was also sour.
After mom’s grandparents moved to town, thus ending visits to the farm, Mom still wanted buttermilk and started drinking the current version. Today, the version you find in stores is cultured buttermilk, which is a form of fermented milk rather than milk left over from making butter. It is made from cow’s milk that is allowed to purposefully sour, or ferment. During this process, a lactic acid bacteria produces the sour taste. As the lactose ferments, the milk also begins to curdle, which makes the cultured buttermilk much thicker than regular milk and also apparently thicker than traditional buttermilk. If you look at old cookbooks or recipes from the early 1900s, you will notice that some recipes call for “sour milk”. You can usually just substitute buttermilk for the sour milk with good results.
When I was growing up, I think Mom assumed I would learn to love this stuff as much as she does but that never happened! I just never learned to like sour dairy products by themselves. But I have found many uses for buttermilk in my cooking. You probably won’t be surprised by some of the recipes that use buttermilk, such as
- Chicken Fried Steak
- Fried Chicken
- Buttermilk Biscuits—the name gives that one away!
But you may be surprised to find out how many different types of recipes include buttermilk as one of the ingredients. For example, many other fried foods, such as calamari and onion rings, often start by being dipped or marinated in buttermilk before being coated with bread crumbs and fried. But did you know that certain versions of the following recipes include buttermilk?
- Chocolate Cake—not all recipes, but you would be surprised how many use buttermilk
- Cookies—my Grandma’s recipe for sugar cookies uses buttermilk. (To keep it straight, Grandmother was my mom’s mom and Grandma was my dad’s mom.)
- Creamy salad dressings—buttermilk gives many creamy dressings their tangy flavor
- Mashed potatoes—for extra-creamy and tangy potatoes, buttermilk is a great substitute for sour cream or milk
- Southern cornbread—ot often uses sour cream or buttermilk for a tender texture and added flavor
- Pound Cakes—whether chocolate or vanilla, buttermilk can add moisture and a slightly tangy flavor
Why use buttermilk in baking?
Buttermilk has several merits when it comes to baking. It is naturally low in fat, but its thick nature adds a richness that mimics much higher fat alternatives! Buttermilk’s acidic nature tends to keep cakes and cookies tender by preventing the toughening that can be caused by gluten in the flour. And, of course, buttermilk’s flavor also adds a subtle tanginess that often escapes identification but adds a layer of complexity to cakes or cookies.
Substitutes for buttermilk.
Unlike my mom, most of us don’t keep buttermilk as a refrigerator staple. But if you need buttermilk to cook with and forgot to buy some, don’t worry. You can make a good substitute with milk and lemon juice or vinegar.
- When I am out of buttermilk, I add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar (plain white vinegar, not white wine vinegar) to 1 cup of milk. After 5 minutes, it is ready to use, so measure the amount of “buttermilk” you need for your recipe. For a smaller amount, add 1 1/2 tsp. of lemon juice or white vinegar to 1/2 a cup of milk.
- There are also several other options for buttermilk substitutes when baking, such as the ones found at epicurious.com, that make use of yogurt, sour cream, and non-dairy alternatives. Just don’t use old milk that has turned sour!
Back to the cupcake party.
For mom’s party, I decided to make chocolate cupcakes—big surprise, right. I found Grandmother’s recipe for Devil’s Food Cake and decided it sounded great for cupcakes, but it called for 1 1/2 cups of coffee. While I agree that coffee smells great, Jeff and I are just not coffee drinkers, so that is not something we have on hand. From studying a lot of chocolate cake recipes, I knew that I could substitute hot water for the coffee, but the last thing I wanted to do was replace the coffee with an ingredient with no flavor. Also, the goal was to use buttermilk-recipes, and I knew that buttermilk is commonly used in chocolate cake batters, so I decided to try substituting 1/2 a cup of buttermilk and 1 cup of boiling water for the 1 1/2 cups of coffee. Fingers crossed, I got started. I divided the batter in half and baked half of it in mini-bundt pans the size of regular cupcakes and the other half in jumbo cupcake pans. I topped the mini-bundt versions with a drizzle of chocolate ganache and a raspberry.
I sliced the jumbo cupcakes in half horizontally to make them look like a two-layer mini cakes. Then I put whipping cream between the “layers” and a little on top like icing. These reminded me of the chocolate cakes with whipped cream icing that we used to have for birthday cakes when I was growing up, so what could be better for Mom’s big birthday!
The results were popular, so the recipe for the chocolate cupcakes is included below. (I have changed recipe printing software. Let me know what you think of the new version.) You can also use this to make a two-layer chocolate cake if you are not in the mood for cupcakes!
For the recipe for the mascarpone whipped cream filling, click here.
For the chocolate ganache, warm 1/2 a cup of cream in a sauce pan until it starts to simmer, not boil. Take it off the heat and add 7 ounces of chopped, semisweet chocolate. Let it sit for a few minutes to melt the chocolate (3-5 minutes). Then stir until smooth and drizzle it over the cupcakes.
There are more cupcake stories to come from Mom’s party, so stay tuned.
- ½ cup butter, room temperature
- 1⅔ cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- ¾ cup cocoa
- ¼ tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- 2 cups flour
- ½ cup buttermilk
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- Spray cupcake pans with cooking spray or line them with cupcake liners.
- Bring the water to a boil and remove it from the heat.
- Whisk the cocoa into the boiling water.
- In a separate bowl, combine the flour, salt, and baking soda.
- Beat the sugar and butter with a hand mixer or stand mixer until the mixture is creamy. (About 3-5 minutes)
- Add 1 egg at a time to the butter and sugar mixture. Beat until the egg is fully incorporated. Then add the second egg and beat it into the mixture.
- Add the buttermilk to the butter and sugar mixture. Beat to combine. The mixture will not look smooth, but don't overbeat.
- Add half of the flour mixture and beat just until combined.
- Add the chocolate mixture and vanilla. Beat just until combined.
- Add the remaining flour mixture and beat just until combined.
- Using a scoop or spoon, fill cupcake liners or greased cupcake tins ⅔ full.
- For regular size cupcakes, bake approximately 10 minutes. They are ready when a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
- For jumbo cupcakes, bake approximately 18 minutes.
This recipe can also be used to make a two-layer chocolate cake. Line the baking pans with parchment or coat them with cooking spray and then dust them with cocoa to prevent sticking. Divide the batter evenly between the two pans. Test for doneness with a toothpick.
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