From marinating chicken to helping baked goods rise, learn the classic uses of buttermilk.

Growing up, I spent summers on my great-grandmother's farm in Vermont where I learned to milk cows, drive a tractor, and make buttermilk doughnuts. But, it was not until I moved to the South and opened a lunch counter that I learned the real magic of buttermilk.

Read on to learn why you should always have a carton in your fridge:

Buttermilk for Baking

My long journey with buttermilk started with some doughnuts. Saturday mornings with my great-grandmother were spent churning butter and gathering buttermilk for recipes. We made corn fritters served with Grade A Fancy Vermont Maple Syrup, buttermilk cake doughnuts, and doughnut holes for me. She got up before sunrise to fill the old Monarch stove, a behemoth with six burners and two fryer vats attached, with wood and get the fryers heating.

Buttermilk contains lactic acid which produces bacteria that imparts the tangy flavor and complexity to baked goods. The acid in buttermilk also activates baking soda which lightens the dough or batter you are mixing. In On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, food scientist Harold McGhee reports the alkalinity of buttermilk can keep baked goods from browning too quickly. The chemistry of baking with buttermilk is pretty magical.

One of the easiest desserts you can make for a gathering is buttermilk pie. The base buttermilk custard is fantastic in bread puddings as well, a tip I learned through trial and error. I once dropped a pan of bread pudding right before lunch rush with no time to go through the laborious process of building another. I grabbed some croissants I made that morning, a buttermilk pie, maple syrup, and walnuts and threw a new bread pudding together. It was an instant hit, staple on my restaurant menu for years and the dish that won me my husband, bless his heart.

Pouring homemade buttermilk into a glass
Credit: Fascinadora / Getty Images

Buttermilk for Fried Chicken

Fried chicken was not big where I came from in rural Vermont, but when I moved to the South, fried chicken became a food group. The iconic nature of fried chicken also makes it a hot point for debate. Some say brine, some say buttermilk, and I agree with the latter.

As with baking, buttermilk adds an extra tang to chicken soaked in it before dredging and frying. Its acidic nature also acts as a tenderizer for the meat. And, it helps the coating remain intact to give an even, crispy fry.

Buttermilk for Ice Cream

When autumn approaches, I always turn to crisps and cobblers. The fruit is ripe with flavor and the scents of sweet-tart apples, deep plums, and fleshy peaches laced with cinnamon make the house cozy. Over the years I have tried serving my fruit desserts with various toppers, but by far buttermilk ice cream is my favorite. The tanginess of the buttermilk layered into the creamy texture of ice cream is such a perfect companion to sweet and slightly acidic fruit crisp or cobbler.

Buttermilk Beyond the Kitchen

I saved the best use of buttermilk for last. I learned this little trick when I had recently opened my restaurant. The morning routine was for me to drop my son off at his school then take his baby sister with me to work. Until one morning when my oldest had a stomach ache. With no babysitter options or backup plans, I bundled everyone into the car and went to work. Miss Ruth, manager of the antique mall my lunch counter was attached to, knew something was wrong as soon as I showed up with two kids in tow. I explained the ailment and she immediately went to my walk-in cooler to get the buttermilk. She poured a full glass and gave it to my son. He drank it, grudgingly, and his rumbly stomach started to quiet. Turns out buttermilk is great for helping with stomach issues.

So there you have it, between baking cakes and pies, frying chicken, and settling stomach, the magic of buttermilk persists.

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