Buttermilk, Sour Milk and Other Dairy Questions

To make a cheese ball, you need ranch dressing.
To make ranch dressing, you need buttermilk.

Here we go again on another adventure!

A reader writes:

Now I come with another question! I am from El Salvador and cannot buy buttermilk in the stores. We do have a few milk cows, so we have all the milk we want and lots of cream. I make butter from the cream and then of course, have buttermilk. It tends to thicken with several days in the refrigerator and is really good to drink–even if I am the only one in the family who thinks so! My question is now–is using that buttermilk good enough for your recipe of ranch dressing or should I try letting it clabber more? I am rather ignorant about all this working with milk, yogurt and so on, but would like to know more. I do make yogurt and some native cheeses, but would love to know more and make more types of cheeses. Maybe some day when my home educating is mostly in the past! We love ranch dressing and if I could use up some of the buttermilk in this way I would be so excited.

Yes, you can! The very best is real buttermilk, which you have. Start by making the recipe for ranch dressing with 1/2 cup less buttermilk than it calls for (since real buttermilk it is thinner) and then add some more if needed until you get it the right consistency. I used real buttermilk when we had a cow, and the dressing tastes wonderful!

Here’s a little bit that I’ve learned about dairy products:

Buttermilk from the U.S. grocery stores is actually a product similar to yogurt, in that it has been cultured. Real buttermilk (what’s left in the container after you churn the cream into butter) is healthy, sour, thin and fabulous to cook with! It makes the best pancakes, biscuits, and quick breads because the lactic acid in it tenderizes the grain.

Sour milk, which is raw milk that has set out at room temperature (or left in the fridge) too long is interchangeable with buttermilk in recipes and is treasured at my house. I never throw out sour milk! Milk sours because of the healthy bacteria in the milk that ferments the milk into a thicker yogurt-like substance. (Pasteurized milk has no live bacteria in it and goes rotten, instead of sour, and should be thrown away.)

Yogurt is yet another strain of bacteria that produces another type of cultured milk. Different bacteria make different tastes of cultured dairy products. In the USA, you can also buy kefir which is cultured from bacteria and yeasts. Across the world, there are cultured dairy products unique to each country such as yogurt drinks in India, tart buttermilk from Bulgaria, and much more which are healthier than plain milk. The healthy bacteria (and yeasts) make the protein more digestible and calcium more readily absorbed.

When we had a cow, I would often make cottage cheese. It is really simple! Just pour 3″ depth of raw milk into a stainless steel pot, cover it and leave it out on the countertop over night or until the milk has solidified and looks like white jello. Take a sharp knife and cut straight down through the clabbered milk in straight slices. Turn the pot and slice the other way, forming small cubes. Gently heat the pot until the liquid whey fully separates off from the curds (the cubes you cut). Strain the curds out and give the whey to animals as feed, or use it in breadmaking. Rinse the curds, salt them lightly, and stir in some thick cream. There you have it—cottage cheese.

You can make blocks of hard cheese by packing the curds into a mold and squeezing the liquid out, under pressure, and then letting them age. If you want all the details for making cheese at home, The Encyclopedia of Country Living has wonderful instructions for every type of homemade dairy product.

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