How (and Why) to Make Buttermilk (and Yogurt and Butter!)

Contrary to popular belief, buttermilk is NOT what you will find in the local Food Giant or Publix grocery store in the “buttermilk” carton. Oh no. It is an amazing health-promoting, smooth, tasty beverage made from fresh milk. In Sanskrit, it is called takra, and it has many healing properties. Gently sour and astringent, it increases the appetite and kindles the digestive fire without creating acid – a perfect appetizer. It is particularly beneficial for those with edema, bloating, hemorrhoids, and intestinal diseases like colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, or diarrhea. It also improves painful urination and anemia. In terms of the doshas, it reduces Kapha and Vata. We have been drinking it daily here, and it just feels good going down. Making it is one of the skills I am excited to bring home with me.

If making buttermilk seems complicated at first, I encourage you roll up your sleeves and splash around a bit. My inexperience in such endeavors gave me a lack of confidence, but having seen how simple it actually is in execution, I was inspired. If I can do it, then I’m sure you can too (provided you can get to the end of step 3, which I grant may be a challenge).

Here’s a buttermilk-making primer for the adventurous:

1.      Find a cow who is giving milk. If you don’t know her, it’s probably best to leave the milking to someone who does. Otherwise she may get agitated and not give much milk, and you don’t want that.

2.      If there is no cow in your neighborhood, find some fresh raw milk. The incredible taste and health-giving properties make it worth the effort – and there may be some required, since it is illegal in the US (and many other countries) to sell unpasteurized milk. (I have a source in Austin, TX – let me know if you want me to hook you up.) Pasteurization is the process by which milk is heated to very high temperatures to remove any bacteria. Some say this destroys the naturally occurring enzymes that make milk easier to digest, and that pasteurization is the reason many apparently lactose-intolerant people have difficulty digesting milk. To obtain raw milk, you may have to visit some farmers markets or farms and ask around – you may even need to buy a “share” in a cow, so you can simply take the milk from your “own” cow without anyone selling it to you.

3.      If you can’t find raw milk, then give it a whirl with non-homogenized milk. Homogenization is another step of processing that keeps the cream from separating and rising to the top, which is what natural unprocessed milk does when left on its own. You can find non-homogenized milk in many “healthy” or high-end grocery stores these days . It is usually in a glass bottle and you can see a thick layer of cream gathered on the top. Be prepared for it cost a bit more. Unfortunately, if it’s homogenized, making buttermilk just won’t work.

4.      In the evening, take about a liter of your fresh non-homogenized milk, boil it, and let it cool. Put it in a container with a lid. Add a dollop of (organic, whole-milk, high-quality) yogurt. Cover the container, and let it sit (out of the refrigerator) overnight. (Yes, you really must keep it out of the refrigerator.)

5.      The next morning, the container of milk will be miraculously transformed to curd, no effort required. We might call this “yogurt” but do not be confused – this creamy, sour, fresh curd is a world apart from the store-bought yogurt you likely know (and may even love… but just you wait – you’ll fall in love all over again!). Set aside a dollop of curd for tonight’s repeat performance of this process. Feel free to slurp a few spoonfuls. Marvel at Nature’s creativity.

Vijaya, our buttermilk-making queen.

6.      Pour the liter of curd into a larger bowl and add about a half liter of cool water. Now churn it to get the butter to separate from the curd. Yep, churn it. You take the churn handle between your open palms and slide them back and forth, like you’re trying to warm your hands. The churn spins around, back and forth, and after about ten minutes, tiny bits of butter start to form. If you don’t have a churn handy, try something that looks similar. Get creative. A hand-beater might work….  Take care that the weather is not too hot or the butter won’t separate. Get up early to beat the heat, if need be.

7.      Now, remove the butter (can you believe it?!). Sweep your hand through the fluid, filtering out the little bits of butter and make them into a small ball. This will take some practice, so don’t get discouraged the first few times. It will all stick to your hands in an inconvenient way, and then you’ll need to rub your fingers together to get the butter to stick to itself rather than sticking to you. After you collect about a ping-pong ball sized amount, pour the fluid through a fine sieve. It will clog quickly with butter, so you will have to scrape it repeatedly with a spoon and add to your butter ball. Better to get most of it out of the fluid with your hands first. Now you have fresh lovely butter! Set it aside for something yummy, but first wash it in many changes of water to get any remaining curd off of it – otherwise it will spoil quickly. Once it’s clean, you can keep it in cool water for many days outside the refrigerator and it won’t go bad, I promise.

8.      And guess what – after removing the butter, the remaining fluid is buttermilk! Real, fresh, wholesome, health-giving buttermilk. You can drink it straight, but for a real taste treat, add some turmeric and cumin seeds, heat it up, and garnish with cilantro. If it’s a hot day, add some cilantro and fresh ginger and sip it at room temperature.

Trust me, it’s worth the effort.

8 thoughts on “How (and Why) to Make Buttermilk (and Yogurt and Butter!)

    • Ivy Ingram says:

      Hello Ann!

      No, I don’t think you can… but let’s make sure I understand your question exactly!

      If your goal is to make yogurt (or “curd”, as it’s called in my post), you can start with plain milk. It’s really rather easy – from the instructions in my post, you can just follow steps 1 through 5 (or even just steps 3 through 5). If your final product is going to be yogurt (not buttermilk) then you can even use homogenized milk. Homogenization won’t prevent the yogurt from forming.

      Another set of instructions online that I like is: I think they make it a bit more complicated than it has to be (I haven’t used a thermometer before, and depending on where you live, the heating pad won’t be necessary this time of year!), but I appreciate their thoroughness, for those of us who like explicit instructions.

      Buttermilk is made by an ADDITIONAL few steps, after you have made the yogurt.

      Does that answer your question? If not, let me know. Thanks for being in touch – and happy yogurt making to you!

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