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What Is Buttermilk? Does It Contain Butter?

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This image compares the appearance of milk (left) and buttermilk (right).

This image compares the appearance of milk (left) and buttermilk (right). Buttermilk is thicker than regular milk and coats a glass. Some buttermilk has a slightly creamy color, compared with the blue-white color associated with milk.

Ukko-wc, Creative Commons License

Question: What Is Buttermilk? Does It Contain Butter?

You might think buttermilk contains butter, but it's really the result of a chemical reaction in any milk, including fat free milk.

Answer: Buttermilk gets its name from the way it is produced. Buttermilk is the slightly sour liquid that is left over from churning butter. Since butter is the fatty portion of milk, buttermilk actually is relatively low in fat. The type of buttermilk made using butter sometimes does contain small flecks of butter, however, most buttermilk sold in stores is made by adding Streptococcus lactis, Leuconostoc citrovorum, or Lactobacillus bacteria to milk to curdle it into buttermilk. This type of buttermilk could contain milk fat or be fat-free or anywhere in between.

Chemical Change

When buttermilk is made from butter, the milk sours naturally from bacteria present in the liquid. When bacteria added to milk to produce buttermilk, the bacteria ferment lactose, the primary sugar in milk, producing lactic acid. Lactic acid reduces the pH of the milk, causing the casein protein to precipitate. The acidity makes the milk taste sour, while the precipitated protein thickens the milk, essentially curdling it.

Other Ingredients

Buttermilk from stores frequently contains salt, added flavoring, and sometimes colorings. Water, sugar, salt, curry, and asafoetida are among the most common additives. Buttermilk is available in a dry powdered form, too, which may be rehydrated and used in recipes.

Learn More

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