Buttermilk 101 (Plus a Versatile and Refreshing Spiced Chickpea Salad That Keeps on Giving)
Buttermilk makes excellent dressing, especially when it’s combined with a couple of dollops of Greek yogurt, garlic, lemon juice and a handful of fresh herbs. Photo: Photo: MAIKA 777/Getty Images
Commonly seen as “something I rarely buy,” buttermilk is a versatile ingredient that’s loved for its mild tang. It’s also instrumental in making quick breads fluffy and meat tender. Some cultures also enjoy it straight as a beverage.
But, buying a litre of buttermilk can sometimes feel like a commitment. When a recipe calls for one cup (or less), the concept of purchasing a large amount, just to have the bulk of it sitting in the fridge, seems rather illogical.
There is the age-old substitute of adding a splash of vinegar or lemon juice into milk is an attractive alternative. In terms of flavour, it can come close, but that’s where the similarities end.
Traditionally, buttermilk was made from the liquid leftover from churning butter. Modern buttermilk production is made by adding lactic acid bacteria to milk, similar to what you would find in yogurt or kefir. These bacteria start to ferment the milk, creating lactic acid, which thickens it and gives it a longer shelf life. Although buttermilk looks and tastes thick and creamy, it is actually non-fat or low-fat.
Buttermilk contains live cultures, similar to yogurt, which makes it more easily digestible than milk. And thanks to its acidity, it helps break down gluten and proteins in baked goods, resulting in a more tender, fluffier quick bread. In baking, substituting buttermilk for any recipe that calls for regular milk makes baked goods a touch richer. Buttermilk also adds a hint of tang that balances the sweetness, such as in banana bread, scones or muffins.
Buttermilk makes excellent dressing, especially when it’s combined with a couple of dollops of Greek yogurt, garlic, lemon juice and a handful of fresh herbs. And don’t forget about buttermilk pancakes and waffles, a weekend staple. Even the ever-classic buttermilk fried chicken benefits from a soak in this creamy concoction that doesn’t just impart flavour, but also helps tenderize the meat to prevent it from drying out.
Few things are as refreshing as a cool simple salad on a warm day, especially when using the freshest of in-season produce. Then there’s the magic that happens when vine-ripened tomatoes are paired with crisp cucumbers, bright bell peppers and sharp red onions.
Get away from the everyday salad rut by spicing it up with the zippy Mediterranean flavours in this recipe for warm spiced chickpeas. Here, buttermilk rounds out the crisp textures of the vegetables, while adding a touch of richness and herbaceous notes.
The following is a terrific recipe that’s customizable to your taste. Swap in any vegetables you love. Do you like kohlrabi? Dice it up and add it in. Do you want to add some crisp romaine lettuce? Add a couple handfuls of the cleaned leaves that have been chopped to bite size. Raw red onions not to your taste? Leave them out.
The spiced chickpeas in this salad are multipurpose. Not only are they a delicious and nutritious addition to any salad, they are also great served on their own with some plain yogurt. Add them to a wrap or stuff them in a pita for a satisfying and protein-packed vegetarian lunch.
Best of all, this versatile recipe is also scalable. Cut the amounts in half for an intimate dinner for two and add a simple roasted chicken breast or grilled shrimp. Double the recipe for a crowd or a backyard barbecue.
Spiced Chickpea, Tomato, and Cucumber Salad With Buttermilk Dressing
Serves 6 to 8 people
Preparation time: 25 minutes
1 can (540 ml) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons (30 ml) extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon (2.5 g) ground cardamom
1 teaspoon (5 g) ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 Lebanese cucumbers, diced or ½ English cucumber, diced
3 red radishes, sliced thin
1 red bell pepper, cored and diced
½ small red onion, sliced very thin
1 cup (250 ml) buttermilk
1 large clove garlic, minced fine
2 tablespoons (30 ml) lemon juice
2 tablespoons (30 ml) extra virgin olive oil
½ cup (15 g) fresh mint leaves, chopped rough
½ cup Italian parsley, chopped rough
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon sumac (optional)
1. Drain, rinse, and pat dry the chickpeas.
2. Place a medium sauté pan over medium high heat and add the 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Toss in the chickpeas and sauté for about 3 to 4 minutes. Add in the spices and cook for another 2 minutes, or until the chickpeas are warmed through and the spices become aromatic. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool slightly.
3. Meanwhile, place the cucumber, radish, bell pepper, tomato and red onion in a large mixing bowl. Add in the cooled chickpeas and toss together.
4. Pour in the buttermilk, minced garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. Stir to combine. Toss in the mint, parsley and season with salt and pepper.
5. To serve, pour the salad onto a large serving platter and garnish with a sprinkling of the sumac, if using.
Jonathan Cheung is the chef and owner of Appetite for Books, a cookbook store in Montreal that also hosts cooking classes. An expert in his field, Jonathan has gained experience in a variety of international cuisines, appearing on TV shows including Iron Chef Canada, Anthony Bourdain: The Layover, Food Network’s Eat St. and BT Montreal. He is the co-author of Montreal Cooks.