Dairy farming and Buttermilk

Cameron Sawyer writes:I am amazed that there are places where buttermilk is not drunk.  I never had any trouble finding it anywhere I have lived, including Ann Arbor, Michigan and various places in western and eastern Europe.  Buttermilk, and its close relatives kefir and yoghurt are essential, basic foodstuffs in much of the world, along with local variations like the wonderfully delicious "than" of Armenia.  Yoghurt is one of the fundamental foods of India.  Russians, Caucasians, and I believe Germans regularly drink kefir, just as most southerners drink buttermilk. Raw milk is not readily digested by the human digestive system.  The process of fermentation which produces buttermilk, kefir and yoghurt breaks the milk down into more useful and, to many palates, more delicious components.  Poor Yankees!

RH:Yankees beware. Cameron is from the South. I bow before his knowledge of drinks, but I am puzzled.  If fermentation produces buttermilk and  kefir, they must be alcoholic. Kefir is described as an effervescent alcoholic beverage which originated in the Caucasus. Is yoghurt alcoholic? I have read an article on fermentation which talks about sour milk products, but I am confused. Apparently there is fermentation and fermentation.

Kefir is not alcoholic to my knowledge. My (Russian) wife and my mother-in-law drink it on a weekly basis. It’s ‘imported’ to Texas from….. Brighton Beach, NY, as are most of the ‘Russian’ foods sold locally. It’s described as ‘sour milk’ aka a sort of buttermilk I suppose. I don’t care for the stuff personally, but the three Russian food stores in Dallas can’t keep it on the shelves. While it is fermented, it’s closer to yoghurt than to anything alcoholic.
I am told that traditionally, kefir was made from cows or goats milk in sacks made from the hides of animals.
I found the following on the Internet: ‘Occasionally it (was) made in clay pots or wooden buckets or oak vats and in some areas sheep’s milk was also used. Usually the kefir sacks were hung in the sun during the day and brought back into the house at night, when they were hung near the door. Everyone who entered or left the house was expected to prod the sack with their foot to mix the contents. As kefir was removed more fresh milk was added, making the fermentation process continuous. Today, it’s produced commercially in factories. I suspect that rural Russians continue to make it in goat skin sacks.
…Kefir is the most popular fermented milk in Russia. Various reports have stated that it accounts for between 65% and 80% of total fermented milk sales in Russia with production of over 1.2 million tons per year in 1988. The average yearly consumption of kefir in the Soviet Union was estimated at approximately 4.5 kilograms per person per year in the early 1980s. Currently kefir is being manufactured on a commercial scale in Czechoslovakia, Finland, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia and various of the former soviet union states, Denmark, the United States, France, West Germany, Canada and parts of southeast Asia.’
Here’s a link on how to make this stuff:
I said: I never heard of buttermilk in England or France. but it was mentioned in Germany. I never hear about it here. It seems to be artificially curdled milk, or the liquid which is left over after milk has been turned into butter.  Has butter generally been replaced by margarine? Gene Franklin replies: When I was growing up we regularly churned milk for butter and saved the buttermilk.  After about age 12 one of my chores was milking the cow. At one time I had the skill (long since lost!) to make prize-worthy corn bread or gravy using buttermiilk. However, I never did like to drink the stuff.  Let others speak for themselves but for me margarine will NEVER replace butter. RH: Cows have a real friend in Gene Franklin. However, his scornful attitude toward margarine, common in my youth, is unjustified. Made mostly of soybean oil, it has significant food value. Moreover, it has a historical pedigree, having been invented in France in 1869 by  Hippolyte Mégé-Mouries, from whose name the word margarine was formed. As  for buttermilk, I found a two-page chart showing how milk is processed.  It seems that buttermilk can be drunk but is normally used to create other products.  The cow remains blissfully ignorant of the  whole business of dairy science.

From Thailand, Hungarian Steve Torok writes: Buttermilk was available in California in the 60-s when I was at USC. It is from cow's milk, after it is left to curdle, but buttermilk was often "lean" of these ingredients, and a very refreshing drink, sold in supermarkets in milk cartons.  Now kefir from the Caucasus is what I have here in Thailand every day, it is not available commercially,  but I culture it overnight from fresh low fat milk and keep it half a day after that in the fridge before drinking it. Milk at 25-30 degrees Centigrade curdles nicely overnight, in Hungary in the winter it does so indoors at room temperatures. The "seed" for the Caucasian kefir I am culturing I brought with me in a supermarket carton from Hungary, as a recommended medication after my colorectal cancer operation, to keep my intestines properly clean with the right bacteria (lactobacteria) replacing bad bacteria that otherwise might infect you. That, and a papaya diet has brought me back to health. No, it is not alcoholic, I am still forbidden to drink beer, soda, or anything carbonated, but I do enjoy my red wine!  RH: The trouble is that answering one question leads to another. What does curdle mean? Webster says curd is formed when milk sours, as distinguished from whey, the watery part.  That really does not answer the question.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: March 17, 2005