Why Buttermilk Can Help You Make The Best Biscuits

What buttermilk actually is depends on who you ask. For a time, buttermilk was the upcycled byproduct of making butter. It was fairly thin because virtually all of its fat had been used to make butter. Buttermilk was also full of cultures and, as a result, it kept longer than regular milk did, per Southern Living. While the buttermilk was, more often than not, fed to livestock, it was sometimes consumed by poor farmers and enslaved people because they needed the calories and nutrition, per Slate.  

Buttermilk began being used as an ingredient in baked goods like biscuits in the late 1800s when manufacturer Church & Co. (which later became Arm & Hammer) started selling baking soda, which could be used as a leavening agent in place of yeast. However, it needed a sour-tasting acid in order to kick start the whole chemical process. An Arm & Hammer cookbook from 1900 advised housewives not to buy cream of tartar since buttermilk or sour milk "costs nothing." And saving money was important at that time since biscuits and gravy were often consumed in working-class households, per The Washington Post.

Buttermilk can boost biscuits in several ways

Today's buttermilk is a cultured affair made with pasteurized milk to which lactic acid bacteria has been added. While traditional buttermilk was low-fat, Southern Living points out that it can come in both full-fat and low-fat versions. It further recommends that store-bought buttermilk is better than traditional or homemade buttermilk. And while we've been told that buttermilk can be swapped for milk that's been soured with anything from vinegar to cream of tartar, Southern Living insists that only store-bought buttermilk will do.

Food Network credits buttermilk with a number of benefits when making biscuits. Its tart nature delivers a flavor component and works with baking soda to produce the gas that makes gives biscuits their much-needed lift. Additionally, because it is acidic, buttermilk works on the gluten, resulting in a more delicate crumb that Southern biscuits are known for. 

Of course, buttermilk isn't the only component you need to make biscuits shine. A former professor of food science at the University of Georgia, Robert Dixon Phillips, says a good biscuit needs a "flour made from a soft wheat. It has less gluten protein and the gluten is weaker, which allows the chemical leavening — the baking powder — to generate carbon dioxide and make it rise up in the oven," per The Atlantic

So the next time you're ready to bake biscuits, make sure to take a trip to the grocery store for buttermilk.