History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers

The Lifesaving Nature of Buttermilk


The other day I wrote about Malinda Russell’s  butterless Sour Cream Cake.  Was buttermilk available in Mrs. Russell’s day, someone asked.  Could we use it today in place of the sour cream?

Buttermilk was available in Mrs. Russell’s day.  Indeed, the first-known reference to it dates to a 1528 health manual that proclaimed, “Nothynge nourisheth more than” fresh “Butter mylke” “sopped up with new hotte breadde.”  Mrs. Russell, however, does not use the term.  Many of her recipes call for “sour milk,” which may, in fact, refer to buttermilk.  (According to Joe Pastry, because of a lack of refrigeration, all milk and cream used to be somewhat sour.)  Other of Mrs. Russell’s recipes use sweet milk, while still others call simply for milk.  Helpful, huh?

To add to the confusion, the name “buttermilk” is a misnomer since buttermilk is what’s leftover after cream has been churned into butter.  That means, Joe Pastry explains, that buttermilk is low-fat.  Its thick texture, and its tanginess, comes from the lactic acid bacteria in it.  Because buttermilk is so low-fat, I wouldn’t use it in place of sour cream in Mrs. Russell’s cake.  There’s no butter in the recipe and using naturally low-fat buttermilk in place of higher fat sour cream (which is already much lower in fat than butter) would result in a cake fairly thin in taste.

So, yes, buttermilk was available in Mrs. Russell’s day and it is wonderful in cakes, though perhaps not her sour cream cake.  But buttermilk can be more than a cake ingredient.  It could, some thought in the late 1700s, save lives.  Yes, you read right, buttermilk might prevent untimely deaths.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, who we have already met reporting on the 1782 celebration for the newborn French prince, was the leading doctor in the United States.  A Philadelphian, he was also active in reform movements at a uniquely fraught time.  The success of Americans’ fragile experiment in republican government – in self-government, without the political or social authority of a monarch – depended on citizens’ self-restraint, many believed.  It depended on citizens’ ability to put the good of the community ahead of their own good.  Among the threats to the health of both individuals and the republic was excessive drinking, Dr. Rush thought, and so he urged temperance on his fellow citizens.  In 1782, with the harvest approaching, Dr. Rush particularly worried about “the custom of consuming large quantities of spirituous liquors at that season.”  Farm laborers who drank too much fought, used profanity, squandered their money, and sometimes suffered sudden death.  All these evils could be avoided, however, by choosing “simple, healthy, and frugal drinks.”  First among the beverages that Dr. Rush suggested?  Buttermilk mixed with water.

With all due respect to Dr. Rush, I’ll stick to using buttermilk in baking.  In fact, all this talk of buttermilk makes me think that in coming days, we should explore one of Mrs. Russell’s cakes that uses sour milk.

2 thoughts on “The Lifesaving Nature of Buttermilk

  1. Pingback: What I Learned about Buttermilk at Mount Vernon | History's Just Desserts

  2. Pingback: Marketing Genius in the Early United States | History's Just Desserts

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