HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >
Are you making a specialty food? Share your adventure
TELL US

Why Use Buttermilk at all in a Cake

g
gothamette Aug 12, 2012 11:28 AM

I made a recipe for a yellow cake from a well-known food blogger, who shall be nameless. She touted it as the best she has for birthdays...so I was intrigued.

It's your basic yellow two-step cake, except that it uses buttermilk. (With soda and baking powder as leavening.)

She warned that after adding the buttermilk to the sugar/butter mix, it will curdle. It did, but because of her warning, it didn't bother me. I added the flour, beat, and baked. Batter looked good, not curdled.

However....the cake itself was not optimal. It tasted good because the ingredients were good, but the crumb was a bit tough and there were holes in the cake.

I wonder whether that buttermilk, and the curdling, was the problem.

Why use buttermilk at all in a traditional cake? I think that most American cake recipes are recycled items from cookbooks of long ago, when buttermilk was the runoff from butter-making, and not the modern cultured product it is today.

Using buttermilk makes people feel all homey real American and authentic, but I suspect that its use in baking should be limited to specialty items.

What do the Chowhound experts think?

  1. w
    wyogal Aug 12, 2012 11:34 AM

    Could be in the mixing, not the ingredients. You might get more luck with this on the Home Cooking board.

    2 Replies
    1. re: wyogal
      g
      gothamette Aug 12, 2012 05:08 PM

      I haven't figured out how to add a thread on a particular board.

      1. re: gothamette
        m
        magiesmom Aug 12, 2012 05:27 PM

        go to the board you want and click on new thread yellow button on the right.

    2. j
      John Francis Aug 12, 2012 11:39 AM

      Not just specialty items. Buttermilk is part of many good recipes for bread, biscuits, even pie dough. But I hadn't heard of it in a cake recipe.

      I link buttermilk with the American souteast and not only in cooking. My grandma, born in Louisiana and living in Virginia, used to drink it straight. But maybe it isn't as regional as that?

      14 Replies
      1. re: John Francis
        g
        gothamette Aug 12, 2012 05:07 PM

        The buttermilk your grandmother drank wasn't the modern cultured stuff. It was the runoff from making butter.

        1. re: gothamette
          jmcarthur8 Aug 13, 2012 01:19 AM

          Gothamette, our modern buttermilk has been the standard in the US for over a century, so it's probable that many traditional cake recipes using buttermilk were intended to include cultured buttermilk. Red velvet is one example - it includes a small amount of cocoa, as well, which was included to tenderize the cake, more than to make it cocoa flavored. Personally, I love the flavor of a buttermilk cake.
          Using cake flour makes a difference in the texture, and I see your recipe does specify it. Did you use cake flour?

          1. re: jmcarthur8
            g
            gothamette Aug 13, 2012 06:59 AM

            I didn't know that cultured buttermilk is over a century old. Thanks. Who knew. Just proves that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

            I did use cake flour hand I don't *think* I overbeat - but I can't swear to that.. But the curdling still bothers me. I think somehow the curdling led to the not optimal texture. I wonder if there's a way to add buttermilk (whose taste I love) to a cake w/o this.

            1. re: gothamette
              w
              wyogal Aug 13, 2012 07:19 AM

              Mine looks curdled, and the texture turns out fine. Don't try to beat the liquid into the butter/sugar/eggs so that it is smoother, just leave it looking curdled.

              1. re: gothamette
                jmcarthur8 Aug 13, 2012 03:47 PM

                I don't know the chemical properties of any of it. But I do alternate the flour and liquid when I put them in, just like any other cake. I don't recall ever having curdling when making a buttermilk cake.
                Also, I know I've used regular and low fat buttermilk, and never noticed a difference there either.

                1. re: jmcarthur8
                  Ruthie789 Aug 13, 2012 04:41 PM

                  Was the buttermilk shaken before usage? Sometimes it separates, could this be the curdling effect?

                  1. re: Ruthie789
                    w
                    wyogal Aug 13, 2012 06:47 PM

                    I find that it's more about the temperature, and if the liquid is at all cooler than the creamed butter and sugar, the butter hardens a bit into little lumps that resembles curdling, not actual curdling.

                    1. re: wyogal
                      Ruthie789 Aug 13, 2012 06:57 PM

                      That makes sense, so everything at room temperature might be a good idea?

                      1. re: Ruthie789
                        w
                        wyogal Aug 13, 2012 07:20 PM

                        Yes, I've also put the eggs in a bowl of warm water to hasten the process, because I never remember to take them out well in advance!

                        1. re: Ruthie789
                          sunshine842 Aug 14, 2012 01:06 AM

                          Having all your ingredients at room temperature is *always* a good idea when baking.

                          1. re: sunshine842
                            Ruthie789 Aug 14, 2012 04:49 PM

                            I often fail to do so, always in a hurry when baking.

                            1. re: Ruthie789
                              paulj Aug 14, 2012 06:15 PM

                              Maybe room temperature isn't all that important. Obviously the temperature of the butter affects how it creams. And may be the temperature of the eggs matters if they are whipped. Though in both cases the mechanical action quickly warms them. So what's left - the milk or buttermilk?

                              'room temperature' is a dictum that cooks pass on from generation to generation, but few of us test it. At least not formally. In practice we all adopt shortcuts that work for us.

                              1. re: paulj
                                Ruthie789 Aug 15, 2012 10:44 AM

                                Well I feel better now! I often decide out of the blue to cook so am not always prepared.

                                1. re: Ruthie789
                                  sunshine842 Aug 15, 2012 12:17 PM

                                  Note that I said it's always a good idea...not that it always gets done...

                                  Since moving to Europe, I typically keep my eggs on the counter, so that helps, but yeah - mine ingredients aren't always at room temperature, either.

          2. sunshine842 Aug 12, 2012 12:40 PM

            If think if the crumb was tough and there were holes, you overbeat the batter. Go gently with cakes so as to not develop the gluten.

            1. ipsedixit Aug 12, 2012 12:46 PM

              The acid in buttermilk reacts with baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) to produce bubbles of carbon dioxide. Using buttermilk became the preferred liquid of many cooks for making light, tender, highest-rising biscuits, scones, soda breads and other quick breads, pancakes, waffles, muffins, and cakes.

              I can't speak for why your cake sucked, but that's the rationale for using buttermilk in baked goods.

              1 Reply
              1. re: ipsedixit
                p
                pine time Aug 12, 2012 01:21 PM

                Yup, Mom's buttermilk biscuits, cakes and soda breads were tender and light as feathers. I, on the other hand, just drink the stuff neat, albeit with crumbled cornbread if one's handy.

              2. paulj Aug 12, 2012 03:33 PM

                Can you list the proportions - flour, buttermik, baking soda, baking powder?

                tough crumb does suggest over beating. The holes could also result from this as well, with the higher gluten development helping to retain the expanding gas.

                It is also possible that there is too much leavening, with both the bm/bs and bp. I've seen other recipes with both, but too much can produce too many and too big bubbles. The butter sugar mix is supposed to provide many small cells for the bubbles, producing a finer, more even, crumb.

                Another issue, how acid is the batter. Buttermilk is acid; baking soda alkaline. Acid inhibits browning, alkaline promotes it. If the buttermilk and baking soda balance they won't affect browning. That may, or may not be an issue in this case, but it is something to consider when substituting milk and buttermilk.

                10 Replies
                1. re: paulj
                  g
                  gothamette Aug 12, 2012 05:11 PM

                  Here are the proportions:

                  4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (480 grams) cake flour (not self-rising)
                  2 teaspoons (10 grams) baking powder
                  1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
                  1 teaspoon (5 grams) table salt
                  2 sticks (1 cup, 1/2 pound or 225 grams) unsalted butter, softened
                  2 cups (400 grams) sugar
                  2 teaspoons (10 ml) pure vanilla extract
                  4 large eggs, at room temperature
                  2 cups buttermilk (475 ml), well-shaken

                  I definitely did not overbeat. I halved the recipe.

                  You might be able to figure out who the food blogger is.....

                  1. re: gothamette
                    greygarious Aug 12, 2012 05:37 PM

                    Did you use the size cake pan called for, just making one layer instead of two? If not, that is a pertinent difference from the recipe as written.

                    Somewhere, I read that using buttermilk for cornbread or corn muffins makes them less prone to crumbling. If true, that's a texture element to be considered when choosing between milk and buttermilk in a recipe.

                    1. re: gothamette
                      Becca Porter Aug 12, 2012 06:25 PM

                      sk?

                      1. re: gothamette
                        paulj Aug 12, 2012 07:57 PM

                        I'm more familiar with biscuits and muffins than cakes. For those a rule of thumb is 1 tsp baking powder per cup of flour. Looks like the combined quantities of baking powder, baking soda, and buttermilk fit those proportions. So the recipe looks fine, though I'd have to look at other cake recipes to be sure.

                        1. re: gothamette
                          cookie monster Aug 12, 2012 09:48 PM

                          I know this recipe, and it is indeed my favorite basic yellow cake. Basically identical to one from Food & Wine. I think the buttermilk really enhances the flavor and makes for a tender crumb. My recollection is the directions say to bang the filled cake pans on the counter to eliminate air bubbles, which does seem to help.

                          1. re: gothamette
                            sunshine842 Aug 12, 2012 11:39 PM

                            halving the recipe *can* change the percentages in the bowl...that may impact things, as well.

                            1. re: gothamette
                              f
                              foufou Aug 13, 2012 12:35 AM

                              I have made this yellow cake recipe often, both the full recipe and half- version. It has been a very reliable yellow cake recipe....I too suspect that the problem is in the mixing and not the ingredients. Is there a reason why the name of the food blog/food blogger can't be posted?

                              1. re: gothamette
                                s
                                soccermom13 Aug 13, 2012 04:22 AM

                                This is the Smitten Kitchen recipe. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this recipe. I have had great success with it. It's become my "go to" yellow cake. IIRC, some wonderful poster (Judy Dee? Becca P?) on this board steered me to this cake recipe.

                                1. re: soccermom13
                                  g
                                  gothamette Aug 13, 2012 07:01 AM

                                  Did it curdle when you (all of the above) made it? After the addition of the buttermilk?

                                  1. re: gothamette
                                    f
                                    foufou Aug 13, 2012 09:23 AM

                                    No, I did not experience curdling but I didn't follow the recipe exactly either I now realize (did not add buttermilk to creamed butter, sugar, and eggs) but rather the traditional method alternating flour additions with buttermilk starting with flour. I have made this cake at least 10 times and have never had a problem....in fact, it has a tender crumb if memory serves well. It is not my favorite yellow cake recipe (still searching) but it is very good.

                            2. Ruthie789 Aug 12, 2012 07:03 PM

                              It is very good with a chocolate base in cakes. The advantages of buttermilk, low in fat, acid content reacts with soda to help cakes to rise, enriches the taste, creates a cake with a bigger crumb structure. Love it.

                              1. s
                                sandylc Aug 12, 2012 07:51 PM

                                I have always been told that buttermilk inhibits gluten formation and thus makes baked goods more tender.

                                6 Replies
                                1. re: sandylc
                                  babette feasts Aug 12, 2012 10:10 PM

                                  I'm highly skeptical of that. Gluten forms in the presence of water, and buttermilk is mostly water. I thought the acid had the tenderizing effect - gluten is related to protein in the flour, and acid affects proteins.

                                  Gothamette, adding the liquid to the butter and sugar before the flour is odd, and may have adversely affected the texture. When the butter mixture looked curdled, it wasn't actually curdled, it was just too much water not being emulsified into the fat. Adding the flour soaks up some of that water. If you bake much, you know it is much more common for liquid to be added alternating with flour, or last. Adding the flour to the butter mixture first helps inhibit gluten formation by coating the flour with fat and essentially waterproofing it. The way this recipe is written, all the flour will contact all of the liquid and be more prone to developing gluten. Plus, it is generally better practice to add wet to dry rather than dry to wet, as flour can clump when added to very wet mixtures. Trying to get those clumps out would surely result in an over-beaten cake, and doesn't really work.

                                  Maybe the blogger changed the mixing instructions from another recipe to make it her own?

                                  1. re: babette feasts
                                    w
                                    wyogal Aug 13, 2012 06:05 AM

                                    I do this... adding the liquid after the sugar/butter/eggs. And it makes a great cake. No problems like the OP states. My recipe is very similar, but i use yogurt.

                                    1. re: babette feasts
                                      g
                                      gothamette Aug 13, 2012 07:10 AM

                                      babette, thank you for your answer! It explains a lot. The instrux from the recipe about adding the buttermilk are here:

                                      " Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just Incorporated."

                                      But I'm a little confused about this:

                                      "Plus, it is generally better practice to add wet to dry rather than dry to wet" - doesn't this contradict the alternating liquid and flour practice??

                                      Dunno about the blogger changing instrux - but I will re-try this recipe with your suggestions in mind. I haven't given up on it. The ingredients are just too good, and I love yellow cake. I will re-try it in due course, using the alternating method. But only after you clarify the 'adding wet to dry'.

                                      1. re: gothamette
                                        babette feasts Aug 13, 2012 10:56 AM

                                        I guess that rule is really more for the muffin/quick bread method than the creaming/butter cake method, but when you are adding wet and dry to creamed ingredients in alternating steps, you start with the dry and get those smoothly incorporated, then loosen the batter with the wet.

                                      2. re: babette feasts
                                        s
                                        sandylc Aug 13, 2012 09:42 AM

                                        "I'm highly skeptical of that. Gluten forms in the presence of water, and buttermilk is mostly water. I thought the acid had the tenderizing effect - gluten is related to protein in the flour, and acid affects proteins."

                                        It's the acid in the buttermilk (also sour cream, yogurt, booze, lemon juice, etc.) that inhibits the gluten formation.

                                        1. re: sandylc
                                          g
                                          gothamette Aug 13, 2012 12:56 PM

                                          I have been catching up on gluten formation 101. Apparently both acid and fat inhibit gluten formation - as does sugar. It certainly makes sense, and can do no harm, to add the flour to the fat mixture, before the buttermilk, which is mostly water, and which will tend to enhance gluten formation.

                                    2. applgrl Aug 12, 2012 08:50 PM

                                      I have several recipes that use b'milk: cornbread, a raspberry b'milk cake
                                      http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...

                                      and Cook's Illustrated's "Any Fruit will Do Muffins". The bread and cake are a bit tougher than a box-mix cake, but I think they need to be to support the cornmeal and the fruit. The muffin recipe is always very tender.

                                      One thing I'm sure to buy is the 3.25 milkfat buttermilk, not the skinny 1% stuff. I think the amount of fat would make a difference in your cake. I do love the tangy flavour of it in cakes so I wouldn't give up on it, maybe just add a couple tablespoons coffee cream as part of the required 2 cups and see if that helps.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: applgrl
                                        paulj Aug 12, 2012 09:02 PM

                                        Why should the extra butterfat matter? There's already a lot of butter in the recipe.

                                        1. re: paulj
                                          g
                                          gothamette Aug 13, 2012 07:11 AM

                                          Impossible to get anything other than low-fat buttermilk in my area.

                                      2. chefj Aug 13, 2012 03:55 PM

                                        This recipe for Buttermilk Cake will show you why people use it in cake baking.
                                        And if you buy the Author"s cookbook she explains how it interacts with other ingredients and in the over all finish of the cake.

                                        http://robinheather.typepad.com/go/20...

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: chefj
                                          jmcarthur8 Aug 13, 2012 04:02 PM

                                          Two things I love from reading this recipe:
                                          1) It does not have a gazillion ingredients when all I want to do is bake a simple buttermilk cake.
                                          2) Everything goes in in backwards order, and I am so curious to see how that all works!
                                          Thanks,chefj for posting this one! I have some lovely buttermilk in the fridge, and this cake is going to be made very soon.

                                          1. re: jmcarthur8
                                            chefj Aug 13, 2012 04:05 PM

                                            I convert every recipe that I can to the Reverse Creaming method. It yields a much more tender crumb the the traditional creaming method and is almost impossible to over mix(with in reason).

                                            1. re: chefj
                                              s
                                              sandylc Aug 13, 2012 04:10 PM

                                              Same here! Every bit of butter is incorporated into the dry ingredients before even a spec of liquid is added at my house.

                                        2. s
                                          sandylc Aug 13, 2012 04:49 PM

                                          The butter milk was not actually curdled. The mistake in the recipe was to add the buttermilk to the creamed mixture without first stirring in some flour.

                                          1. s
                                            swazoo Aug 15, 2012 09:26 PM

                                            What type of flour did you use? Cake flour has less gluten than all-purpose flour does, so it produces a more tender cake.

                                            I also agree that you should avoid overmixing the cake batter. You should mix it just to the point where all the ingredients are incorporated.

                                            Show Hidden Posts