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Aug 12, 2012 11:28 AM

Why Use Buttermilk at all in a Cake

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 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?

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  1. 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

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

      1. re: gothamette

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

    2. 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

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

        1. re: gothamette

          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

            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

              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

                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

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

                  1. re: Ruthie789

                    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

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

                      1. re: Ruthie789

                        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

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

                          1. re: sunshine842

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

                            1. re: Ruthie789

                              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

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

                                1. re: Ruthie789

                                  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. 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. 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

                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. 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

                  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

                    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

                        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

                          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

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

                            1. re: gothamette

                              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

                                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

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

                                  1. re: gothamette

                                    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 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.