Where Does Buttermilk Come From?


Buttermilk is the milk-like byproduct that comes from butter-making. It is consumed by cultures around the world. The milk or cream for buttermilk comes from the milk of camels, cows, horses, goats, sheep and water buffalo. It is produced commercially and can also be made at home.

Old-Fashioned Buttermilk

  • Fresh milk or cream can be called sweet milk. When sweet milk is used to make butter, the buttermilk obtained is called sweet cream buttermilk.

    Old-fashioned buttermilk is a byproduct of the butter-making process. When making butter, milk or cream is churned, resulting in the milk fat separating from the liquid. The fat forms globules that stick together to form butter. The leftover liquid is the buttermilk.

    When this buttermilk is set aside, natural bacteria in the air can enter it and turn it sour, forming a second type of old-fashioned buttermilk. This second type is called sour cream buttermilk.

Cultured Buttermilk

  • Cultured buttermilk can be made during the process of making cultured butter from pasteurized milk or cream. It is called cultured because a selection of bacteria is added to create flavor in the butter and the buttermilk.

    Cultured buttermilk can also be made from adding a bacterial culture to milk or cream. This is set in a warm area to thicken.

    Powdered buttermilk is made from cultured buttermilk that is dehydrated. By adding water, it can be used as an ingredient in cooking.

Chemistry or Microbiology

  • Fermentation of milk to change it into buttermilk is the process of a chemical breakdown of the milk sugar by bacteria. The bacteria added to the milk chemically changes the lactose (sugar in milk consisting of glucose and galactose) to pyruvate (contains pyruvic acid). During this process, the pyruvic acid is changed into lactic acid. The created acid environment is a poor growing medium for bacteria, and it slows the decaying process.


  • To make cultured buttermilk using the fermentation process, bacteria called Streptococcus lactis are added to the milk. Leuconostoc citrovorum bacteria are added to give the buttermilk the smell and flavor it is known for.


  • Buttermilk's thickness occurs when the pH of the milk or cream changes, due to the bacteria, to an acid. When this occurs the casein, a protein in the milk or cream, changes from being dissolved to separating out of the liquid. The remaining liquid is thus thickened.

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