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I want to experiment making American style pancakes (I usually make Austrian style unleavened palatschinken). The recipe I found says "buttermilk", but I remember reading somewhere that the Americans sometimes misuse the word for milk thickened by fermentation. What should I use for the recipe, real buttermilk or fermented whole milk?

And if you have ever shopped in a German supermarket, do you know which product would come the closest to what the recipe author meant? I have the choice between buttermilch, sauermilch, dickmilch and kefir. Currently leaning towards sauermilch (it isn't really very sour, tastes actually less sour than yogurt).

Note I am not asking for substitutions trying to approximate acidity by curdling milk with different acids available in the kitchen. I know of this method and don't intend to use it. This question is asking which existing milk product is closest to the one used in the original recipe.

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In American grocery stores, the products are all labeled 'Buttermilk' though, it could be a word crime all the way up the distribution line. –  Nate Apr 4 '11 at 18:42
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Please tell me what the translation for "dickmilch" is. Languages are funny things. –  Sobachatina Apr 4 '11 at 18:43
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@Sobachatina you are right, languages are funny, but they tend to be as transparent to the speaker as water to the fish. I never noticed the false cognate until you pointed it out - does it mean I am getting old and am not the same person I was in high school?. "Dick" as an adjective means "thick" for a fluid or "fat" for a person (sorry I ruined your plan to call people that and tell them it's not an insult in German). "Dickmilch" is literally "thickened milk". –  rumtscho Apr 4 '11 at 18:54
    
@rumtscho- I assure you, sir, that I had no such plan. Simple curiosity. The other three were recognizable cognates. –  Sobachatina Apr 4 '11 at 19:00
    
I should add that, if it is thick and the sauermilch is more milky, the dickmilch might be more similar. –  Sobachatina Apr 4 '11 at 19:05
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6 Answers

You are correct that in the US buttermilk refers to cultured milk and not the soured leftovers from making butter. Historically buttermilk was the liquid left after making butter that had fermented during the accumulation of the cream. It was described as milky and sour- not creamy like modern buttermilk.

Your recipe is certainly referring to the cultured variety. I have never seen or heard of actual buttermilk being sold anywhere and so I have no idea if it can be used in the same recipes.

The milk doesn't have to be whole. The product is thick, creamy, and tart not unlike a loose yogurt.

I don't know German but I can say that Kefir (if it is the same product as one with the same name in Russian) is definitely not buttermilk. It can be used as a substitute as it has a similar texture but the flavor is very different.

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Another alternative is to squeeze some lemon juice into milk and stir it through. After a few minutes the milk will thicken. –  ElendilTheTall Apr 4 '11 at 20:52
    
@ElendilTheTall do you mean stirring milk with lemon juice will end up something similar buttermilk? –  Sinan Apr 4 '11 at 21:47
    
@ElendilTheTall While I think that it would work, it doesn't sound like a very good substitute to me, more like a makeshift solution which does the task, but isn't quite like the real thing. As long as I have access to cultured milk products, I'd prefer these. –  rumtscho Apr 4 '11 at 22:00
    
@Sinan: Yes. Buttermilk is hard to find in my neck of the woods, so I almost always use this method, mainly in cake recipes. Just a few tablespoons of lemon juice is all you need. @Rumtscho: If you have access to cultured milk products, go for it. –  ElendilTheTall Apr 4 '11 at 22:01
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@Elendil, @Sinan- We have had the conversation a few times around here: cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/13257/… cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/1127/… In short- you can thicken milk with acid but you miss out on a lot of flavor. @Justkt swears by powdered buttermilk which you can order online. –  Sobachatina Apr 4 '11 at 22:49
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It appears that the product closest to American cultured buttermilk is Dickmilch. As noted here,

This fermented dairy product known as cultured buttermilk is produced from cow's milk and has a characteristically sour taste caused by lactic acid bacteria. This variant is made using one of two species of bacteria—either Streptococcus lactis or Lactobacillus bulgaricus, which creates more tartness.

From the German article on Dickmilch,

Im Unterschied zu Joghurt (thermophile Kulturen, Temperaturoptimum 42-45 °C) werden bei der Herstellung von Dickmilch mesophile (Temperaturoptimum 22-28 °C) Streptokokken-Kulturen beigefügt (Streptococcus lactis, bzw. S. cremoris statt S. thermophilus). Der Milchansatz wird anschließend bei Temperaturen von ca. 25–28 °C über 15–20 Stunden dickgelegt.

In sum, yogurt is produced with thermophilic (those that like high temperature) bacteria, while Dickmilch is produced with mesophilic (medium temperature) bacteria, specifically lactic bacteria in the Streptococcus family, which is basically the same as mentioned in the American buttermilk article above.

The description of the production method of Dickmilch -- 15-20 hours at slightly warmer than room temperature -- accords with the standard method of making American cultured buttermilk. Here, for example a standard recipe recommends 24 hours at room temperature, but I've also seen recommendations for a "warm" (though not hot) spot for 18 hours or so when making buttermilk at home. The bacteria are happy over a relatively wide range in my experience making cultured buttermilk, and the timings will vary depending on temperature and strength of the culture.

The one difference you may encounter with the German Dickmilch compared to American buttermilk (assuming these quotations are accurate) is that American buttermilk can vary in its fat content. This is somewhat of a regional phenomenon. In most regions of the U.S., cultured buttermilk is produced from low-fat (~1%) milk (or sometimes even lower fat). As far as I know, this is done to approximate the characteristics of traditional buttermilk produced from butter churning of soured cream (not "sour cream" -- cream that has "matured" from fresh milk), which would usually have a very low fat content, since almost all the fat would glob together in the butter. (As an aside, I have substituted traditional buttermilk -- from butter production -- successfully for cultured buttermilk in some recipes, but you need to start with soured/cultured cream. So you might be able to use Buttermilch as well... though it's probably not what your American recipes assume.)

In recent decades, since Americans have basically forgotten the taste of traditional buttermilk (and many have even forgotten butter produced from soured/cultured cream), the idea of cultured "buttermilk" has become rather abstract. Also, the standards for dairy product labeling allows cultured buttermilk to be labeled "low-fat," which makes sense since it's made from low-fat milk, but also doesn't make sense in that the fat content approximates the fat content of traditional buttermilk.

This seems to have led some American buttermilk producers to tend toward lines of "full-fat" cultured buttermilk, which is typically found in the Southeast U.S. It is a bit of a ridiculous label, since it strays even further from the original product that cultured buttermilk is imitating, but there it is. This "full-fat" version is generally made from whole homogenized milk. (Note that I have no problem with people making the stuff, but calling it "full-fat" -- often authentic "buttermilk" is just weird.)

I'm assuming that the German Dickmilch is probably produced from regular whole milk (the article I cited above refers simply to "homogenized cow's milk," presumably with some fat content), so your Dickmilch might be closest to a Southern U.S. version of buttermilk. Most American recipes don't specify the fat content of the buttermilk, but they probably assume the more widely-available 0.5-1% or so fat version. For most recipes, this won't matter, but if it does, you could adjust the fat content of other ingredients slightly.

(Also, by the way, the only brand of traditional buttermilk produced from butter that I know of sold commercially in the U.S. is made by Kate's of Maine.)

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Thank you for the detailed answer. I still don't know how Sauermilch is supposed to differ form Dickmilch, but it could be also just a regional synonym for Dickmilch. As for the fat content, it is probably printed on the package, I don't have one sitting around. "Homogenisierte Kuhmilch" doesn't say anything about fat content per se, but milk and cultured products in Germany are normally made either with full fat or reduced fat (1.5%) milk, skim milk and derivatives are extremely rare. –  rumtscho Apr 12 '13 at 12:07
    
@rumtscho - Yes, I don't know exactly what Sauermilch is, and a few quick searches didn't turn up anything clear. I know that "homogenized milk" doesn't specifically say anything about fat (other than that it is mixed in). But my limited experience is that most German milk products are, by default, full fat (unless otherwise specified), so that's what I assumed here. Is that true in your experience? –  Athanasius Apr 12 '13 at 18:18
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The report: I decided to forego shopping and use the sauermilch I had.

Texture was just as I imagined it. The taste was a bit strong on the baking soda, even on the last pancakes, despite sauermilch being sour enough (pH 4.2). Maybe it was a conversion problem, I measured by weight and didn't have a source for sauermilch density. However, I would advice others following the substitution (or the linked recipe) to reduce the amount of baking soda somewhat.

On a side note, if you haven't tried buckwheat pancakes yet, do it. The nutty flavour is great.

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My (Hungarian) mother insists that she can taste the "baking powder" (by which she means either or both of baking soda and baking powder) in all American baked goods, including pancakes. I think it might be an acclimation thing: if you're used to the taste, you think it's fine and/or don't even notice it. In other words, there might not have been anything wrong with your measurements or conversions, that's just the way it's supposed to taste. –  Marti Apr 27 '12 at 19:51
    
I have eaten cakes and other stuff made with baking powder and baking soda before, so I should be more or less accustomed. But since I wrote the answer, I have noticed that American recipes really tend to taste too strong like it, maybe I should start reducing the amount on a general basis. –  rumtscho Apr 27 '12 at 19:55
    
The buttermilk I get says it's 1.5% milk fat and has a slightly sour taste, but not as much as yogurt. Sauermilch was going to be my guess too. There are recipes that use "buttermilk" to help split ricotta, but I can't tell you the pH. –  Steve Apr 11 '13 at 3:37
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I know this is an old answer, but I think this recipe is a little high compared to many American recipes in baking powder/soda. I would tend to use about 1/3 less leavening for this amount of flour and liquid in pancakes. Also, I believe that German style baking powder is often chemically a little different from American (tends not to be "double-acting"), so you might also have to alter quantities a bit. –  Athanasius Apr 12 '13 at 20:04
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for american recipes, one can actually replace yogurt for buttermilk 1:1, no other additions or subtractions. I use this commonly for my grandmother's scone recipe (yogurt lives longer than buttermilk in my fridge). I still don't know what sauermilch is... but I'm sure it could be used similarly.

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I have never seen buttermilk in my life (it's not sold at all where I live). But I've heard it has liquid consistency. Would it be more similar to replace buttermilk with yoghurt + water? –  J.A.I.L. Nov 6 '12 at 15:52
    
@J.A.I.L. : I've actually done about a 1:1 yoghurt / milk blend, and had good results, but straight yoghurt works pretty well, too. (some recipes are more forgiving than others) –  Joe Dec 19 '12 at 14:35
    
@JAIL- if the yogurt hasn't been strained then it will have the same percentage of water, fat, and protein as buttermilk. They are both made from milk + bacteria after all. Yogurt is obviously less free with its water but stirring and heating will release a lot of it. –  Sobachatina Dec 19 '12 at 15:49
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I actually tried the lemon or vinegar solutions a while ago and the results are useless. If you want a substitute, I'd suggest looking for a cultured (bacteria) dairy product with a thickness similar to buttermilk (more like acidophilus milk, not kefir).

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Here is a link to a powdered buttermilk product for cooking and baking. I have not used it, but my cousin says it's very good. Probably not available to the European market, but maybe there is a similar product http://sacofoods.com/products/view/cultured-buttermilk

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But if there is a similar product, how would I recognize it, given that "Buttermilch" in German is not used for what the Americans call "buttermilk"? What would be the European labeling of a powdered cultured-milk product? –  rumtscho Feb 21 at 12:31
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