It's likely that our species is cooking at home more than ever. When the pandemic shuttered San Francisco in March of 2020, I found myself suddenly tasked with managing a small frontline essential business. Our neighborhood delicatessen, specialty grocery and fromagerie exploded with demand as city dwellers expeditiously stocked their pantries and filled their refrigerators to the brim.
First came the canned goods stockpilers in droves. Comfort foods began to fly off the shelves: all manner of pasta, sauces, breads, cheeses, charcuterie, chocolate, ice cream, wine. In less than one week, we saw shocking growth in our grocery departments as high as 94%.
Then came the breadmaking renaissance. Our production team bagged and weighed and priced astronomical quantities of flours and yeast. While I wasn't blessed with a hot enough oven to join the baking movement, I certainly found exciting culinary projects to pursue on my days off. One of my regular culinary endeavors during the lockdown was making homemade buttermilk crème fraîche.
I put it on everything! On its own, the versatile, fresh cultured creaminess and unbeatable smooth texture compliments most things savory and sweet. It is simply mouthwatering when paired with strawberries and honey, peaches, nectarines, pears. It's a classic with smoked fish, caviar and chives.
From this mother recipe you can make a silky Latino-inspired crema infused with lime and sea salt for drizzling over tacos and burritos, frittata, and all manner of fried and roasted deliciousness. I also use it for adding creamy taste and texture to soups and sauces. In the States, making your own crème fraîche is way more cost-effective than store-bought and I feel that it's usually much better tasting. Most importantly, the technique is simple and the applications are endless. I find more and more reasons to make this as time marches on.
To make crème fraîche, you''ll need to procure just one tablespoon of cultured buttermilk for every half pint of fresh or pasteurized heavy whipping cream. Be careful not to use ultra-pasteurized products in this context, we want those living cultures alive and well! Simply combine these two ingredients in a glass or ceramic jar. Cover the jar, but do not fully seal it to allow some airflow. Let it sit out unrefrigerated for about 10-12 hours until it has thickened. I like to do this overnight; the liquid transforms into a silky cream that will coat the back of a spoon.
This magic happens faster in warmer weather. On one cold night in San Francisco with the kitchen window ajar, I found that the process took almost 18 hours. So to expedite the adventure on cold days, I took to keeping my jar wrapped up in room temperature cupboards or placed it in a warmer room. While staying in sultry, humid Colombia, my crème fraîche would only take about 6 hours to set. Keep in mind that the good bacteria that you introduce from the cultured buttermilk multiplies during these setting periods and this is what prevents the cream from spoiling. So the process is safe, it's only the time frame that can vary depending on your environment.
After you've reached the point where you can coat the back of a spoon, and your desired thickeness is mostly achieved, cover your container with a nice tight fitting lid and transfer it to the refrigerator, where it will firm up even more as it chills. This makes an amazing addition to almost everything, and the foundation for an easy, fresh, tangy dip.
Make it spicy! I like to add to my fraîche different combinations such as jalapeños and garlic, Serrano chiles and chives, habanero pepper and red onion, Thai chiles and scallions. Black pepper, Pimenton de la Vera, harissa and ginger are also great boosters to add when you want to keep the heat factor on the lower end. Whatever flavors you desire, or whatever ingredients you have on hand, add them to your crème fraiche with some fine sea salt to taste and let them marinate chilled for an hour or two. This makes a great quick dip to serve with chips or crackers and a great spread on crusty bread, complimenting any appetizer platter or cheeseboard.
Another thought: add your buttermilk crème fraiche guacamole! While traveling in the Yucatan penninsula, in the tiny beach town of Puerto Morelos, I learned that they added cultured cream to the avocado, sweet lime, onion, garlic, cilantro and chiles to mouthwatering effect.
For a beautiful Latino-inspired, drizzle-worthy crema, add one or two tablespoons of fresh lime juice per 1/2 pint of crème fraîche and stir together until incorporated, adding finely ground sea salt to taste. I like to get creative and vary the citrus as well, some of my favorite substitutes are fresh-squeezed Meyer lemons from mama's garden, juicy mandarins, tangy pomelo and sweet key lime.
And of course, you can make yourself an amazing homemade buttermilk ranch dip by the simple addition of fresh or dried herbs, garlic and a little lemon. I like to let this sit chilled for a good hour or more for the herbal flavors to infuse.
But wait, there's more...Buttermilk Cheese!
I often find myself with leftover cultured buttermilk since you only use a tablespoon for every half pint of heavy whipping cream. Buttermilk is great for soaking French toast and it's an awesome overnight tenderizer for chicken and prawns. But I also love to make fresh cheese with it.
Making tangy, crumbly buttermilk cheese is so easy. I love doing this recipe with kids, but I've found it's also great for for beginner level cheesemaking classes too, because it is so quick and satisfying.
All you need is cultured buttermilk and cheesecloth-lined colander. A fine mesh sieve or paper filters can also work for draining the curds. In less than a half hour you can have fresh cheese, which I love to sprinkle on pizza, scrambles, salads and avocado toast, or simply mix with herbs as a simple addition to my dinner cheese plate.
You literally can just pour any amount of cultured buttermilk into a heavy pot and put it on a medium flame, stirring occasionally and gently. The curds and whey will visibly separate after a few minutes or once the liquid reaches 160 degrees. You can use a thermometer, but I find you don't need to, as you can see the curds and whey separate. (It will look a bit like small curd cottage cheese under water.)
Once your buttermilk cheese curds are mostly defined and the liquid whey begins to appear clear, this is your cue to take the pot off the flame and drain the curds. I don’t discard the whey liquid, as it tastes tangy and yogurt-like and can be used as a base for smoothies, marinades and salad dressings. I hear it's also wonderful for baking!
Once you've drained the curds, your fresh homemade cheese is ready to go. Salt it to taste and sprinkle it on anything, or marinate it under olive oil with garlic and herbs for extra flavor.
You can also take one more step: gather the drained buttermilk cheese curds in the cheesecloth and tie them up tightly into a bundle. Let them dry out for a few days in the fridge. This is essentially a light pressing.
The result is extra crumbly fresh cheese, similar in texture to crumbled feta but much less salty. In addition to serving your buttermilk cheese with a pinch of salt and olive oil, I sometimes add fresh finely minced herbs like rosemary and basil.
Like crème fraîche, you can mix all manner of citrus, chiles, garlic, or spices into the cheese. It's super versatile, an easy appetizer and its amazing topping for breakfast scrambles, salads, pasta dishes, or baked onto pizza and bruschetta.
Working on these easy and tasty projects definitely eased my mind while navigating the uncertain times of 2020. And it was a consistent reminder that slow food is my therapy. And of course eating good food is literally nourishing and mood elevating! Not to mention the beautiful live cultures in buttermilk help keep your gut healthy and resilient.
Let me know if you have any questions or comments on these recipes. I would love to see how you're using your homemade fresh buttermilk cheese and crème fraiche, uplifting your day-to-day feasts and feeding your loved ones on this wild ride we call life.
Buttermilk Crème Fraîche
- 1 Tbsp cultured buttermilk
- 1/2 pint heavy whipping cream (not ultra-pasteurized)
Method: Combine the ingredients in a glass or ceramic jar. Cover the jar, but do not fully seal it to allow some airflow. Let it sit out unrefrigerated overnight or for about 10-12 hours until it has thickened. When the liquid transforms into a silky cream that will coat the back of a spoon, tighten the lid and refrigerate.
- 1/2 pint buttermilk crème fraîche
- 1-2 Tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice
- Fine sea salt to taste
Method: For a drizzle-worthy crema, combine the crème fraîche, lime juice and salt to taste and whisk until smooth.
- Leftover Buttermilk
Method: In a heavy-bottom pot, heat buttermilk over a low-medium flame, stirring occasionally and gently. The curds and whey will visibly separate after a few minutes, or once the liquid reaches 160 degrees. Strain in a cheesecloth-lined colander or fine seive. Reserve the whey by chilling it separately for smoothies, marinades and salad dressing. You can consume the buttermilk cheese as is with added salt or herbs to taste, or marinate it under oliver oil and/or with garlic and herbs or seasonings of your choice. For a drier, feta-like texture, gather the drained buttermilk cheese curds in the cheesecloth and tie them up tightly into a bundle. Let them dry out for a few days in the fridge. This is essentially a light pressing.
"Buttermilk's palate-cleansing tartness is one reason it's used a lot in southern India, where meals often end with a small bowl of the stuff served with plain rice and pickles."
- Yotam Ottolenghi