I remember my dad would sometimes have an evening snack of cornbread and buttermilk. He would crumble the cornbread into a bowl, pour buttermilk over it and then eat it with a spoon. As a young boy, why anyone would consume buttermilk was beyond my comprehension. The tart flavor was simply too much for my tender palate. Besides, I had already learned that when milk is tart, it is spoiled. That tart flavor was so repulsive it twisted my face into a most gruesome scowl!

In the days before refrigeration, milk would be consumed until it began to sour and then used in cooking or to make butter. The liquid left from churning butter was called buttermilk. Generally, this was fed to livestock but poor farmers often consumed this nutritious liquid with leftover cornbread. In 1907 Russian biologist, Elie Metchnikoff concluded that the longevity of people living in the Balkans resulted from drinking sour milk, the pre-cursor in the U.S. to today’s buttermilk. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, (the same as the maker of early whole grain cereals) began promoting buttermilk as a healthy beverage to cure many ailments in his sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. Many health-conscious Americans began drinking buttermilk for its perceived health benefits.

Today’s buttermilk is made by adding acid producing bacteria to low-fat milk, which increases the acidity thus creating the tart flavor. Thanks to emigrants from Eastern Europe we have today a cultured dairy food like buttermilk called kefir. The name is derived from a Turkish word keyif meaning “feeling good”. The difference between kefir and buttermilk is the number of live cultures. Buttermilk may have one or two different types of cultures while kefir has twelve. Thus, kefir is a powerhouse pro-biotic food much more so than buttermilk. Yogurt is recognized as a valuable probiotic food. Kefir has 2-3 times the number of beneficial micro-organisms than yogurt.

The diversity of beneficial bacteria in our gut is reduced when consuming a diet of primarily meats, cheese, sweets and highly processed foods. This reduced diversity results in a harmful imbalance of good bacteria versus disruptive ones. This imbalance of gut flora is associated with many chronic diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, reduced immune response, increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and even obesity. Studies show that consuming probiotic foods such as kefir and a diet rich in fiber and plant foods restores the balance of beneficial bacteria.

Aside from its health benefits, the tart flavor of kefir makes it an excellent culinary ingredient in recipes ranging from salad dressings to baked goods. Use kefir in any recipe that calls for buttermilk. Try adding it to mashed potatoes to enhance the flavor.

The first time I tasted kefir, I was transported back in time to that moment when Dad let me taste his buttermilk and cornbread. But unlike then, I am now armed with the knowledge that our palates adapt to different flavors with continued exposure. In college, I wanted to learn to like the collard greens that were cooking in the hospital kitchen where I worked. I learned that a bite of greens with a bite of cornbread wasn’t too bad. The more I tried it, the better those greens tasted. Combining a little kefir with some fresh berries wasn’t too bad. Now my palate has developed and that kefir goes very well with a bowl of crumbled cornbread! Dad was right when he would say, “Try it. You’ll get to where you like it.” If I were to give Dad a glass of kefir today, he would say, “That’s a good, rich buttermilk. Where’s the cornbread?”

Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with many years’ experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He is a Nacogdoches resident and he helped create the popular TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrating the world of food and health. Memorial Cooking Innovations currently runs in 62 cities and is locally available on Sudden Link cable channel 2 in Nacogdoches.