Get Cultured on Buttermilk at Cruze Farm
It was almost midnight when, to her horror, Colleen Cruze-Bhatti realized that her first attempt to make buttermilk had failed miserably. Too nervous to sleep, she waited for her father Earl Cruze, the patriarch of the 550-acre family dairy farm on the French Broad River near Knoxville, to arrive at his usual 5 a.m.
“When he saw it, he screamed, and then cried. And then of course I cried,” says Cruze-Bhatti, 28, who now runs the farm with her husband, Manjit. “I just forgot to set it up, so it turned into cottage cheese. So we had 500 gallons of cottage cheese that we had to throw away. I only did that one time.”
That was five years ago, and Cruze has been crafting perfect buttermilk ever since, a tradition her great-grandmother Ida Bell started when she sold the Southern staple from a mule-drawn wagon in downtown Knoxville.
Back then, the old-timers made buttermilk by churning whole milk into butter and leaving the leftover liquid alone to naturally ferment, thicken and sour from “good” lactic acid bacteria. The Cruze family still uses their ancestors’ basic recipe, but now also pasteurize and add specific cultures to their small-batch product, which they sell at select locations in Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville.
“I imagine that my great-grandfather would probably just let the buttermilk sour outside in the heat,” Cruze-Bhatti says with a laugh. “We have to control it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have buttermilk in the winter because it’s too cold.”
Thanks to Cruze Farms, the nation’s newfound obsession with Southern cuisine, and the popularity of Greek yogurt, real buttermilk is making a comeback in kitchens and restaurants across Tennessee, and not just in biscuits and pancakes. Gourmet chefs use it in everything from Italian braised pork to lavender ice cream; Cruze-Bhatti’s husband, Manjit, who hails from India, likes to create mango lassi with it.
“Now it seems to be quite the trendy thing for culinary applications just because of the tanginess of the flavor,” says Anne Cain, director of communications for the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association. “It adds a really unique flavor.”
Today’s trendy treat was actually born of necessity. “Much of the South was poor for a long time, and people didn’t like to waste anything,” says Debbie Moose, author of Buttermilk: A Savor the South Cookbook. “So when they got out the old butter churn and made butter, they weren’t about to throw away what was left. They put that nutritious liquid aside in a pitcher to find a use for it later.”
Because of the hot summer weather, “All milk was turned into buttermilk when people didn’t have refrigeration,” says Cruze-Bhatti, noting the two-month shelf life of her family’s product. “As far as drinking whole or ‘sweet’ milk, as they called it, that didn’t really happen until refrigeration was invented, and that would have been a luxury. So maybe more people learned to drink buttermilk because they were forced to, because that was what they had.”
Many fans of the tart, creamy drink swear by its rumored health benefits: a clearer complexion, more energy and better digestion. “It makes you feel good,” Cruze-Bhatti says. “If you ever have an upset stomach, if you drink a glass of buttermilk, you will immediately feel better.”
Buttermilk is also low in fat. “I think the name really throws people off,” Cruze-Bhatti says. “It’s really butter-less milk. If there’s any butter, it’s really small flecks. Whole milk has more fat than buttermilk.”
Unlike larger production facilities, Cruze Farms doesn’t add salt to its buttermilk. Doing so makes it thin and watery, and greatly alters the taste, Cruze-Bhatti says. “But I love to put a little salt and cracked pepper on my buttermilk and drink it,” she says. “It just pumps it up a little bit.”
To entice skeptics and recruit a new generation of buttermilk drinkers, Cruze-Bhatti and her team of “Cruze Farm Girls” don gingham farm dresses and offer samples at the farmers market at Knoxville’s Market Square. They are upfront when potential customers ask what to expect. “It’s sour, but it’s supposed to be,” Cruze-Bhatti says. “It’s drinkable yogurt with no sugar added.”
All that marketing is paying off. The Cruze Farms customer base is starting to shift from seniors who grew up drinking buttermilk to a younger, health-conscious crowd. The local food movement and support from regional chefs have helped catapult it into the limelight even more.
“Buttermilk is an important connection between the new cooking of the South and traditional dishes, and a reminder of the times when the region struggled,” Moose says. “For many older Southerners, crumbling leftover cornbread into a glass and pouring buttermilk over it to make a snack goes back to those times, and is still delicious today.”
Cain agrees. “We’re in a time when people are looking for things that have an American twist,” she says. “We are embracing things in our food that are authentic and real and represent where we come from. And buttermilk is a real American sort of thing.”