The local school district was sponsoring a science fair and they asked me to do a kitchen demonstration; one that demonstrated a principle of science. I chose buttermilk syrup.
They set up a long table for me in front of a class and loaded it with a hot plate. I brought fresh buttermilk and some buttermilk syrup mixes along with utensils and a pitcher of water.
The room was nearly full with parents and children, young children. I asked for a couple volunteers. They were boys, age ten or so.
“Do you like buttermilk,” I asked? “Would you like to taste it?”
They didn’t know but it looked like a milk carton and they were brave.
“Nasty!” they said.
I had them taste buttermilk syrup. They loved that.
“So how do we turn nasty buttermilk into really good buttermilk syrup?” I asked.
I had people gather around the table so they could watch. When the buttermilk syrup mix was stirred into the hot water, it foamed and bubbled like crazy. The kids were really impressed.
“What did you see here?” I asked after they returned to their seats.
With a little coaching from parents, a couple of the kids concluded it was a chemical reaction.
I added, “This nasty buttermilk is tangy and bitter. That’s acid that makes it taste like that. Buttermilk is full of acid. And what happens when you mix an acid with a base?”
It forms carbon dioxide bubbles, it foams. I explained that the base was ordinary baking soda.
“But why does it taste different?”
If you take all of the acid out of the buttermilk, you have a very smooth mellow flavor. It’s not sweet but that’s why we add sweeteners.
And that’s the secret to buttermilk syrup.
If you take all of the acid out of the buttermilk and add a sweetener (we use a combination of sugar and corn syrup), it has a caramel flavor, maybe with some tones of butterscotch. It’s very good. The trick is getting the mixture right at neutral, all of the acid gone with none of the base remaining. (If there is leftover baking soda, you’ll taste it in your syrup.)
So how do we get right at neutral? I’m sure there are more sophisticated ways to do it but we use litmus paper. We test our mixes from time to time to make sure nothing has changed in the ingredients. And it helps that we use commercial grade dry buttermilk. Because dry buttermilk is used in baking, the producers are careful to maintain uniform acidity.
What does all this have to do with you making buttermilk syrup in your kitchen?
If you want to make buttermilk syrup at home, I suggest investing in some litmus paper. It’s not expensive. You can then add more buttermilk or more soda as indicated by the litmus paper until you get it tasting just right. It’s kind of cool and the kids will get a kick out of it. Or you can just buy buttermilk syrup mixes from us. Use some corn syrup to keep the sugar from crystalizing.
We’ve experimented with maybe 30 different flavor combinations. We simply add dry flavors to the mix until we get the taste we want. You could add a liquid flavor to your homemade syrup.
So now you know how we do it.