Advice from a magical kitchen to yours—
Dear Kitchen Witch,
What are some interesting ways to use up half a thing of cream or buttermilk or commercial sour cream? I buy things in small containers but still always have some dairy product left after using it as I intended to. What can I do with these dairy odds and ends?
—Got Milk Products
Dear Got Milk,
My favorite way to use up bits of dairy is to make a quick batch of what Laurie Colwin once called “the utility infielder of the culinary world”: biscuits. Drop biscuits are the first thing I remember learning to bake on my own, in a 4H cooking class. Later I moved on to more fancified cut-out biscuits, but it turns out my kids like the drop kind and say there are more crunchy edges. Bonus, they are easier and result in less cleanup. My basic formula is 2 cups flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda and ½ teaspoon baking powder (more on that ratio in a sec), a big pinch of salt, ½ cup cold butter or other fat (cut in like for pie crust, though I honestly usually rub it in with my fingers), and about ¾-1 cup of your leftover dairy product of choice. Buttermilk is great. Plain yogurt or sour cream thinned with a little milk? Also great. Heavy cream is great and you can cut the amount of butter down, add a spoonful of sugar, and call it a cream scone or use it for shortcake. (Or save the bit of heavy cream to whip.) Regular milk is good too. If you use something sour or cultured, like the buttermilk or yogurt, use the baking soda-powder combo above. (You can also use all baking soda; the powder is just kind of insurance for leavening.) If you are using cream or milk with no acid, use all baking powder instead.
Stir in the liquid with a fork until the dough is mostly holding together, drop by shaggy spoonfuls on a baking sheet lined with kitchen parchment, and bake at 425°F until they are golden brown and look like biscuits instead of dough, about 14 minutes. If you prefer a cut-out biscuit, you can do a brief knead, pat the dough out, give it a couple of turns and folds to make it flaky, and cut into squares with a big knife or rounds with a biscuit cutter, and that will work too. You can vary these by adding grated cheese in place of some of the butter, flavoring with herbs or spices, or whatever. I find they always turn out a little differently but are basically always pretty good alongside soup or chili or for breakfast.
For other uses of dairy products, look to their friends the carbs. Mashed potatoes take well to the addition of almost any dairy product: sour cream or yogurt turns them tangy, cream makes them rich. A little extra cream is extremely versatile for sides and savory enhancements: dress a simple pasta, enrich a pan of polenta, swirl it into a quick pan sauce, or just put it on your oatmeal in the morning. If you have fresh summer fruit, there is no better breakfast than ripe peaches with cream on them.
Bits of yogurt or buttermilk make an excellent salad dressing—think ranch or green goddess—or a marinade that makes chicken juicy and tender. I use buttermilk in meatballs and meatloaf as well, by soaking the dry bread crumbs or oats in it to make the end result flavorful and light. And there’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned dip. Once I made onion dip by just caramelizing onions (do it over low low heat and plan on it taking 45 minutes at least to get them truly soft and brown and delicious, and don’t trust anyone who tells you differently) and stirring them into sour cream with some black pepper and thyme. People raised on the Lipton soup mix version (with which there is nothing wrong!) lost their actual minds. A small amount of dip just for you, made with your small amount of dairy product, is an excellent snack treat.
Don’t forget, also, that cultured dairy products will last a long time—that’s the whole reason people cultured them in the first place. You don’t have to toss them on the date on the carton; I confess I keep buttermilk around for ages. (I find the paper cartons weep in a way that makes the fridge very gross, so sometimes I put it in a clean Mason jar.) That said, you can freeze them before they go bad. I wouldn’t want to do this for, say, cream I wanted to whip, but buttermilk I’m going to use as an ingredient? Definitely. I try to freeze it in 1-cup portions for ease of use later. I have also been known to combine a bunch of cultured dairy products into one container for baking. I imagine that this would horrify some (many) pros, and I wouldn’t do it in a finely calibrated recipe or, say, a wedding cake, but those live cultures will keep on culturing, and in muffins calling for buttermilk or a quick bread made with yogurt you can usually fudge the fat content and the exact culturing agent involved.
Another random dairy tip: those one-cup tetra pack containers of shelf-stable whipping cream, now sold at Trader Joe’s, are a lifesaver to have around. Of course, if you only need a quarter cup of cream, you’ll have a bit left over, in which case see above.
Every week, the Kitchen Witch answers your culinary questions with an eye towards seasonal, sustainable cooking. Ask your question by email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ECkitchenwitch.