Milk might do a body good, but when it comes to adding good body to favorite dishes, South Carolina cooks look to buttermilk. It’s the secret ingredient for heavenly biscuits, possessing superpowers that boost flavor and rise. As a chicken marinade, it applies a gentle, tenderizing touch unlike lemon, vinegar and other more militant acids that tend to toughen meats. And when it comes to turning out fragrant, moist discs of cornbread, well, buttermilk is considered the liquid gold that infuses this classic with unparalleled pizzazz.
But perhaps the most decadent use of buttermilk in Southern cuisine is as the main ingredient for its namesake pie. Custardy, rich buttermilk pie might not be as well-known as banana pudding or peach cobbler outside of the South, but it holds a place of honor among our favorite desserts. This is the stuff of family recipes, prized by home cooks and solemnly handed down from generation to generation. Even if you detest the taste of buttermilk, you’ll likely enjoy this pie and its subtle tang.
Sometimes referred to as a “make-do” or “desperation” pie, it was born out of necessity during the Depression when the nation’s sweet tooth still demanded satisfaction in the face of abject scarcity. The ingredients, basic and cheap, were unlikely food fellows that came together for a good cause. By popular demand, buttermilk pie has been performing encores ever since. If you happen to spot it on a menu, you can rest assured you’ll be served a slice of tradition in the finest Southern sense. Try buttermilk pie at one of these South Carolina restaurants, many of them old-school country cafes and diners where the meals are homemade and the atmosphere is quaint:
Want to try your hand at baking up your own buttermilk pie? Here, we share a recipe made famous by Chef Robert Stehling, the mastermind behind beloved Charleston restaurant Hominy Grill, which closed in 2019. Spiked with a hint of lemon, this pie is swoon-worthy and destined to become a tradition in your own family. It will also deliver a little soothing nostalgia for the legions mourning the loss of Hominy Grill.
Chef Robert Stehling’s Buttermilk Pie
6 tbs unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs, separated
3 tbs all-purpose flour
1 tbs fresh lemon juice
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
¼ tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk, room temperature
1 baked 9-inch deep-dish pie shell
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine butter and sugar until sugar is completely incorporated. Add egg yolks and mix well to combine. Add flour, lemon juice, nutmeg and salt. With the mixer running, slowly add buttermilk. Mix well and set aside. In another bowl, whip egg whites until they form soft peaks. Pour a small amount of the buttermilk mixture into the whites. Fold gently to combine. Gently fold egg white mixture into the remaining buttermilk mixture until just combined. Pour custard into baked pie shell. Bake in the middle of the oven about 45-50 minutes or until filling is lightly browned and barely moves when the pie is jiggled. Cool the buttermilk pie on a rack and serve warm or at room temperature. Refrigerate any leftovers. A light dollop of whipped cream makes a nice accompaniment.