Learn what this magical ingredient does in baking and what buttermilk substitutes you can use in a pinch!
Buttermilk is one of my favorite baking ingredients. Growing up in the South, buttermilk was very commonly found in people’s refrigerators. When I first moved to New York, I actually struggled to find it in stores and was forced to find a buttermilk substitute. But now I’m so happy to have seen it grow in popularity elsewhere, too.
As much as I love baking with buttermilk, I know that it’s not something everyone keeps on-hand. Let’s first talk about some specifics. Then we’ll look at several ways to make a quick and easy buttermilk substitute you can try when you find yourself without any in your refrigerator or your grocery store.
What is Buttermilk?
Buttermilk is a thick, acidic milk that is often used in baking. If you’ve ever baked with buttermilk, you’re likely familiar with the great things that it can do to baking recipes. It’s a great way to add richness to your baking without adding the fat you’d get from some other options like cream or even regular milk.
Originally, buttermilk was the liquid that remained after cream was churned into butter. As the process of making butter changed, that remaining liquid lacked the usual acidity of buttermilk.
These days it is most widely available as cultured buttermilk. This is made by adding a bacterial culture to low-fat or non-fat milk in a similar way to how yogurt is made. Original buttermilk was originally fat-free, but most modern varieties are either labeled low-fat on no-fat.
Why Use Buttermilk in Baking?
There are some really good things that buttermilk brings to baking.
First up is flavor. Buttermilk has a signature tangy flavor that adds a layer of flavor to baked goods. It can serve to offset and balance the sweetness of these treats.
Next is leavening. Buttermilk provides the acidic element needed for baking soda to make your baking rise.
And then there’s the resulting texture. Its acidity helps break down proteins like gluten, leading to a more delicate texture. Using buttermilk will go a long way in making your baked goods moist and tender.
Buttermilk is often seen in recipes for quick breads, biscuits, and cakes, but it can have other uses as well. In addition to information about making buttermilk substitutes, I’m also sharing a few images of some of my favorite recipes that use buttermilk as an ingredient.
Things to Consider When Substituting Buttermilk
Before we get into some substitution options, I want to emphasize that the best thing to use in a recipe with buttermilk is, well, buttermilk. These substitutes are options to keep in mind when you find with no buttermilk on hand or are looking for a non-dairy option.
Using a substitute may work well enough, but you’re likely to find at least some differences in flavor and texture of whatever you’re baking. Those differences are likely to be more apparent in a recipe that really relies on buttermilk or in a recipe with a short list of ingredients.
For example, my Buttermilk Biscuits feature buttermilk prominently and don’t have a lot of other ingredients. If you make it and use a substitute, expect more of a difference than making a cake with a long list of ingredients.
If you’ve ever baked with buttermilk, you’re familiar with its signature flavor and thickness. Most of the common substitutes involve mixing something with plain milk or water to make it more like the acidity of buttermilk. But that’s usually where the similarities stop. You won’t end up with the something that’s identical to buttermilk.
These are all certainly viable substitutes, but just keep all of this in mind when using them.
Homemade Buttermilk Substitutes
For most of these substitutes, I’m providing instructions for replacing 1 cup of store bought buttermilk. If you need a different amount, simply scale accordingly.
Dairy buttermilk replacements
In my experience, a buttermilk substitute based on milk works better than other alternatives such as water or non-dairy milks.
Also, unless otherwise noted below, whole milk will work best in the substitutes that use milk because of the higher fat content. You can also usually use 2% with pretty good success. I would definitely avoid 1% or skim milk with one exception you’ll find below (see Greek yogurt).
Whole or 2% milk
As I mentioned above, buttermilk’s acidity helps with leavening in recipes with baking soda. If there isn’t any in the recipe, then you can try substituting plain milk for buttermilk. You may still notice some difference in flavor and texture, but it can usually work well enough when you need a quick fix.
Milk and lemon juice
Combine 1 tablespoon of lemon juice plus enough milk to equal 1 cup. Stir and let stand about 10 minutes. The mixture will thicken and look curdled.
Milk and white vinegar
Combine 1 tablespoon of white vinegar plus enough milk to equal 1 cup. Stir and let stand about 10 minutes. The mixture will thicken and look curdled.
Milk and cream of tartar
Add 1 & 3/4 teaspoons cream of tartar to 1 cup milk. Stir or shake well. Let stand about 10 minutes. The mixture will thicken and curdle. Stir again.
Milk and plain yogurt
Whisk together 1/4 cup milk plus 3/4 cup plain yogurt to equal 1 cup. You can also use water instead of milk to thin the yogurt. You can try a 1:1 substitute of yogurt for buttermilk, depending on the recipe, but thinning the yogurt is likely your best bet.
Milk and Greek yogurt
A combination of 1 part Greek yogurt and 2 parts 1% or skim milk is a viable substitute for buttermilk. So, 1/3 cup Greek yogurt plus 2/3 cup milk will make 1 cup of buttermilk substitute.
This type of yogurt is thicker than plain yogurt, so it makes sense you’d need to thin it differently. If you have whole or 2% milk, you can alter the ratio or try using something closer to the milk + plain yogurt substitute above.
Milk and sour cream
Whisk together 1/4 cup milk plus 3/4 cup sour cream to equal 1 cup. Like the yogurt option above, you can also use water to thin the yogurt.
Sour cream is also sometimes mentioned as a 1:1 substitute for buttermilk. I think it depends on the recipe, but keep it in mind and use your best judgment. For example, I’ve used a straight substitution of sour cream for buttermilk in Angel Biscuits. The final result is a little different in flavor and texture, but the dough works just fine.
Kefir is a fermented milk drink made by adding kefir grains to milk. This then ferments and turns the milk into a slightly sour and carbonated beverage. Kefir has a long history of being used as a buttermilk substitute in baking. The fermentation process gives kefir its characteristic tang, but it also makes the drink more easily digestible and increases its nutritional value.
You can use kefir as a 1:1 buttermilk substitute.
Powdered buttermilk can be used for a substitute in recipes. While it’s not simply reconstituted, you will need to add water to the recipe to make it work. The packaging should give you instructions on what proportions to use.
Sour cream powder
This is dehydrated sour cream. Once rehydrated, it should work as described above.
Non-dairy or vegan buttermilk replacement
If you don’t use or don’t have access to dairy milk, there are plant based milk alternatives to make a dairy-free buttermilk substitute. The farther you stray from dairy for a buttermilk substitute, the more likely your results will vary. These options may not have the thicker consistency we are looking for in traditional buttermilk.
There are many recipes that should work great this way. You may need to tweak them a bit in order for them taste just the way you love it.
Plant-based milk with vinegar or lemon juice
Plant- and nut-based milks can work well to make a substitute.
When choosing a milk, there are two things to keep in mind. First, go with an unsweetened milk. Second, check the fat content. A low fat milk like rice or oat milk won’t curdle and thicken as well as soy milk, almond milk, or coconut milk.
Recommendations range from 1 to 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar per cup of milk. Start on the low range and experiment to find what works best. Mix the two together until combined and let it set for about 10 minutes at room temperature. It should thicken and curdle as it rests.
Vegan Sour Cream
Vegan sour cream is made from a base of soy milk, and is thickened with either vegan yogurt or vegan cream cheese. The final product is a creamy, slightly tangy mixture that can be used in place of buttermilk in both savory and sweet recipes.
Mix about three parts of vegan sour cream with one part water or plant-based milk to thin it to the desired consistency.
When tofu is blended or mashed, it takes on a similar consistency to buttermilk, making it ideal for use in pancakes, muffins, and other baking recipes. Tofu also has a mild flavor that is similar to buttermilk, so it will not significantly change the taste of your recipe. If needed, you can thin it down by mixing in a little water or plant-based milk.
Applesauce is completely vegan. It’s also lower in fat and calories than buttermilk, making it a healthier option. Best of all, it’s readily available in most grocery stores.
To use applesauce as a substitute, simply use an equal amount of applesauce in place of the buttermilk called for in the recipe. In most cases, you won’t need to make any other adjustments.
How Do I Store Buttermilk?
If you do have buttermilk in your refrigerator, keep an eye on the expiration date. You may not realize that it will keep longer than most dairy products. That gives you a little extra time to bake with it!
It may separate, but just give it a shake before using it. After shaking, it may be a bit lumpy, but that’s fine. To test for freshness, just give it a sniff. It should smell tangy, not sour.
Can I Freeze Buttermilk?
Yes! Buttermilk freezes well, too. It will keep in the freezer for up to 3 months. You can store it in single use containers to speed things along when you’re ready to bake your favorite recipes. Or freeze it in tablespoon portions in ice cube trays to give you some measuring flexibility. This way, you’ll have access to buttermilk for baking without needing to make a substitute.
Thaw overnight in the refrigerator or at low power in the microwave. Stir or shake, as it will likely have separated.
More Baking Substitutions
Frequently Asked Questions
What happens if I use regular milk instead of buttermilk?
Regular milk and buttermilk are not interchangeable. Buttermilk is made by adding bacteria to milk, which causes the milk to thicken and curdle. This process also gives buttermilk its distinct tangy flavor.
Regular milk will not produce the same results. The milk will not thicken or curdle, and it will not have the same flavor.
Buttermilk is acidic which is important for activating certain types of leavening such as baking soda. Without adding an acid like lemon juice or vinegar, recipes that depend on this won’t rise or be as fluffy. As a result, your recipe may not turn out as expected if you use regular milk as a substitute for buttermilk.
Won’t buttermilk make my batter and baked goods sour?
Nope, the acidity in buttermilk will not make your batter and baking sour. The acidity is necessary for baking soda to leaven your food. Without the acidity, your food will not rise properly.
Will I taste lemon if I used lemon juice to make a buttermilk substitute?
Maybe, but it depends on what else is going on in that recipe. If it has a lot of flavors, they’ll likely drown out the lemon juice. But if the recipe is simpler or you are sensitive to lemon flavors, you might taste it. In these cases, using vinegar instead of lemon juice is an easy fix.
Can apple cider vinegar make buttermilk substitute?
Absolutely. We’re adding vinegar to get some acidity in our buttermilk substitute. Apple cider vinegar brings a little extra flavor and sweetness to the mixture which can be a wonderful addition to many baked goods.