Learn what buttermilk 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 in 2010, I actually struggled to find it in stores. 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 buttermilk specifics, and then we’ll look at some substitutions you can try when you find yourself with no buttermilk in your refrigerator.
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 baked goods. 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. Now, buttermilk is most widely available as cultured buttermilk, which 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 buttermilk is either labeled low-fat on no-fat.
What Buttermilk Does in Baking
So, why use buttermilk? Well, there are a few 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.
Next is leavening. Buttermilk provides the acidic element needed for baking soda to make your baked goods rise.
And then there’s the texture that it brings to baked goods. Using buttermilk will go a long way in making your baked goods moist and tender.
How to Store Buttermilk
Of course, you know that buttermilk needs to be refrigerated. But you may not realize that it will keep longer than most dairy products. It may separate, but just give it a shake.
And even better? Buttermilk freezes well, too. It will keep frozen for up to 3 months. You can store it in unit-of-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. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator or at low power in the microwave. Stir or shake, as it will likely have separated.
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 yourself out of buttermilk or unable to get buttermilk.
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, if you’re making Buttermilk Biscuits and using a buttermilk substitute, expect more of a difference versus substituting in something like 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 indistinguishable from buttermilk. These are all certainly viable substitutes, but just keep all of this in mind when using them.
For most of these substitutes, I’m providing instructions for replacing 1 cup of buttermilk. If you need a different amount, just scale accordingly.
Also, unless otherwise noted below, whole milk will work best in the substitutes that use milk. You can also usually use 2% with pretty good success, but I would definitely avoid 1% or skim milk with one exception you’ll find below.
Whole or 2% Milk As I mentioned above, buttermilk’s acidity helps with leavening in recipes with baking soda. If there’s no baking soda in the recipe, then you can try substituting plain milk for buttermilk. Of course, you’ll still get at least some difference in the final flavor and texture, but it can usually work well enough in a pinch in some recipes.
Milk and Lemon Juice Combine 1 tablespoon 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 Vinegar Combine 1 tablespoon 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 use water instead of milk to thin the yogurt. You can also try a 1:1 substitute of yogurt for buttermilk, depending on the recipe, but thinning the yogurt is likely your best bet.
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.
Milk and Greek Yogurt This is one I’ve not tried, but I recently read that a combination of 1 part Greek yogurt and 2 parts 1% or skim milk is a viable substitute for buttermilk. Greek 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.
Kefir This is another one I’ve not tried, but you can use kefir as a 1:1 substitute for buttermilk.
Buttermilk Powder Powdered buttermilk can be used for buttermilk 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.
Recipes Using Buttermilk
- Buttermilk Biscuits
- Coconut Buttermilk Pound Cake
- Buttermilk Mexican Chocolate Pound Cake
- Jalapeño Cheddar Biscuits
- Chocolate, Coconut, and Pecan Bread
- Lemon Chess Tartlets