- Never leave buttermilk out of a recipe — it’s essential for adding moisture and helping batters rise.
- You can create buttermilk substitutions using other dairy such as milk, yogurt, and sour cream.
- Oat milk combined with lemon or vinegar is the best vegan buttermilk substitution.
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Buttermilk is often thought of as a Southern ingredient, but the cultured milk brings great flavor and texture to a wide variety of baked goods.
Using buttermilk is a way to “bring more depth to baked goods that can be a little flat while also making the crumb of your bake more tender,” says Bethany Costello, chef and owner of Eat Like Kings and culinary director of Dough Doughnuts.
So if you plan to regularly make biscuits, pound cake, cornbread, or pancakes, consider keeping a carton of buttermilk stashed in your fridge.
But what if you start making pancakes and realize that there’s no buttermilk in sight? While the exact flavor and texture that buttermilk provides can’t be replicated exactly, there are some handy substitutes for when your stomach is growling and there’s no time to run to the store.
The importance of buttermilk in any recipe
Traditionally made of the leftover liquid after churning butter (making it quite thin), buttermilk is now fermented on a larger scale and sold in cartons. Recipes that ask for buttermilk are usually calling for store-bought cultured buttermilk.
Quick tip: Never skip buttermilk in a recipe. Not only does it impart flavor, it adds necessary moisture and tenderness to baked goods without watering down the batter and creates a reaction with raising agents like baking soda to make the batter rise.
The most commonly cited substitute for buttermilk — adding an acidic ingredient like lemon juice or vinegar to plain milk — will add a nice tang and curdle the milk to make it slightly thicker. Vinegar-infused milk is Costello’s “go to for cakes and pancakes” and if the recipe calls for a fairly small amount of buttermilk, you can use apple cider vinegar in a pinch.
To make 1 cup of acidified milk, add 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or white vinegar to a measuring cup and add enough milk to make 1 cup. Stir and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes before using. If you don’t have vinegar or lemon juice handy, dig out that cream of tartar out of the back of your pantry. Whisk 1 3/4 teaspoons together with milk and let sit several minutes before using. For best results, use whole milk.
You won’t get the thickness of buttermilk from this mixture, so you may want to add slightly less than the recipe calls for. If your recipe is buttermilk heavy — think biscuits, certain cakes, or a buttermilk dressing — go for the real thing or try a different substitution.
If you’re seeking that signature tang, but also need the thickness that buttermilk provides, watered-down plain yogurt is a good option. Full-fat is best, though low-fat yogurt will work in a pinch. Thin the yogurt with milk to mimic the consistency of buttermilk — exactly how much milk you’ll need will depend on the yogurt. If you’re using regular yogurt, a 3:1 mixture of yogurt to milk is a good starting point. If you’re using especially thick yogurt or Greek yogurt, try 2 parts yogurt to 1 part milk, or even a 50/50 mixture for extra-thick Greek yogurt. You can use the mixture in your recipe immediately, no need to let it sit.
Thinned yogurt will work in most recipes that call for buttermilk. While the consistency helps make thicker batters and allows for more browning than acidified milk, it doesn’t provide as nice of a crumb as buttermilk. Try using it as a substitution in pancakes, cornbread, drinks, and dips. Costello suggests “if you’re craving fried chicken, but missing buttermilk, you can use yogurt or a mixture of yogurt and regular milk to brine your chicken. It makes your chicken a bit more tender than brining in a vinegar-based mixture.”
Thinned sour cream
Much like watered down yogurt, thinned sour cream is also a worthy option for replacing buttermilk. Depending on the thickness of your sour cream, you’ll want to water it down with milk at a ratio of 3:1 or 2:1 sour cream to milk. Sour cream has a lovely tang and a creamy, luscious texture, and it’s a good option for many of the same applications as thinned yogurt.
It’s especially well-suited for savory dishes like dips and dressings. If Costello doesn’t have buttermilk for something like a dressing, she uses sour cream or yogurt “to get the tang and the creaminess.”
Kefir is a fermented milk beverage that’s similar to thin yogurt. It’s often treated as a drink, and is sometimes sweetened with fruit purées and other flavorings. Plain kefir has a texture strikingly similar to buttermilk and is an excellent substitution when baking.
Kefir can be used 1:1 in recipes that call for buttermilk and it works especially well in biscuit recipes since it produces a good crumb and allows for nice browning. Try using it in any baked goods in place of buttermilk.
What substitute should I use?
Vegan buttermilk substitution
You can make acidified milk with non-dairy milk and use it in the same way. Costello has used this method with oat milk and noted that “it will give you the tang and a bit more tender crumb — but you need to add less liquid than the recipe states since the non-dairy milk doesn’t have as much structure.” Using a barista-style non-dairy milk can help produce a thicker acidified milk.
Buttermilk is an essential ingredient, adding not just flavor, but also texture and rise to food. If you don’t have any around and need a substitute, there are different options depending on what you’re making — but any swap is better than skipping buttermilk entirely.
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