How to substitute for buttermilk: what works best?

You cast your eyes over the list of ingredients in this new recipe you’re trying and lo and behold, there’s that darned buttermilk. You don’t have any buttermilk; in fact, you never buy buttermilk because there are very few baking recipes that use it and who wants an almost-full quart of buttermilk sitting in the back of the fridge making you feel guilty for contributing to food waste? So you sigh and turn to another recipe: one without buttermilk. But is there an easy substitute for buttermilk — something you already have in your kitchen?

What to substitute for buttermilk via @kingarthurflour

First, let’s clarify what buttermilk is, exactly. Traditional buttermilk is the thin, watery liquid left over after cream is churned into butter. It’s not commonly available in grocery stores — and hasn’t been since the 1920s, when it was supplanted by our present-day cultured buttermilk, low-fat or skim milk that’s been inoculated with milk-friendly bacteria to thicken it and make it sour.

Many of the recipes you see calling for buttermilk are classics: pancakes, biscuits, cake. Buttermilk was a readily available ingredient (and one not to be wasted) back when butter-making was a common household task. Prized for its leavening ability when paired with baking soda, it was the basis of many a light and fluffy pancake and cloud-like biscuit.

Today, buttermilk isn’t a pantry staple for most of us, but rather something you purchase for one particular recipe. Which brings us back to where we started: If you don’t want to buy a quart of buttermilk, what can you substitute?

What to substitute for buttermilk via @kingarthurflour

Milk mixed with vinegar

Here are the most common suggestions:

  • 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice mixed into 1 cup of milk. Let the milk stand for 10 to 15 minutes, until it thickens very slightly and curdles.
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons cream of tartar mixed with 1 cup of milk. Shake until the cream of tartar dissolves.
  • Sour cream thinned with milk or water to the consistency of heavy cream.
  • Plain unsweetened kefir.
  • Yogurt thinned with milk or water to the consistency of heavy cream.
What to substitute for buttermilk via @kingarthurflour

My pancake test starts with dry ingredients topped with beaten egg/vegetable oil. I’ll add five different types of liquid, as labeled (that’s plain milk and vinegar + milk on the bottom row).

Best substitute for buttermilk: the tests

I decide to try several of these options in pancakes, biscuits, and a favorite buttermilk cake.

First off, I eliminate kefir (not a pantry staple) and sour cream (similar enough to Greek yogurt).

I also cross standard yogurt off the list, because how easy is it to find “un-Greek” yogurt these days? Scanning the shelves in my local supermarket I find one small section of plain yogurt — in quart-sized containers. Heck, I might as well buy a quart of buttermilk as plain yogurt.

What's the best substitute for buttermilk in your baking? Something you probably already have in your fridge. Click To Tweet

But thick Greek yogurt — it’s ubiquitous. And many of you probably keep a container or two in your fridge most of the time for snacking, mixing with granola, or whipping up a smoothie.

From previous pancake experiments in our test kitchen, I know that Greek yogurt mixed 1:2 with 1% or skim milk (one part yogurt, two parts milk) yields the best results. It’s also an easy ratio: mix one small container (5.3 ounces) of Greek yogurt with 1 1/3 cups of milk to yield 2 cups of buttermilk substitute.

So I test milk with vinegar, milk with cream of tartar, and thinned Greek yogurt against the control: buttermilk. While I’m at it, I take a step back and decide to test the easiest substitution of all: plain 1% milk in place of buttermilk.

Let’s look at the results.

What to substitute for buttermilk via @kingarthurflour

What to substitute for buttermilk in biscuits

My first test, Baking Powder Biscuits, turns out to be a harbinger of things to come: all of the biscuits rise nicely and brown well. On sampling, their texture is the same — but the flavor of the buttermilk biscuits is best, a slight tang mixed with a hint of sweetness (is it the milk solids?). The yogurt biscuits taste almost as good. The vinegar and cream of tartar biscuits seem to lack depth of flavor, while the plain milk biscuit simply tastes flat.

Winner: Buttermilk
Runner-up: Greek yogurt mixed with milk

What to substitute for buttermilk via @kingarthurflour

What to substitute for buttermilk in pancakes

Substituting anything for buttermilk in Buttermilk Pancakes certainly belies the recipe’s name. But aside from that, I notice results very similar to the biscuit experiment. The texture and browning of each of the pancake batches are similar — with the exception of the plain milk pancake, which rises less. But when it comes to flavor, the buttermilk and yogurt pancakes are neck and neck, with the others lagging slightly behind.

Winner: Buttermilk and Greek yogurt mixed with milk (tie)

What to substitute for buttermilk via @kingarthurflour

What to substitute for buttermilk in cake

This Farmhouse Buttermilk Cake recipe is an old favorite of mine. The photo above doesn’t do it justice; I was out of pecans so substituted walnuts, and then didn’t chop them finely enough (rush, rush!). But this tender, golden cake, topped with its buttery, nut-laden syrup, is a true crowd-pleaser.

Compared to biscuits and pancakes, with their simple ingredients, this cake is complex: brown sugar, butter, vanilla, and nuts all contribute to the flavor profile. And because of that, the subtle, layered flavor of buttermilk in the cake is lost; you’ll do just as well using any of the substitutes.

What to substitute for buttermilk via @kingarthurflour

Cake made with 1% milk on the left, and with buttermilk on the right.

That is, with the exception of plain 1% milk. This old-fashioned cake is leavened with baking soda. Using plain milk, which lacks buttermilk’s acidity, results in a darker-colored, denser cake.

Winner: All suggested options except plain milk

What to substitute for buttermilk via @kingarthurflour

How to substitute for buttermilk: your takeaways

The shorter a recipe’s ingredient list, the less successful a buttermilk substitute will be. Buttermilk’s flavor is tangy but not strong, and its rich under notes are subtle. When paired with just a few simple ingredients (e.g. flour, perhaps an egg, fat), buttermilk’s flavor is starkly apparent. When set against other competing flavors, though, buttermilk tends to disappear. So in cakes or quick breads, with their sugar and spice, buttermilk substitutes work well — though don’t opt for substituting plain milk in recipes using baking soda.

• Building on that fact, the less buttermilk in a recipe, the easier it is to use a substitute. If your chocolate cake recipe calls for 1/4 cup buttermilk, don’t sweat it; even using plain milk will probably be OK.

In simple recipes where buttermilk’s flavor may be front and center, your top substitute will be Greek yogurt mixed with milk. With its similar fermented, nuanced flavor, thinned yogurt steps in nicely for buttermilk.

• In recipes where buttermilk is the main ingredient (e.g., homemade buttermilk ranch dressing, cold buttermilk soup), it’s best to spring for cultured buttermilk.

One last note about liquid buttermilk: If you buy a quart and don’t use it up, you can always freeze it in 1/2-cup (or your preferred size) portions. It’ll probably separate when you thaw it, but no worries; it’s fine to use.

Now, what about dried buttermilk powder? I didn’t include it in my testing results as, again, it’s not an ingredient you’d likely stock in your pantry on a regular basis (unless you’re an inveterate buttermilk baker). But it works as well as the “soured milk” options (milk + vinegar or cream of tartar). While lacking real buttermilk’s rich flavor, it does react well with leaveners and help provide a good rise.

Speaking of biscuits, my fellow blogger Kye did a comprehensive test of different fat/liquid combinations in biscuits. (Spoiler alert: Her favorite biscuits include butter and buttermilk). For Kye’s complete results, see Fats and liquids in biscuits: choosing your favorite texture.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Karen Bennett

    PJ, Do you know of a dairy-free option to buttermilk? My son can’t eat casein, the protein in milk, unfortunately. I use a potato-based milk substitute for cooking and baking. I’ve tried adding lemon juice, but it still tastes “off.” Any ideas?

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Karen, have you tried the lemon juice/vinegar addition to coconut milk or any of the vegetable-based milks? When I Google “dairy-free buttermilk,” that seems to be the standard solution. Haven’t tried it myself, but I think it would be worth testing — if he’s able to have cashew milk, soy milk, etc. Good luck – PJH@KAF

  2. TomR

    I didn’t know you could freeze buttermilk. I’ll have to try that.

    That said, I am pretty into using yogurt instead – I make most of my own yogurt (if you can successfully bake bread, yogurt making probably will not challenge you). I do find that I need to compensate for yogurt’s thickness – even though homemade is not as thick as supermarket yogurt (which often has pectin added). (And by the way, I don’t have trouble finding “regular” yogurt in my local markets in Maryland – maybe it’s a regional thing?)

    I think the best thing for thinning yogurt is whey, but I don’t usually have any around, so I end up using milk or soy milk. Since that lowers the overall acidity, I sometimes add a bit of baking powder along with the soda to boost the leavening.

    I also keep Saco powdered buttermilk blend on hand (the only brand I can reliably get). I don’t love it, but if you hydrate it with a little less water than it says to use on the container, it does the job pretty well. My daughter and I made some pancakes last weekend with Saco, and used a mixture of milk and water, plus a little whey, and they came out great.

    Reply
  3. Lee James

    It is simpler for me at least this time around. I got heavy cream and made flavored kinds of butter. The leftover squeezed out stuff was left out and allowed to sour. Living in the middle of know-where has the benefits of visiting my Amish neighbors where I buy eggs, I can buy milk and buttermilk. No matter how hard we try, buttermilk from the store is more like wonder bread is to home-made bread. Nothing like the original.
    So I mix up some special flavored butter and freeze them and the leftover buttermilk. If you try this, make sure to get very fine cheesecloth to squeeze the butter from the milk. Thank god for stand mixers and food processors and all those modern wonders. I sure wouldn’t like the churn pounding although the natural cultures in the probably contained lots of cultures (Good and Bad!).

    Reply
  4. Wanda Huff

    I use buttermilk all the time. I use it for Biscuits, Cornbread, cakes and pie. I will not make a cake that calls for plain milk. Buttermilk cakes are more moist and just taste much better. I buy it by the half-gallon container and always have it on hand. Don’t be afraid to search for cakes made with buttermilk to use up some of it. You just might become a constant user like me! Buttermilk Pie is awesome, too!

    Reply
    1. Sylvia Mills

      I agree with Wanda. Being a southerner, I’m use buttermilk in a variety of recipes, including soaking pieces of chicken in it before frying. My best cake is a simple buttermilk pound cake, and I make a buttermilk/brown sugar pie — both use up the buttermilk fairly quickly. I buy Marburger gourmet buttermilk in the quart size. It lasts about a month in the fridge.

  5. Melanie

    I’ve had great success with freezing buttermilk (so long as I remember to take it out to defrost well in advance of using it!) and have had some success with powdered buttermilk. As other reviewers have mentioned, its easy to come by and keeps well in the fridge (which I did not know at first…oops) and its easy to add into a recipe but I will definitely try the yogurt option next. Thanks for this guide!

    Reply
  6. Mary

    Spring for the real thing! I keep a carton of whole milk buttermilk in my refrigerator constantly. I use it almost every Saturday morning for pancakes and there’s always the fresh version recipe for ‘Ranch Dressing’ to use up any leftovers. The substitutions just don’t yield the best results and if you’re going to the trouble to create from scratch, the recipe deserves the best ingredients we can afford.

    Reply
  7. Lynn Duffy

    I use dried buttermilk – keeps well in refrigerator & works well when reconstituted with water! Available in all or most grocery stores

    Reply
  8. ROBERT CARR

    It might be worthwhile to explore the vinegar to milk ratio in that option. Not tangy enough–try more vinegar, etc.

    Reply
  9. mary Valantine

    I bake but remember only using buttermilk once and throwing the rest away.but now that I knw you can freeze it I was at the time a new baker but since then hav used many things in place if real things if yo want to make a nice pizza get frozen doug and I always use 3/4 of a loaf and let it rise and it really rises then add all ingriedents and it’s the biggest tastiest pizza ever I used to mix my own but this is just as great.my kids loved it but not finding frozen dough in the freezers as much. going shopping today think I’ll see if I can find some. love king Arthur flour. my mother used Gold medal. but one day after I was married a friend and me went to a flea market they sold food stuff I noticed a large bag of king Arthur flour and they wanted only 2.00 for it it; wasn’t outdated so I bought it thank goodness it was only up the street from my apt.my friend offered to carry it and I knew no way but she insisted so I put it in her arms but didn’t let go she gave it back right away she said how much is in the bag I said 10 lbs I think we looked it was 25 lbs what a deal. so first thing I did knowing I’d never use all that.in time is call a neighbor who baked and give her 10 lbs and my neighbor who came with me only wanted five so it worked out fine.baked a lot that month brought some to our soup kitchen..gave some to neighbors who had long since given up baking.their are always hungry people in our country.make cookies for elderly in nursing homes people in the streets hang around the park enjoy a sweet now and then it’s always nice to be able to put a smile on a face.lately I;m elderly now so don’t bake as much but do cook so my neighbors love it when they get a cooked meal.

    Reply

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