Who doesn’t love cakes, pastries, muffins, and other kinds of fluffy baked goodness? Well, probably a fair few people. Everyone has their own tastes. Still, most of us have a soft spot for at least one waffle or pie recipe that includes buttermilk. But what alternatives are there when we don’t have buttermilk?
What is buttermilk?
If you’re looking for buttermilk substitutes, you probably already know what buttermilk is. If you’ve been told to avoid it (i.e., as part of a diet) but have no clue what it actually is, here’s the 411:
- There are two kinds of buttermilk. Traditional buttermilk is thin, fat-free juice that’s left over after butter is churned. Modern buttermilk is cultured milk, similar in texture to yogurt, and is made by adding lactic acid bacteria cultures to milk.
- Buttermilk has a distinct sour taste.
- It’s used in a heckin’ lot of baking because it’s a leavening agent (meaning it makes dough rise like the dead in a George Romero script).
- Buttermilk gives baked goods a soft texture, creating that light and fluffy mouthfeel we crave.
- Buttermilk is acidic. This is super important. Loads of recipes rely on buttermilk creating carbon dioxide when it reacts with baking soda. This is what gives it leavening qualities. No acidity = no leavening.
- In addition to baking, buttermilk is great for marinades and sauces.
Buttermilk has been used in baking (and for making sauces and marinades) for a long time. But for a whole bunch of reasons, such as lactose intolerance or eating a vegan diet, you might be looking for ways to bake without it.
Don’t worry. While buttermilk has been a baking mainstay for decades, there’s plenty of stuff you can use in its place. Here are our seven favorites.
Ye olde bakers used traditional buttermilk a lot because it was easy to make. Many recipes date back to a time when most folks churned butter at home — and if you knew someone who was churning up butter, chances are they’d have some buttermilk hanging around.
(“Alexa, churn my butter!” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.)
Nowadays, buttermilk production involves adding lactic acid cultures to milk. It does what traditional buttermilk did, but better, because it’s made with science instead of “Oregon Trail” wisdom.
But the reason we use buttermilk today isn’t just “because we’ve always used buttermilk.” (Hey, racoon-skin hats were also popular in the olden days, but while we’ve wisely nixed the habit of wearing deceased trash pandas on our heads, buttermilk hasn’t gone anywhere.)
Buttermilk has stuck around because it does a whole bunch of useful sh*t, whether you’re baking in 1821 or 2021:
- It’s a leavening agent, so it makes your cakes/scones/bread rise.
- It’s acidic. Crazy Willy probably had no idea why buttermilk made his famous Choc Chip and Forest Critter Muffins rise. If time travel were real, we could tell him it’s because the acid in the buttermilk is making carbon dioxide.
- Buttermilk flavor has the Goldilocks-level “just right” amount of sourness/tanginess.
- Buttermilk is viscous. It doesn’t lose much moisture during heating, which is why buttermilk-based baked goods are so soft and fluffy.
- Buttermilk may be hella good at breaking down gluten. If you live with gluten intolerance, buttermilk might be the reason you can still enjoy your Mee-Maw’s famous muffins without intense gut pain.
So yeah, that’s buttermilk, and that’s why people like it. If you don’t like it or don’t want to use it, that’s cool too. Here are seven ways you can bake your heart out with no buttermilk needed.
1. Yogurt and milk
Buttermilk has a yogurt-y texture. It’s also made by introducing specific cultures of bacteria to milk. Do you know what else is made like this and has a similar texture? Yogurt.
Unsurprisingly, yogurt can be a handy sub for buttermilk. It’s best to do this at a 1-to-1 ratio (so, if a recipe calls for 1 cup of buttermilk, use 1 cup of yogurt/milk).
Yogurt is usually thicker than buttermilk, so mixing in some milk brings the consistency to the right level. This will vary depending on your desired thicc-ness. But generally, 3 parts yogurt to 1 part milk does the trick.
Yogurt has buttermilk’s flagship acidity and tangy taste, so you’re good on those fronts. It doesn’t matter too much what type of milk you use, either (heck, some folks even just use water).
It’s best to go for plain yogurt. Other kinds may deviate too much from what makes plain yogurt a good sub (Greek yogurt, for example, has a different viscosity, which translates to dry, crumbly cakes).
2. Sour cream and milk
Sour cream is similar to yogurt in more than just thickness. Both products are essentially fermented milk.
Sour cream is sour (big surprise), so it has a comparable taste to buttermilk. It’s also acidic, so it still makes for carbon dioxide-induced baking soda rise-y spongy fun time.
The 1-to-1 buttermilk/sour cream and 3-to-1 sour cream/milk ratio guideline still applies. But, as always in cooking, it’s just a guideline. Exact measurements vary by recipe. If your 3-to-1 sour cream/milk mixture is too thick or thin, don’t be afraid to play with the ratio.
3. Cream of tartar and milk
Cream of tartar comes from the winemaking process, which leaves small potassium bitartrate crystals as a byproduct. These crystals are a key component of baking powder, but you can also buy the pure, uncut stuff in most grocery stores.
Cream of tartar is a great buttermilk sub because it’s highly acidic. You know what that means: leavening, baby.
However, despite its name, cream of tartar is actually a powder. You’ll need to mix it with milk. The general guideline is to add 3/4 teaspoon of C of T to 1 cup of milk. Whisk them together and you’ve got a milky, acidic leavening agent ready to go.
4. Kefir and milk (if needed)
Kefir is a thin, drinkable yogurt that kefir makers (kefabricators?) make from fermented sheep’s/goat’s/cow’s milk and grains. It has only recently started gaining popularity outside Eastern Europe, where it’s been popular for decades.
Kefir brings the high levels of acidity and tangy taste that a viable buttermilk substitute needs. It’s also got a similar fat content to buttermilk, meaning it keeps the #moisture in your cakes and scones too.
For a ratio, stick with the 1-to-1 swapping of previous examples. Likewise, feel free to add as much milk/water as you need to get the right consistency.
5. Lemon/vinegar and milk
This is one of the oldest and easiest ways to bake buttermilk recipes without buttermilk.
Add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar to 1 cup of milk, let it sit for 5 to 10 minutes at room temperature, and presto! You have some curdled milk with a sour taste, which can be used as a buttermilk substitute. Easy!
Well, it’s easy, but it’s not entirely problem-free. The mixture won’t be as thick as buttermilk, and you may get some curdled milk bits in the finished recipe. But it does the job and has buttermilk’s tangy taste and leavening superpowers.
6. Heavy cream, baking powder/some acid, and a little milk
Heavy cream can be a buttermilk alternative in a pinch.
As with sour cream, you’ll need to add milk or water to get a thinner consistency. But heavy cream lacks the acidity of its sour cousin, so it’s not a leavening agent.
If you’re swapping heavy cream in for buttermilk, you’ll need to do one of two things to make sure your dough still rises:
- Swap out baking soda for baking powder.
- Add a dash of lemon juice or vinegar.
Either one will give your heavy cream buttermilk stand-in the acidity it needs. As for the ratio, the 1-to-1 rule still applies. But, as always, if this doesn’t get you the results you want, tweak your recipe until satisfactory.
7. Buttermilk powder and water
OK, so this is a bit of a cop-out. But if the reason you keep running out of buttermilk is that you forget to use it before the expiration date, dehydrated buttermilk may be your knight in shining armor.
Powdered buttermilk works exactly as you’d imagine. Following the package instructions, add water to the powder. You now have liquid buttermilk. Mazel tov.
Pro tip: For the best results, add the powdered buttermilk to your other dry ingredients, and then add the water when you’d usually add the liquid buttermilk.
Our vegan readers will have noticed a problem with all seven of our alternatives — they’re dairy-based. But don’t worry, vegan fam, we’ve got you covered. Here are some animal-free alternatives to buttermilk for your vegan baking adventures.
- Unsweetened soy milk + acid. Take 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar, pop it in a measuring cup, and add 1 cup of soy milk. Easy-peasy.
- Vegan sour cream + water. Combine 1/2 cup of water + 1/2 cup of vegan sour cream. Stir. Adjust ratio to your desired thickness. Perfecto.
- Tofu + water + acid. Combine 1/4 cup of pureed silken tofu + 3/4 cup of water + 1 tablespoon of vinegar/lemon juice. Enjoy.
If you’re on a Paleo diet, you might be looking for a low-carb, plant-based buttermilk alternative that isn’t soy. You may also want this if you’re not on a Paleo diet, but we know that among Paleo-diet folk, these alternatives are going to be super appreciated:
- unsweetened coconut milk + acid
- unsweetened almond milk + acid
- unsweetened cashew milk + acid
The method is the same for all three: Add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar to 1 cup of your unsweetened plant milk of choice, stir, and get your buttermilk-free bake on.
Whether you’re going to stick with the real deal or use an alternative, it’s good to know which recipes benefit from buttermilk’s tangy, moist magic.
Here are some buttermilk-based baking recipes to get you started:
- Wasabi pea soup (not technically baked but still delicious)
- Banana bread
- Vegan mashed potatoes
- Healthy imitation KFC chicken tenders
- Mom’s buttermilk cookies
- Light and fluffy pancakes
- Homemade buttermilk scones
Buttermilk is a popular ingredient in many recipes, but especially in baking. That’s because it has a unique tangy taste and makes dough and batter rise. The fact that it makes cakes and muffins light and fluffy also helps.
If you don’t have buttermilk, there are plenty of alternatives, including yogurt, kefir, and milk. Replacing buttermilk isn’t too hard. The important thing to remember is that your sub needs to have the right consistency, the tangy taste, and the acidity (because that’s what makes buttermilk a leavening agent).
There are plenty of vegan and plant-based buttermilk alternatives too. Unsweetened plant-based milks all work, as does tofu.