A quick and handy guide for making a buttermilk substitute, along with some useful alternatives.
How many recipes do you come across that call for buttermilk? I don't know about you, but I rarely have ready access to it. In Britain, buttermilk is quite difficult to find, but honestly even if it was in every store, its also just an additional expense and sacrificing space in the fridge.
For all of my bakes, when the traditional recipe has called for buttermilk, my family has usually opted for quick buttermilk substitutes.
With just two ingredients of milk and an acid, you can recreate the effects of buttermilk in a bake. Plus, when you make it yourself, you have extra flexibility if you're also looking to pack a flavour punch along the way.
What is Buttermilk
Traditionally buttermilk was created during the process of churning butter. It was the leftover fermented milk. As the process for churning butter changed, in the 1920s, cultured buttermilk was introduced in the US, mimicking the same qualities that had come to be known in the original: thick cream and acidity.
Buttermilk (both in its traditional form and in its modern manufacturing) has remained a popular product in various cuisines around the world and is found in many classic American baking recipes.
Why Buttermilk is in the Recipe
Firstly, when substituting any ingredient, it is important to understand what it was bringing to the recipe in the first place. When it comes to buttermilk, there are a couple of key reasons why buttermilk is in the recipe:
1. Buttermilk is needed to react with the leavening agent
Buttermilk is often used in order to activate baking soda.
Take a look at your recipe. If there is baking soda in it, you will need something acidic for this to actually work in providing the rise to your bake.
As buttermilk is a fermented dairy product, this acidity helps to ensure a reaction with the baking soda. So, for a suitable substitution, you will need to use something acidic.
2. Buttermilk creates moist bakes
Buttermilk is by nature creamy. This makes it a great product to use in baking to ensure a moist bake and is a major part of why it is present in many traditional American (especially southern) cake recipes.
For a buttermilk alternative, therefore, you will ideally want something thicker than just water or standard milk to bring similar benefits.
Easy Buttermilk Substitutes
Over the years, I have tried out many variations for buttermilk - both out of interest in experimenting and out of necessity when I lacked ingredients. The below is by no means an exhaustive list of all the options, but it is a guide to ways you can use alternatives to buttermilk.
1. Basic Buttermilk Substitute - Simple Soured Milk
I know soured milk doesn't sound appealing, but this is the quickest 1 cup buttermilk substitute. It's a classic, which I regularly use in my recipes made simply with whole milk and distilled vinegar.
All you need to do is:
- Add 1 tablespoon of distilled vinegar to a 1 cup measure
- Top the rest up with whole full fat milk.
- Give it a quick stir and allow to sit for about 10 minutes to thicken.
It will look a bit curdled, but this is fine. In fact, this is exactly what you're looking for - the thickening of the milk.
This version of soured milk will give the nice lightly acidic tang of the buttermilk. It will also add to the richness and moistness of the bake.
You can use any milk in this (skim, 1%, 2%, semi-skim or whole). In my experience, the higher the fat content the better the buttermilk. I would, therefore, strongly encourage you to use whole milk for soured milk and in fact in all baking recipes.
2. My Favourite Buttermilk Substitute - Heavy Cream Soured Milk
This is exactly the same process as the simple soured milk above. Using 1 tablespoon of vinegar, but topping up to a cup with heavy cream (or double cream).
This provides a thicker end product, which I find creates particularly moist bakes.
You could make this with single cream as well. But, much as with milk, the higher the fat content the better for thick buttermilk substitutes.
3. Yogurt Alternatives
Buttermilk can also be substituted with yogurt (either plain natural yogurt or Greek yogurt). As yogurt is a fermented dairy product, it has the acidity necessary on its own, without needing to add vinegar.
My one caution is that yogurt can sometimes be too thick for your recipe. Many cakes need a certain level of liquid in order to raise nicely and avoid being too dense.
If you use yogurt, you may want to use a ratio of half yogurt, half milk to avoid overly thick batter.
4. Vegan Buttermilk Substitute
You can make an almond milk buttermilk substitute in the same way as using milk or cream.
This substitute will not be as creamy as the dairy versions. This is because the almond milk will not curdle and thicken in the same way. The vinegar will cause some separation instead.
This will, nonetheless, add the necessary acidity to your batter for activating the baking soda. It will offer a comparable flavour and consistency to the traditional dairy buttermilk substitutes in your bake.
Another option for vegan buttermilk would be to use non-dairy yogurts. These will be acidic and creamier replacements than creating a vinegar and non-diary milk version.
Flavouring Recipe with Buttermilk
In some recipes you may be seeking to accentuate a zesty citrus flavour. Conveniently, buttermilk alternatives are simply milk and acid, which citrus has in heaps. If you're wanting to make a lemon cake or something with lime, I'd highly recommend using the citrus juice in place of the vinegar.
- Make Buttermilk with Lemon Juice
By using 1 tablespoon of fresh squeezed (or bottled) lemon juice, topped up to 1 cup with milk or cream, you will have added lemon infused into your recipe. If the recipe calls for lemon extract, I would recommend still using this as directed, but adding the lemon to the soured milk helps to compliment this.
- Make Buttermilk with Lime Juice
Let's not forget lemon's citrus cousin - the lime. If you want to make a zesty lime cake, try making buttermilk with lime juice. I do this in my Pisco Sour Cupcake recipe and its an easy way to really highlight the lime in the cake!
- Make Buttermilk with Other Vinegars
Depending on your recipe and the flavours you are looking to achieve, you can make buttermilk substitute using other vinegars. My base recipe calls for standard distilled vinegar as this is a clear liquid, without additional flavouring. This means that it is most versatile, won't add any colouring and won't clash with your recipe.
You can make buttermilk with apple cider vinegar or even make a balsamic vinegar buttermilk substitute. Both will have a note of distinct flavours from the vinegar.
With apple cider vinegar, the ratio will work very similar to the distilled vinegar. With balsamic, it is best to use a bit extra vinegar in the mix to achieve similar results.
You can easily scale this buttermilk substitute up or down, by maintaining the ratios. If your recipe calls for ½ cup of buttermilk, simply use half a tablespoon of vinegar topped up to a ½ cup measure with your chosen milk or cream.
Similarly if you need more buttermilk, you can easily double this or scale it up in any way necessary.
The 10 minutes is just a general guideline - you can let this sit for considerably longer without issue. As this process is curdling the milk, I would not recommend intentionally making it far in advance, but leaving it for 20 minutes or even an hour will not make it unusable.
The higher the fat content, the more thickening you can expect to occur. With cream, for example, you are likely to get large lumps.
If you are using reduced fat cream or skim milk, you are likely to find this stays fairly runny and does not thicken as much.
You can let this sit for a little longer, allowing the vinegar to continue curdling the milk, which will add a bit to thickness. Or, you can use as is. The vinegar will still be providing the acidity that your recipe needs in order to activate the leavening.
I use buttermilk or soured milk/cream alternatives interchangeably in these classic recipes:
Soured Milk Buttermilk Substitute
- 1 tablespoon distilled vinegar
- 1 cup heavy cream
- Add the 1 tablespoon of vinegar to a 1 cup measure.
- Pour the cream on top of the vinegar until you reach the one cup mark.
- Leave to sit for 10 minutes until the mixture looks a bit curdled and thickened.
- Use in place of buttermilk in your recipe.