Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Buttermilk + Substitutions. Whether you're just wanting to learn more about this ingredient and the different varieties, or learn how to make an easy buttermilk substitute (including vegan and dairy-free), or learn how to store and preserve it... I have all the details in this post!
There was a time in my life when I only knew buttermilk as a drink my parents had in the fridge to drink from time to time or to use in a handful of recipes (like Buttermilk Pie) or to soak meat before frying.
I didn't understand buttermilk, I didn't know its history, and I had no idea why it was such a great ingredient for some recipes.
Buttermilk is kind of a weird ingredient, right? And being the weirdo that I am, I actually liked to drink it as a child and still don't mind a sip or two as an adult. Also, old wife's tales say it's great for healing ulcers!
Of course, as I've gotten older, I've learned so much more. Mostly, I've cooked quite a bit since then, and throughout the years I've gotten very comfortable with the idea of buttermilk! And the purpose of buttermilk in cooking. I also know how to make a buttermilk substitute and how to buy the right kind of buttermilk.
Want to get some practice cooking and baking with buttermilk? Try my recipe for Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes.
To make a long story short(er), I'm pretty much a buttermilk expert now! So, let me tell you everything you need to know about this creamy, tangy recipe ingredient.
So, What IS Buttermilk?
Real buttermilk is a dairy product that is produced during the process of making butter. If you've ever seen butter churned by hand, you may have noticed that the butter forms a solid mass, but there is a liquid leftover. That liquid is called buttermilk, for obvious reasons.
This type of buttermilk has been around for hundreds of years, all over the world, and all different cultures use buttermilk in their recipes.
In modern times, the buttermilk that we buy in grocery stores isn't actually the leftover butter-churning liquid. Nope, it's "fake" buttermilk! What you're buying is actually "cultured buttermilk", and it is actual milk that has had bacteria cultures added to it. It's then heated and fermented to create the final product.
Store-bought buttermilk also usually contains additives like salt and starches.
Are Real Buttermilk and Cultured Buttermilk the Same?
To make this even more confusing, the two types of buttermilk are very different. Real (or traditional, or old-fashioned) buttermilk like our pioneering ancestors made is a thin, sweeter product, with an acidic taste. While cultured buttermilk is a thick, creamy product, sort of like a watery, thinned sour cream, that tastes tangy and buttery.
You cannot use traditional buttermilk and cultured buttermilk interchangeably in recipes. Most modern recipes calling for buttermilk are requesting that you use grocery store available cultured buttermilk. Traditional buttermilk is not for sale in the US, and would only be available from local farmers or specialty dairy producers.
But keep in mind, vintage recipes may actually be calling for real buttermilk, so you need to be careful.
How Do I Know If My Recipe is Calling for Old Fashioned Buttermilk or Cultured Buttermilk?
Modern recipes found on blogs and websites will almost always be asking you to use cultured buttermilk because this is what is available in modern grocery stores.
If you are working with recipes from your great-grandmother, other "vintage" recipes, or recipes from other countries and cultures, there is a possibility they were using traditional buttermilk. In this case, you might not really know until you try and see what works!
Cultured Buttermilk in Modern Baking
So, let's agree that from now on we're discussing the modern variety of buttermilk, which is milk that has had bacteria cultures added to it. This process is similar to yogurt making. What's created is a cultured buttermilk with live, healthy bacteria that create byproducts (lactic acid and diacetyl) that give us delicious, buttery flavor.
Buttermilk is called for in a variety of recipes, particularly in baked goods. Biscuits, pie doughs, pancakes, breads (like this Southern Buttermilk Cornbread), scones, and some cake recipes even have buttermilk in the ingredient list.
Don't worry! Now you know what buttermilk is, you can just go buy it at the grocery store. Alternatively, I'll share with you some buttermilk substitutions you can use in a pinch, or just because they are more convenient.
Cultured Buttermilk in Savory Recipes
Buttermilk is not limited to baking or sweets. In fact, one of my most popular (and most loved) recipes is this cold Crab Pasta Salad which includes buttermilk in the ingredients list.
Or as mentioned above, buttermilk is often used as a meat tenderizer and is a popular ingredient in many fried chicken recipes. Growing up, my parents always soaked deer meat, steak, and/or chicken in buttermilk before frying it.
Cultured Buttermilk Substitutions
If you're not familiar with buttermilk or wouldn't use it often, you might not want to go buy a whole carton of buttermilk for a recipe that just needs two tablespoons of it. Or maybe you just ran out of buttermilk and don't know what to do. Try one of these options:
- Buy Powdered Buttermilk - This stuff is a lifesaver! It can be purchased at specialty grocery stores, some regular grocery stores, or online. I keep a bag on hand at all times. Simply mix the powder with water. If a recipe calls for 1 cup of buttermilk, you'll add one cup of water plus ¼ cup of powder. Easy! and that instruction should be on the back of the package, so no need to memorize it.
- Turn Milk into Buttermilk - This trick is also a great one. While it doesn't exactly create cultured buttermilk, it does make a creamy substance with the same texture, consistency, and acidity of buttermilk. The technical term for this is "clabbered milk", which I think is really fun to say!
I have a full post here about how to make buttermilk or a recipe card at the bottom of this post, but the short story is... to make one cup of buttermilk substitute is to add one tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice to a liquid measuring cup, then add regular milk to equal one cup and give it a stir. What you'll end up with is a somewhat curdled milk.
It looks a little bit sketchy, but I promise it's safe! It will give your recipe the acid and the tangy flavor it needs. For sweet recipes, I suggest using lemon juice instead of vinegar, as the flavor of the acid will show through a bit.
- Use Something Else - If the first two substitutes aren't possible, you can often substitute full-fat plain yogurt for buttermilk to get the same flavor. There's no hard rule on this so you'll have to risk a little trial and error.
Frequently Asked Questions About Buttermilk
How Do I Store Buttermilk? How Long Does Buttermilk Last?
Buttermilk, if not open yet, often has a long shelf life, if kept refrigerated. You can generally use it well past the labeled expiration date too. Once opened, it will be good for up to 14 days in the fridge. Use your buttermilk until it goes bad. You'll know it's bad because it will be chunky or possibly moldy.
The flavor of buttermilk does decrease as time goes on. So pancakes you make with the buttermilk when you first open it will taste better than the ones you make two weeks later. This is because the buttermilk continues to ferment in your fridge, reducing the number of bacteria that produce the buttery flavor of buttermilk.
Is there a dairy-free buttermilk option?
To make a buttermilk substitute that is dairy-free, combine ¾ cup of almond milk yogurt, ¼ To make a buttermilk substitute that is dairy-free, you'll need to start with non-dairy milk.
Combine ¾ cup of almond milk yogurt, ¼ cup of your favorite dairy-free milk, and ½ teaspoon of white vinegar. Let sit for 5-10 minutes before using.
Can I freeze buttermilk?
Absolutely! In fact, I suggest if you ever see buttermilk on sale at the store because it's coming up on its sell-by date, that you buy it up and put it directly in the freezer. When you're ready to use it, simply let it thaw and use it within 14 days.
Can I drink buttermilk?
I mean, you CAN drink cultured buttermilk, but most people don't like it (unless you're weird like I am). The popular opinion is, it doesn't taste very good right out of the carton because of its tart flavor and off-putting texture. Buttermilk is much better suited as a recipe ingredient.
Can You Lose Weight By Drinking Buttermilk?
This is certainly an interesting trend. From what I can figure, there are thoughts that drinking buttermilk gives you extra protein in a low-fat vessel. Buttermilk is low in fat and contains calcium and vitamin B. Some types of buttermilk have small amounts of butterfat remaining, while other types are fat-free. That being said, I do believe those touting buttermilk for weight loss are talking about the traditional style of buttermilk.
Can I make my own cultured buttermilk?
If you're looking for a fun project with some science background, you can try making your own cultured buttermilk. Similar to cheesemaking, kombucha brewing, or sourdough bread making, buttermilk making is a fun thing that you can do with some purchased cultures.
Kids love these things, so I'm sure you'll have some helpers. It takes about 24 hours for home cultured buttermilk to be ready to use. Here's a great tutorial for making buttermilk with kids.
Recipes that use buttermilk:
Recipes from high traffic sites that use buttermilk
- The Best Imitation Crab Pasta Salad Recipe: buttermilk is the base for the creamy sauce on this cold pasta salad.
- Buttermilk Pie: a family recipe that I've been eating my whole life, this crustless pie is easy and delicious!
- Chocolate Snack Cupcakes: a copycat of your favorite snack cupcakes, buttermilk in the cake keeps it tender and moist.
- Homemade Buttermilk Ranch Dressing Recipe: a family favorite, homemade salad dressings are amazing when made with buttermilk!
- Buttermilk Lemon Meringue Pie: this lemon meringue pie uses buttermilk in the filling to give it an extra creamy, tangy flavor.
- Buttermilk Crumpets: these traditional crumpets get their airy inside texture from the addition of buttermilk.
- Quick and Easy Homemade Almond Paste (10 Minute Recipe)
- What is shortening? What are shortening substitutes?
- Expert Advice for Baking at Home