For many cooks, bakers, and foodies, there always seems to come a time when you must get crafty with substitutes. For some us, that time comes more often than not. Buttermilk is one of those elusive ingredients that never seems to be around when you need it. Maybe you were at the store gathering your list of ingredients and figured you didn’t need it because the recipe called for such a small amount. Perhaps, you just plumb forgot it. In any case, buttermilk has both similarities to a number of common household ingredients, as well as some unique characteristics. That being said, with a little finesse, preparation, and similar substitutions, you can successfully bake most goods without missing it!
What Is Buttermilk?
Buttermilk, nowadays more often referred to as “cultured buttermilk,” is a type of fermented milk that was a staple in the kitchen for thousands of years. Counterintuitively, buttermilk is not, in and of itself, butter. Nor is buttermilk high-fat or particularly “buttery” in consistency. The old-fashioned type of homemade buttermilk is slightly sour, tangy, and thin. It is the acidic residual liquid remaining after churning butter from full-cream milk. Though traditional buttermilk is not available commercially in the United States anymore, it is still consumed and used in household items in Europe and Asia.
The buttermilk that is available in stores is cultured through fermentation, resulting in a product that is reminiscent of yogurt. Traditionally, buttermilk would have small flecks of butter as a result of the filtration process. Though this no longer naturally occurs, many dairy companies still add tiny yellow colored bits of butter to their buttermilk to simulate the appearance of traditional buttermilk. The consistency of buttermilk is slightly thicker than regular milk because the proteins in it are curdled. Buttermilk can be described as a happy medium when stacked up against the liquidity of milk and the thickness of cream.
An added comparative benefit of buttermilk is that it generally has a much lower fat content than standard milk. Historically, buttermilk has served as an influential part of baking. Due to the high acidity, buttermilk has been a great tool for bakers. It provides baked goods with a light and tender composition while enhancing the overall flavor. It can provide a great balance to baking soda in recipes because it neutralizes the metallic taste that can occur. Furthermore, the lactic acid in buttermilk can be used to tenderize meats when cooking and create a great rise when baking. Although buttermilk has been a great tool for bakers for thousands of years, there are many substitutes that have gained popularity in recent years including yogurt, sour cream, cream of tartar, kefir, and lemon or vinegar.
Yogurt is a great substitute for buttermilk in recipes because it is very similar in composition, and luckily often found in many kitchens as a staple. Yogurt is a result of bacterial fermentation of milk. The fermentation of lactose creates lactic acid, which acts on milk protein to give yogurt its distinct flavor and texture. The natural tangy acidity in plain yogurt resembles that of buttermilk and can act in a similar way when added to baking recipes.
Yogurt works best when substituted for buttermilk in a 1-to-1 ratio. That is, if a recipe calls for 1 cup of buttermilk, you can simply replace it with 1 cup of plain yogurt. That being said, occasionally the yogurt may be too thick of a consistency for certain recipes because buttermilk has a more watery consistency than yogurt. For example, when making cake batter, yogurt can be too thick. This can be addressed by the addition of a small amount of water or traditional milk. It is also important to use traditional plain yogurt in substitution for buttermilk because it is most similar in consistency and taste. Greek yogurt, on the other hand, would not work as well because it does not have the same viscosity and may rob the recipe of moisture. Yogurt works well as a substitute for buttermilk because it helps baked goods retain their acidity, texture, and moist composition.
Sour cream works in a similar fashion as yogurt when using it in place of buttermilk in a recipe. Sour cream is another dairy product that is the result of a fermentation process of cream with high levels of lactic acid and bacteria culture. The bacteria culture is what thickens the cream and gives it the sour taste. When using sour cream in place of buttermilk in recipes, it is advisable to add liquid, such as water or milk, to provide a similar consistency and moisture to the recipe. Low-fat or light sour cream yields the best results with baking recipes and can be used in the exact quantity of buttermilk called for.
Cream of Tartar
Cream of tartar is a byproduct of winemaking when small crystals of potassium bitartrate form. Cream of tartar is used often in baking, and is a component of baking powder, to help activate the leavening process of dough and batter. The reason cream of tartar is a good substitute for buttermilk is due to its acidic nature. Cream of tartar works best as a substitute for buttermilk when it is combined with milk because of its powdery consistency. When using in place of buttermilk, you can add 1 ¾ teaspoon of cream of tartar to 1 cup of milk. To ensure a smooth texture, it is advisable to add the cream of tartar to 1 tablespoon of milk. Then you can whisk together the remaining milk and cream of tartar liquid. This method can work when you are in a pinch and find yourself bereft of buttermilk, yogurt, and sour cream.
Kefir is a fermented milk drink that is made from grains and sheep, goat, or cow milk. Traditional kefir is fermented and has a sour and carbonated composition, with a taste similar to a very thin liquid yogurt. Due to the high acidity provided by the lactic acid in kefir, it helps create a similar environment to buttermilk in baking. The high acidity helps react with the leavening agents in baking, which allows for dough and batter to rise, resulting in a light and airy texture. Kefir also has a similar fat content and consistency to buttermilk, which can help retain moisture in baked goods. Lastly, the creation of kefir involves a fermentation process similar to buttermilk which can provide a tangy flavor which can be expected in buttermilk recipes. To use kefir as a buttermilk substitute in recipes, it is advisable to use a 1-to-1 ratio and mix in additional liquid, such as milk or water, if the consistency is too thick.
Lemon or Vinegar
When it comes to buttermilk substitutes, one of the most simple and easy tricks to emulate buttermilk is the combination of lemon or vinegar with milk. Considering buttermilk is dairy based, highly acidic, and very similar to milk in composition, it makes sense to be able to combine both an acid ingredient and a dairy-based ingredient to create mock buttermilk. The mixture will not be as thick nor creamy as buttermilk, but you will still be able to use it in baking with similar results. To create this mixture, you will want to add 1 tablespoon of either lemon juice or white vinegar to 1 cup of milk. After letting this mixture stand at room temperature for 5-10 minutes, you will notice that the milk has started to curdle and has separated bits that may have floated to the top. Though the mixture will not become as thick as buttermilk, it will work in a similar fashion. Furthermore, you may notice the small curdled bits in your finished recipe. This also can work with non-dairy milks such as almond, cashew, soy, and rice milk.
Buttermilk is often used in baking recipes because of its consistency, tangy taste, and high acidity. This allows it to react with bases such as baking soda and baking powder, and therefore, creating the leavening process. However, in this day in age, buttermilk is not as common in most kitchens as it used to be. As such, there are several great alternatives to use in recipes that call for buttermilk including yogurt, sour cream, cream of tartar, and kefir. It is important to consider the unique recipe on a case by case basis to determine what substitute may be best suited for each recipe. In some cases, as with batter for fried food, buttermilk can be difficult to substitute while maintaining the integrity of the overall recipe. However, in most cases, the substitute can be a simple swap of ingredients plus the addition of a small amount of liquid.