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Buttermilk is one of those ingredients that sounds so down-home and seems so elemental – and yet, we almost never just have it on hand. So what can you do if a recipe calls for it and you don’t have any? Read on for easy buttermilk substitutes that you can throw together in a pinch.
What is buttermilk?
Traditionally, buttermilk was the liquid left over after churning butter from cream. It didn’t have any fat, but it was full of flavor, and, because it was left at room temperature for a few hours, it was cultured.
Nowadays, buttermilk is manufactured, not left over from butter-making. It’s still cultured, and you can buy it in nonfat, low-fat and sometimes even full-fat varieties, though the latter is less commonly available. The buttermilk you buy in stores tends to be thicker than milk, tangy and acidic. This is important because baking recipes that call for buttermilk often will include baking soda as leavening, which is alkaline. The combination of baking soda and an acid such as buttermilk produces carbon dioxide. When those bubbles are formed within the batter, the item rises.
Best buttermilk substitutes
Real buttermilk imparts a unique flavor and richness. In addition to baking, it’s delicious in dressings, marinades, pancakes and waffles, mashed potatoes and more. But if you have to swap, here are some simple ideas using ingredients you probably have on hand.
1. Milk + vinegar
Put 1 tablespoon of vinegar into a measuring cup and add enough milk to equal 1 cup. Use white vinegar for the most neutral flavor (though cider vinegar works well, too). Stir, then let it stand for 5 minutes before using. You’ll notice it has thickened slightly, and may have some curdled bits in it.
2. Milk + lemon juice
This works the same way as vinegar, but will give your acidulated milk a hint of lemon flavor, delicious in brines and baked goods.
Pro tip: You can use non-dairy milk for either of the above. Try to stick to one that’s a similar thickness as your recipe. In other words, if it calls for low-fat buttermilk, rice milk might be too thin and coconut milk might be too thick. Adjust accordingly to make sure your end result has the texture you want. Be sure your non-dairy milk is unsweetened.
3. Plain yogurt + water or milk
Yogurt is a tangy, acidic dairy product, so it makes sense that it can be a substitute for buttermilk. Whisk in water or milk until you reach the desired consistency.
4. Sour cream + water or milk
Sour cream works similarly to yogurt. Whisk in water or milk to thin the sour cream to the right consistency.
Plain kefir, a tangy, drinkable yogurt frequently used in smoothies, is the easiest buttermilk substitute. Use it 1:1 for buttermilk in any recipe.
Don’t forget about leftover buttermilk
If only buttermilk will do, and you buy some but have lots left over, you’ll find that it keeps longer than milk. If it separates, a quick, vigorous shake will bring it back together. If you can’t use up your buttermilk quickly enough, you can freeze it (we recommend freezing in 1-cup servings or by the tablespoon in an ice cube tray, so you can defrost only what you need). You can also keep buttermilk powder in your pantry. It’s shelf-stable, so you can just add water and make the amount you need when a recipe calls for it.