Buttermilk is a fermented milk product with a tangy flavour similar to yoghurt or sour cream. Because it is fermented, it is a source of probiotic, ‘friendly’ bacteria, while it’s natural acidity means it can be used as a leavening agent. Buttermilk can be used to add a creamy, tangy flavour to baked goods, or as a tenderising marinade for meat, particularly chicken. It is known for being a popular ingredient in Southern cooking.
Despite the name, buttermilk does not have a particularly buttery flavour. This is because it is actually a by-product of the butter-making process, made from the watery liquid, or whey, that is discarded when cream is churned to make butter. In the past, it would take several days worth of milk to make a pat of butter, and since there was no refrigeration, the milk would begin to ferment as the bacteria living inside multiplied. The same effect is produced in modern buttermilk by inoculating milk with colonies of friendly bacteria.
As a fermented product, buttermilk has several uses. It makes a good marinade for meat, as the lactic acid from the fermentation process breaks down the proteins and makes the meat extra tender and juicy. It’s acidity also means that it can be used as a leavening agent. All you need to do is add baking soda, which is a base, and the two ingredients will react, filling your dough or batter with carbon dioxide bubbles and making it airy and light.
Dairy based substitutes
Milk and vinegar
Buttermilk is a thin, acidic milk product with a slightly sour flavour, so milk with added vinegar is a reasonable match in terms of taste. Because vinegar is an acid, it can also be used as a leavening agent when combined with baking soda. If your recipe calls for a certain type of buttermilk (e.g. low-fat), try to use the same type of milk.
To make one cup of buttermilk replacement, simply add 1 tbsp vinegar to a cup, and top up with milk.
Milk and lemon juice
Adding lemon juice is another way to make an acidic, tangy milk that tastes pretty similar to buttermilk. As with the milk and vinegar combination, this buttermilk substitute is acidic, and can be combined with baking soda to use as a leavening agent.
To make one cup of buttermilk replacement, add 1 tbsp lemon juice to a cup, and top up with milk.
Milk and cream of tartar
Cream of tartar, or potassium bitartrate, is a by-product of winemaking, and another acidic substance that can be added to milk to make it taste sour and enable it to act as a leavening agent. In fact, cream of tartar is more acidic than both vinegar and lemon juice, so you don’t need to use as much.
To make one cup of buttermilk replacement, you will need 1¾ tsp cream of tartar and one cup of milk. For best results, these should be added to the mix separately - the milk with the wet ingredients, and the cream of tartar mixed into the dry ingredients. If you try to put the cream of tartar directly into the milk, it may form clumps.
Sour cream and water or milk
Another fermented milk product, sour cream is also a good match for buttermilk in terms of taste and acidity. In terms of texture, however, sour cream is a little thicker than buttermilk, so you’ll need to thin it out with water or milk.
To make one cup of buttermilk replacement, mix three parts sour cream with one part milk or water, and whisk together until smooth.
Yoghurt and water or milk
As with sour cream, yoghurt is a fermented milk product with a similar flavour and acidity to buttermilk. Also like sour cream, yoghurt is a little thicker than buttermilk, and needs to be diluted with water or milk.
To make one cup of buttermilk replacement, mix three parts yoghurt with one part milk or water, and whisk together until smooth.
Perhaps the easiest substitute for buttermilk, if you can find some, is kefir. A fermented milk drink full of healthy gut bacteria, kefir is similar to buttermilk in taste, acidity and texture, so all you need to do is substitute one cup of kefir for one cup of buttermilk.
Non dairy/vegan substitutes
Vegan milk and acid
To make your buttermilk substitute vegan-friendly, switch the regular milk in the examples above for a vegan milk like soy, coconut, almond or cashew milk. Make sure you use an unsweetened variety, or your food will be too sugary. You can add either vinegar or lemon juice to any of these vegan alternatives for a tangy, acidic buttermilk substitute.
To make one cup of buttermilk replacement, add 1 tbsp lemon juice or vinegar to a cup, and top up with your vegan milk of choice.
Vegan sour cream and water
There are various vegan sour creams available to buy from stores, and you can use one of these as a buttermilk replacement just as easily as regular sour cream.
To make one cup of buttermilk replacement, mix equal parts vegan sour cream and water.
Tofu, water and acid
Silken tofu has a creamy texture, and is often used as a substitute for milk products in vegan sauces and desserts. Because it is so creamy, it will need to be watered down quite a bit, while adding lemon juice or vinegar will give it the required acidity.
To make one cup of buttermilk replacement, purée ¼ cup silken tofu in a blender, and mix with ¾ cup of water and 1 tbsp vinegar or lemon juice.
Recipes with buttermilk
Buttermilk fried chicken: buttermilk is the ultimate marinade for fried chicken. It contains lactic acid, which works to break down proteins and tenderise the meat, and it also provides a thick, sticky surface for the flour to cling to, so you get a well-coated, deliciously crispy piece of chicken.
Scallops, mussels, buttermilk, leek: for a buttermilk dish with real fine dining appeal, you can recreate Michelin-starred chef JP McMahon’s signature seafood dish in your own kitchen.
Seafood buttermilk jelly: a fresh, delicate seafood dish served with a salad of wild herbs, this recipe is perfect for summer celebrations.
Spiced cranberry buttermilk bundt cake: spicy, tangy and delicious, this festive treat from food writer Aimée White is perfect for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Raspberry buttermilk shake: for a milkshake with a difference, try this simple, fruity shake. The tangy buttermilk and sweet raspberries balance one another perfectly, and it’s blended with a generous handful of ice cubes for a cool, refreshing summer treat.