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Worth It or Not Worth It: Making Your Own Buttermilk

February 13, 2016

On Christmas morning, I made buttermilk biscuits at my grandma's house. It is now the middle of February, and when I called her to ask about the leftover buttermilk, she confirmed that it is, indeed, still in her fridge.

Too often, this is buttermilk's fate: purchased for a single use, forgotten until it's too late. That's why I don't usually keep buttermilk around. Luckily, Sarah once told us about a quick makeshift version, and you all further enlightened us over on the Hotline with your DIY versions​.

Two easy substitutions are milk combined with vinegar (I use apple cider vinegar, but white vinegar or lemon juice work, too), and yogurt thinned with a bit of water. Both options have their devotees among Food52ers who rarely have buttermilk handy: Zelda and Your Guardian Chef always use yogurt, while amysarah is a fan of the vinegar trick.

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Using buttermilk, milk and vinegar, and Greek yogurt, I made three batches of both The Kitchn's Lofty Buttermilk Pancakes (to test texture) and Smitten Kitchen's buttermilk dressing (to test flavor).

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“Just make sure you shake your buttermilk up before you pour it into your ice trays to distribute all the good stuff.”
— Susan B.
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The pancakes made with real buttermilk were the winners for sure—they were fluffy, crisp, and tangy, with a slightly bubbly batter. The milk and vinegar version turned out to be a close second. Not quite as fluffy, not quite as flavorful, but excellent pancakes, nonetheless. The yogurt batter was the most noticeably different: creamier, paler, and distinctly un-bubbly (technical term). The pancakes were very good, but a bit dense—almost on the verge of gummy.

Why the textural differences? This article from King Arthur Flour describes the way the acid in buttermilk interacts with leaveners to produce carbon dioxide. Yogurt may work better as a buttermilk substitute in other types of doughs and batters, but pancakes need a thinner batter, so I had to combine the yogurt with more water than I'd have otherwise liked to, which likely reduced the amount of acid in that batch of pancakes compared to the others.

Dressing

Scientific reactions aside, how does makeshift buttermilk taste when used in place of the store-bought? I used Deb Perelman's buttermilk dressing recipe (calling for buttermilk, cider vinegar, shallots, a touch of mayonnaise, and chives) to see if buttermilk's flavor—not just its acidic properties—could be replicated. The answer? Sort of. True buttermilk once again produced our favorite version; it was the tangiest, slightly sweet, and had the best consistency. This time, though, yogurt won the silver, as the milk and vinegar version was too thin, with not quite enough acid. All were perfectly edible, however; I'll definitely be making this dressing with yogurt again.

So is it worth it to make do with a makeshift version of buttermilk? Or do you need to head to the store for the real deal?

Worth It:

  • You can come pretty darn close to buttermilk with ingredients you're bound to have on hand (milk, acid, yogurt, or even sour cream).
  • The process couldn't be simpler: combine a scant cup of milk with 1 tablespoon vinegar. (Or thin 3/4 cup yogurt with up to 1/4 cup water.)

Not Worth It:

  • The buttermilk versions were still our favorites; it's hard to reproduce that thickness and tang.

Final Verdict? Worth it! At least for straightforward recipes like pancakes and dressing, makeshift buttermilk was a fine substitute. While the real deal was better (making for fluffier pancakes and tangier dressing), the others were definitely worth making.

On the Hotline, ktr and cv described the homemade buttermilk they made from cultured buttermilk as well as from the liquid leftover from churning their own butter. I didn't test those out, but they seemed to think those were worth it too!

Now get cooking!

Have you had any DIY buttermilk experiences, good or bad? Tell us about them in the comments!

8 Comments

cv February 14, 2016
Just to clarify, I never mentioned that I made buttermilk myself. I just pointed out that there are multiple types of buttermilk (cultured is just one), each one made a different way.<br /><br />Even if one buttermilk is made the same way, the end results will be different depending on the time of year, the cows, what they grazed on, the weather, etc. In the same way even heavy (whipping) cream from the same producer is different throughout the year.<br /><br />One should expect a wide variety of buttermilk products that vary in terms of characteristics depending on your location, time of year, etc. This is applicable most dairy products (butter, cheese, etc.) unless you are talking about ultra-processed items like "American singles."
 
bookjunky February 14, 2016
I have finally gotten into the habit of buying buttermilk. It makes a far superior cake, as well. And it keeps very well.
 
Emily M. February 13, 2016
I'm definitely a fan of the powdered stuff - I keep it in the fridge and it stays nice and powdery. Lovely for when you need some liquid buttermilk to make something - or as an addition to dips (ranch, blue cheese, etc). Readily available here in Wisconsin at most groceries :)
 
Cindy F. February 13, 2016
Lately, I've had a hard time even finding buttermilk in the stores. When I asked the grocer "why" they said it was because the shelf space is now taken up with the soy, coconut, etc milk. Just one little space for buttermilk, please?
 
Smaug February 13, 2016
If you bake at all with buttermilk, powdered works great and keeps fairly well- it will cake badly if exposed to moist air to any extent, but keeps well in a glass jar.
 
foofaraw February 13, 2016
I found putting the buttermilk with its original container in fridge works well. It stays unclumped
 
Susan B. February 13, 2016
I almost forgot, the other solution is to move to Wisconsin where they sell buttermilk in those little half pint cardboard milk cartons, lol.
 
Susan B. February 13, 2016
The real thing is almost always the best thing. And I too like to use the real thing. Which always leaves me with, " now what do I do with the rest of this buttermilk " dilemma.<br />Well, you pour it into ice cube trays and freeze it and then zip lock bag it. It works perfect. Just make sure you shake your buttermilk up before you pour it into your ice trays to distribute all the good stuff.