Buttermilk

How to Make Buttermilk Substitutes for Fluffy Pancakes on the Fly

February 26, 2020
Photo by James Ransom

Buttermilk has range. If you bought a bottle to make pancakes, you could end up using the extra for everything from fried chicken to peach sherbet. But what if you don’t have any—and don’t want to go to the store? Or you did go to the store and they’re all out? Today, we’ll break down how to make your own buttermilk substitutes, and share some highly-recommended recipes to put them to good use.


What is buttermilk, anyway?

Traditionally speaking, buttermilk is a liquid by-product of butter-churning. Here’s the gist: You start with cream, churn (or food-process) until it separates, and end up with butter and buttermilk. If you’re making American-style butter—with fresh cream as the starting point—the buttermilk will be equally fresh. If you’re making cultured butter—with crème fraîche as the starting point—the buttermilk will be as tangy as expected, but not quite as thick as what you’d find at the supermarket (more on that in a bit). Because the butter claims most of the fat, old-school buttermilk is also naturally low-fat.

But perhaps you’ve seen, and been confused by, recipes calling for whole-milk buttermilk, like this Cracklin’ Cornbread from chef Sean Brock. In the past, this would have been an oxymoron. These days, though, commercially available buttermilk “is just cultured milk,” according to dairy farmer Randy Lewis. “It has nothing to do with butter. And whether it’s full-fat or low-fat depends on the milk you start with.”

Can I really make my own buttermilk at home?

Sure. To make modern-day buttermilk, you just need to culture milk. This can be accomplished with a culture like Flora Danica. Or—just like making homemade yogurt or crème fraîche—you can add buttermilk to milk (The Joy of Cooking recommends ½ cup buttermilk to 1 quart skim milk, both room-temp) and let the two become one over a day or so, depending on how warm or cold your kitchen is.

That said: If you don’t have something like Flora Danica, a starter’s worth of buttermilk, or a bunch of time to spare (hey, me neither), worry not. This is where buttermilk substitutes come in handy.

What are some easy buttermilk substitutes?

Milk plus lemon juice or vinegar. Estimate 1 cup of milk (any type works) to 1 tablespoon of acid. Stir together and leave at room temperature for about 10 minutes, or until curds start to form, then use right away.

Plain or Greek yogurt, thinned with milk or water. Add milk or water, splash by splash, to any kind of yogurt (or even sour cream or crème fraîche) until you reach a buttermilk-esque consistency, and whisk until smooth.

Kefir. This cultured dairy product has a similar thickness to commercial buttermilk. What’s more, if a recipe calls for whole-milk buttermilk and you aren’t able to find that in stores, whole-milk kefir is your next best bet.


Very Good Ways to Use Buttermilk

What’s your go-to buttermilk swap in a pinch? Share ideas in the comments!

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Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

1 Comment

M February 26, 2020
I don't know why the milk + acid suggestion persists. It's not a good sub, which cooks/bakers discover the minute they stop using the sub and see the improvement of flavour and texture with the real thing. It's not subtle.

Test kitchens like BraveTart at Serious Eats shared what a terrible substitution it is. Interestingly, her comparisons come up with the opposite order of this list: m+a is a fail, yogurt is good, and kefir is perfect.

It's also important to note that buttermilk lasts well beyond its best-before, and can be frozen, so it isn't a persnickety ingredient to try and avoid.