Joy the Baker

The Best Buttermilk Substitutions

October 7, 2009

 Buttermilk Substitute

Let’s take a quick minute to talk about buttermilk.

What is buttermilk?  Buttermilk is a slightly sour milk.   The sourness of buttermilk comes acids in the milk, most notably, lactic acids.  Because the proteins in buttermilk are slightly curdled, buttermilk is slightly thicker than regular milk, but not quite as thick as cream.  Buttermilk is also usually much lower in fat than regular milk and cream.

Say you wanted to make some butter and buttermilk waaaaay back in the day.  First you’d take your fresh milk from the cow, let’s say a big old bucket full… and you’d leave it out at room temperature for a few days.  After a few days the rich cream would separated and formed a thick layer on top of the milk.  During these few days, the milk would fermented a bit from the lactic acid forming bacterias in the milk.  Gross?  Not at all!  The bacteria produced would help lower the pH of the milk and protect with milk from icky microorganisms, making the butter easier to churn.  Once the butter is churned the residual liquid that’s produced…. that’s buttermilk!

Nowadays, buttermilk is a whole other production.  Cultured buttermilk, as it is called in the United States these days, is a pasteurized milk product.  Instead of letting the milk ferment naturally, most dairies now add a culture of lactic acid bacteria to produce the same thickening and curdling of the milk.  Many dairies also add tiny yellow colored flecks of butter to simulate the old fashioned product.

Buttermilk is an important part of baking.  The acidic milk combined with baking soda in a recipe is a baker’s dream.  See… when baking soda is combined with the lactic acids of buttermilk, the soda releases carbon dioxide that when heated, released tiny bubbles that expand and lift and lighten whatever you’re baking.

But what if you’re plum out of buttermilk?  There are solutions…. let’s talk.

Buttermilk Substitute

In a pinch and you’ve run out of buttermilk?

Lemon and Milk 

In a 1-cup measuring cup, add 1 Tablespoon of fresh lemon juice.  Top the lemon juice with with skim, low fat or whole milk.  Stir and let sit for two minutes.  After two minutes, your milk is both acidic and curdled.  Perfect!

Yogurt and Milk

Mix 3/4 cup plain yogurt with 1/4 cup of milk.  Stir and make it a quick substitution for buttermilk.

Milk and Cream of Tartar

Mix 1 cup of milk with 1 3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar.  To ensure that the mixture doesn’t get lumpy, mix the cream of tartar with 2 Tablespoons of milk.  Once mixed add the rest of the cup of milk.  Cream of tartar is an acid and will simulate the acidic environment of buttermilk in a pinch.

223 Comments Add A Comment

  • Excellent article. I have seen recipes that tell you to substitute yogurt in equals amounts for the buttermilk, but I think adding 1/4 of milk would make it a better consistency.

    Love the use of the wood in your pic, btw.

  • Thanks for the info! Is there a reason you didn’t suggest the vinegar and milk version? Not as good? Bad for you?

    I know it’s been asked but I will as well, how do you adjust for subing milk with buttermilk? Thx!

  • While we’re on the subject of substitutions: what would you use in place of light molasses? I made cookies that called for 1/4 cup of it the other day and couldn’t find it anywhere. I ended up using almost a full 1/4 cup of golden syrup with a splash of dark molasses to finish it off. Any other suggestions?

  • I always do the lemon/milk substitution, but I never knew about the other two methods! Thanks for the tip. Always helpful because I never seem to have buttermilk on hand when I need it.

  • Thanks so much! I loved learning the science and history of buttermilk:)

  • I knew the lemon variation (as well as a plain vinegar one) but that’s all.. .Thanks for the other options !

  • I had no idea cream of tartar would work, too! Thanks for the tip :)

    One question, though: sometimes when I have a recipe that calls for regular milk, I would love to substitute some buttermilk. But I’m never sure how to adjust the baking powder and baking soda. How do I know how much of each to use?

  • Hey, thanks! This is great–not only are you talented and endearing, but now you’re dropping lactic acid knowledge! I love it!

  • thanks for the buttermilk recipes! also i’ve been curious for awhile, where are your adorable measuring cups from?

  • The buttermilk info is great, but I also LOVE that cutting board!

  • You’re a star, thanks so much for posting this! When I was very young (‘very’ due to my having ‘moments’ quite often)I tried to make my own…with actual butter. It gave my mom a good laugh!

  • I remember my mother always making her delicious banana bread with “buttermilk” only she wrote the recipe with lemon and milk. So when I was not yet able to see the counter without using our mustard yellow step stool with the olive green cushion, I always thought buttermilk was lemon&milk combined. :) It wasn’t until I was making my own banana bread after I married that I learned the truth.

    Websites like yours passes on the knowledge that society isn’t inclined to share in family environments much anymore. I’ve started teaching my children (2boys) to cook/bake since they couldn’t reach the counter, passing on all the knowledge to make them well-rounded foodies. Although our stool is a far more fashionable white. ;)


  • Sister – I made butter with cow and goat milk waaaaay back in the day but I’m only 45 you make it sound like we had no running water ;-)

    We did live in the country though and one time my brother was making a cake and we had no buttermilk or vinegar. He walked down the hill across the road (not dirt) to the neighbors with his tablespoon measurer to borrow some vinegar. He carefully walked home with that tablesppon level – makes me laugh still – thanks for the memories!

    ps. I love ALL your tutorials and your writing is EXTRA special to me.
    pss. I live in the big city of Chicago now and miss the farm

    • hahahaa! i guess growing up in the big city, i feel like the only time anyone every made their own butter was waaaay back in the day.

      i stand corrected. i didn’t mean to make you feel waaaay old, because you’re so not.

  • ive read about the milk and vinegar thing before, but ever since my friend made a mango milkshake and curdled the milk ive been under the impression curdling is bad… but i trust you joy, im going to make my own buttermilk. curdled milk, i no longer fear you.

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