Can we talk buttermilk?

Reader Brian writes:

I really dislike buying a quart and throwing half away after baking biscuits, etc so I started using the dried buttermilk. I’ve had good luck with it. Have I just been lucky or is this a good substitution in most (all?) situations.

Hey Brian! That’s a great question because it’s a common problem. Many of us buy a quart of buttermilk, use a cup of it to make a batch of biscuits or some such thing, then watch helplessly as it (further) spoils over a period of several weeks. Finally, fearing to open the CO2-bloated jug for fear of what we might find in there, we just pitch the thing into the trash and hustle it to the curb before our spouse discovers we’ve failed, again, to properly recycle.

How to avoid this sad, guilty fate? Buttermilk powder is an excellent alternative and yes, it can indeed be used (with water) as a replacement wherever buttermilk is called for. That said there are many other simpler substitutes for buttermilk. Today commercial buttermilk is made by culturing milk (the real thing is made this way). “Culturing” simply means allowing bacteria to reproduce and create acid, which is the source of buttermilk’s tang as well as its baking soda-activating abilities. Can an equivalent be achieved by simply combining milk with acid?

Yep it sure can. To create a cup of “buttermilk” substitute one tablespoon of plain white vinegar or fresh lemon juice for one tablespoon of the milk. Or add 1 3/4 teaspoons cream of tartar. Or just skip the mixing altogether and use another form of soured dairy instead: yogurt or even sour cream if you don’t mind a little extra fat in the mix. If thickness is an issue, you can thin the stuff with a little milk. So there are all sorts of options, Brian, even though buttermilk in powdered form pretty darn cool!

36 thoughts on “Can we talk buttermilk?”

  1. I’ve tried the milk and lemon juice substitute and it just didn’t have the same buttermilk tang. Am I doing something wrong? Should the mixture be left to sit for a while before using, or perhaps I should have used full-fat milk rather than part-skim?

    1. Hey Erica!

      There definitely won’t be an equivalence of taste. Thin milk that has actually fermented will have a cheesy-tangy depth of flavor that simply won’t be found in stopgap solution like I’m recommending. However acidified milk will perform the same in a recipe like biscuits, in cake or cookies. I generally prefer the real thing and keep some around almost all the time (I actually dilute it with a little milk and drink it). But for those times when I don’t have any, this is better than nothing!


      – Jim

      1. Thats the answer right there Joe! Drink it! I used to drink buttermilk because I didn’t like regular but felt the need for calcium. It is a bit of an acquired taste I admit but so is real yogurt and cheese.

        You could find other things to bake with it too I suppose. I like it for making chocolate cake, I think it adds a nice touch.

  2. Can buttermilk be used in baking if it has been frozen and defrosted?

    I love buttermilk in baked goods, and so far can’t bring myself to use a substitute. I have buttermilk powder, it’s been sitting on my shelf untouched for years. If there’s some buttermilk left in the container I try to use it, either in a plain loaf cake or muffins or whatever, and then freeze the cake. I find that buttermilk lasts well beyond its expiration date. (At least I haven’t got sick from it yet.)

    1. Oh heck yes it does last. I mean…it’s already spoiled, what else can happen to it?

      As far as freezing, that would probably work just fine. The freezing will break the gel and make it sorta ugly and clumpy, but in a recipe it’ll bake up the same. Nice thinking!

      – Joe

      1. Buttermilk -spoil? I usually wait until our local grocery store has it price reduced to buy it. My current half-gallon jug (now down to the last pint) has a sell-by date of April 2 on it. It still smells of that wonderful buttermilky tang, and I will use it til it’s gone. I just love the dimension it gives to breads and biscuits and I also use it in salad dressings and dips.

        On the other hand, if I am baking bread and want the best of both worlds- potato cooking water (or, say, some beer, or some other liquid) AND buttermilk- the powdered kind is amazing.

        1. Excellent, Mary Beth…loads of great ideas there. Thanks very much!

          – Joe

  3. I usually use yoghurt – which I almost always have on hand – thinned out with a little milk. Tastes right, and has enough acid to activate baking soda.

    1. Yep! That’s the closest equivalent that’s commonly available. Excellent choice!

      – Joe

  4. After opening and using part of a new bottle, I just freeze the remainder in some 1-cup plastic containers, and thaw one whenever I need it.

  5. Or a really radical idea: drink it! If you like the taste of sour cream, to my mind buttermilk is slightly more acid. Avoid the look of the empty glass by rinsing it at once.

    1. Yes the empty glass is really in appealing. But it is delicious over ice. I’ll say that the store bought stuff is more rank than real buttermilk, which has a milder and more pleasing tang, but then that’s why I water it down!

      Thanks, Sally!

      – Joe

  6. In my neck of the woods, it’s also sold in an 8 ounce carton, perfect for that odd batch of biscuits or pancakes.

    The lactobacillus in buttermilk is a desirable probiotic according to the popular health blogosphere, so drinking it straight (or diluted) may be a smart choice for what to do with any leftovers.

    I’m culturing milk into kefir at home these days, which is another perfectly functional substitute for buttermilk in baking, but I still reach for the buttermilk instead for the unique flavor.

    1. Very good OOTT! And yes, just about any fermented milk product is better made at home. Kefir you say. I presume you bought your culture over the interwebs?

      – Joe

      1. Indeed I did, Joe. I bought my original kefir grains from a seller on amazon, since I don’t know anyone locally who could just pass some to me.

        The whey is draining from a batch of kefir cheese out in the kitchen as I type.

        1. I do love the feeling of a mad science experiment bubbling away in the background!


          – Joe

  7. How is it possible to have too much buttermilk? That stuff is solid gold!
    It has more flavor than ordinary milk and less fat to boot.

    I use it in baking all the time for that much more complexity. Biscuits and pancakes seem to work fine without adjusting the acidity. For cakes and muffins the rule I’ve rule is for each cup of buttermilk used instead of milk you will want to use 2 teaspoons less baking powder and add or increase the baking soda by 1/2 teaspoon. That’s the rule. I just fudge it myself. For the sort of home baking I do the texture results are in a tolerable range.

    Buttermilk is also great in mashed potatoes. Try it and I bet you won’t go back to regular milk. Same thing with mac & cheese (but if you make a creamy one with a roux show some care).

    When you want to sub in a hot sauce, don’t replace all of the milk or cream. Use a portion of regular dairy in creating a thick roux and thin it with buttermilk off the heat. Joe will probably tell you why buttermilk curdles when heated. I can just tell you it does if you don’t do it carefully.

    Then check online for recipes for things like buttermilk ice cream or buttermilk pie. I’m telling you, it’s a flavor bonanza. …and it keeps about twice as long as you think it would.

    PS Consider brown sugar instead of white granulated and browned butter instead of fresh from the fridge. More flavor is never a mistake in my book.

    1. Great tips all the way around, Rainey! Also a little extra acidity is rarely a problem in anything baked (or griddled).

      Wonderful to hear from you as always!

      – Joe

  8. in india we make butter by churning curds till the fat pops out. so i just do half yoghurt half water whenever a recipe calls for buttermilk. never had a problem.

    1. Nope, nor would you. It’s pretty much the same thing. Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  9. Can’t you just culture up a bit of milk yourself when you need it? As long as you plan a day ahead, it’s not too hard, and then you only make as much as you need…

    1. Yep, you sure can. A little sour cream, yogurt or anything fermented will sour a little milk when left overnight. Another excellent solution!


      – Joe

  10. I can’t keep buttermilk in my house! If I buy some for baking, I have to make sure that I tell my husband because he will drink it all before I get a chance to use it.
    We used to buy it by the half-gallon, but have found a brand that (he says) tastes better and it only comes in quarts. So we buy a quart almost every week.

  11. I never buy buttermilk now – always make my my own after throwing away for too many cartons of fermented stinking butter milk.
    My never fail method ( so far) is to add 1 tablespoon of malt vinegar to 1 cup of milk ( or ratios part there of ) – don’t stir it and leave for an hour or so at room temperature – just before adding to your baking mixture give it a quick stir.
    Has always worked out in my baking and very inexpensive – for a country that produces so much milk , buttermilk for some reason is a hideous price !

  12. I hated just about any milk product when growing up. In high school, a new friend took me to the local drugstore lunch counter – yeah, does anyone else remember those? – and ordered us buttermilk and cornbread. She proceeded to crumble the cornbread into the milk and spoon it up. I did the same; it was delicious. I can handle buttermilk, but that plain milk stuff – yuck.

    1. Excellent! That meal has a long history in the South. It was a standard for poorer farmers for hundreds of years. Nice to know that it is/was still available in some places. I love it.

      – Joe

  13. Hi Joe,
    My mom would make danish buttermilk soup especially in the summer. It is incredibly easy and every so tasty.
    4 cups buttermilk, 2 tablespoons grated lemon peel, 4-5 tablespoons sugar, 1 tsp vanilla extract, 2 raw egg yokes. Place all ingredients into a blender and whirl away for a minute or so. Serve chilled. We usually drank it out of a glass, but you could serve as a soup with biscuits and berries too. It is similar in taste to lemon yogurt, but much more refreshing.

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