Just realized your recipe requires buttermilk but don’t have any in stock? Or maybe you just need a teeny tiny bit and don’t want to buy a whole carton. Or, you might need a dairy-free buttermilk substitute to meet dietary restrictions.
No matter why you need a buttermilk replacement, we’ll give you loads of options for how to make a buttermilk substitute. We’ll even show you the best buttermilk substitutes for buttermilk biscuits and buttermilk pancakes!
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What is buttermilk?
Umm, turns out buttermilk is not actually just butter plus milk like we naively thought it to be.
Traditionally, buttermilk referred to the liquid left over after hand-churned butter is made.
Modern, commercially-produced buttermilk has even less to do with butter, and is typically made by just adding bacteria cultures to milk to produce what is referred to as "cultured buttermilk."
In either case, the buttermilk is left to ferment for a period of time to develop some acidity and the tangy taste that it's known for having.
Keep in mind, though, that commercial cultured buttermilk is a significantly more acidic than traditional buttermilk.
This means it reacts much better with leavening agents so if you are making something that needs the buttermilk for puffing up your baked goods, you’re actually better off using buttermilk from the store.
What is buttermilk used for?
The number one use for buttermilk is in baked goods, since the acidity tangos well with leavening agents like baking soda* or baking powder* to create light, fluffy foods (buttermilk biscuits, anyone?).
Its unique flavor also gives it the flexibility to work as a salad dressing ingredient, or in savory dishes as a milk substitute.
How do you make your own buttermilk?
Frustratingly, most recipes that you find online are for wannabe buttermilk and not the actual thing. If you’re looking for the real dealio, here’s how to make legit buttermilk (and butter too, while you’re at it!).
How to make butter and buttermilk
Making your own homemade butter and buttermilk is a piece of cake.
All you need to do is take some heavy cream and agitate it vigorously until it separates into a clump of butter and leftover buttermilk.
You can literally do this with just a mason jar*, although fair warning, it’ll be quite a workout. To separate less than 1 cup of heavy cream takes about 15-20 minutes of shaking. Thankfully, there are some ways to speed this process up:
If you don’t need the buttermilk to leaven anything, you can use the buttermilk as is right away. Otherwise, you should let it sit in the refrigerator for at least a day before adding it to any recipes that need the buttermilk to react with a leavening agent.
As mentioned before, homemade buttermilk just simply isn’t as acidic as the buttermilk you can get at the store, so be aware that it won’t leaven as well as the store-bought stuff.
On a side note, the clump of butter that you get from shaking the heavy cream will need a little TLC before it’s ready to eat or store.
Run the butter under cold water to wash off as much buttermilk as possible to keep the butter from going bad so quickly, then salt to taste. If you don’t eat it right away, you can park the fresh butter in the fridge for up to a few days.
Buttermilk isn’t something that most people regularly buy, so chances are you won’t have any in stock when the need arises. Fortunately, there are plenty of substitutes for buttermilk that you can turn to.
To get the best results, though, don’t forget these key considerations:
- Knowing the purpose that the buttermilk serves in the recipe will help you choose the best substitute. Some substitutes aim to mimic the flavor, whereas other substitutes try to recreate certain chemical reactions.
- The fewer ingredients your recipe has, the more the buttermilk’s flavor contributes to the final product. This means using a substitute with mild or no flavor will likely result in a mellow end dish.
- The less thick your substitute, the more likely your baked good will be physically flatter. That’s because real buttermilk is thick and gives the dough body, which helps keep it upright.
- There is no perfectly identical substitute. You’re using a different ingredient, so accept that you’ll get a different taste or texture. The goal with a substitute is to hopefully not stray too far.
Here is a list of the many buttermilk substitutes you can use if you’re in a pinch and don’t have any fresh buttermilk readily available.
Non-vegan buttermilk substitutes
Yogurt and milk/water
(¾ cup yogurt + ¼ cup milk or water = 1 cup buttermilk)
This is one of the few substitute options that doesn’t require you to add an acid like lemon or vinegar, meaning your recipe won’t feel like it’s tainted with the taste of either of those two ingredients.
You can choose to use Greek or plain yogurt, but always go with unflavored.
Milk and vinegar
(1 cup less 1 tablespoon milk + 1 tablespoon vinegar* = 1 cup buttermilk)
If your recipe needs buttermilk to get a reaction with a leavening agent, you could use milk & vinegar to make it happen.
Sometimes referred to as clabbered milk, this mixture is made simply by stirring the two together and waiting 5-10 minutes until it starts to curdle.
For best results, avoid using ice cold milk, as that will delay the curdling reaction quite a bit.
Milk and lemon
(1 cup less 1 tablespoon milk + 1 tablespoon lemon juice = 1 cup buttermilk)
A slight variation of the substitute above, this mixture gets the acidity from lemon instead of vinegar, but works in essentially the same way.
Keep in mind that this buttermilk substitute might leave a lemony taste so if that will clash with your dish, use a different option.
As mentioned before, try to wait until your milk is at around room temperature for best results.
Milk and cream of tartar
(1 cup milk + 1 ¾ teaspoons cream of tartar* = 1 cup buttermilk)
Cream of tartar has a tendency to clump, so you’ll need to slowly mix it in similarly to how you’d make a roux, which we explain in our vegetarian gravy post.
Begin by stirring the tartar into only a few tablespoons of milk first. Once the tartar is well-incorporated, go ahead and add the mixture to the rest of the milk.
Sour cream and water
(½ cup sour cream + ½ cup water = 1 cup buttermilk)
This buttermilk substitute works well in baked goods and has the super easy ratio to remember of 1:1.
(1 cup kefir* = 1 cup buttermilk)
Kefir is a fermented milk drink that features yeast & bacterial cultures, resembling thinned-out sour yogurt.
It is a actually quite the excellent buttermilk substitute, but it may be harder to find at regular grocery stores. Try your luck at Whole Foods or an ethnic grocery store.
(1 cup water + 4 tablespoons powdered buttermilk*, or follow package instructions)
Ok fine, maybe this is not so much a substitute as it is a variation that you might not have thought about.
Powdered buttermilk does an excellent job of leavening and retains some of the flavor of real buttermilk, all while having a WAY longer shelf life.
If you’ll be using for baking, add the powdered buttermilk to the dry ingredients and your water to the wet ingredients.
Vegan buttermilk substitutes
Vegan sour cream
(½ cup vegan sour cream + ½ cup water = 1 cup buttermilk)
By itself, vegan sour cream doesn’t have quite the tang that real buttermilk does. For that reason, some people like to add a tablespoon of vinegar* or lemon juice to give it more punch.
Soy milk & yogurt + vinegar or lemon juice
This dairy-free buttermilk substitute for buttermilk uses soy yogurt to thicken the non-dairy milk, so that it’s closer in texture to real buttermilk.
It then adds the acidic part by using vinegar or lemon juice. Let this mixture sit for 5-10 minutes before using it.
Keep in mind that these milks will add a slightly nutty taste to your dish. You should also adjust for sweetness, or use unsweetened soy milk.
Coconut milk & vinegar or lemon juice
(1 cup less 1 tablespoon coconut milk* + 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice = 1 cup buttermilk)
Coconut milk can be hit or miss when it comes to whether the coconut flavor will permeate your dish. Play it safe and assume that there will be a noticeable coconut flavor when deciding if this will work as a substitute for you.
Be sure to thoroughly mix or stir the coconut milk before using it, as it can have a tendency to separate into cream and liquid if it’s been sitting a while.
Almond milk & yogurt + vinegar or lemon juice
(¼ cup almond milk* + ¾ cup almond yogurt + ½ teaspoon vinegar or lemon juice = 1 cup buttermilk)
Almond milk & almond yogurt can work as a buttermilk substitute too. Again, wait 5-10 minutes after making the mixture before using it.
Buttermilk replacement by recipe type
Best buttermilk substitute for pancakes
By using any of the substitute options that include vinegar or lemon, you run the risk of adding an undesirable sour taste to your pancakes.
Creamier substitutes are less likely to mess with the flavor of buttermilk pancakes, so keep your stack tasty by using either the yogurt or sour cream mix we gave above as your choice of substitute.
Best buttermilk substitute for biscuits
Nothing says comfort food like delicious, homemade buttermilk biscuits. But can you actually make ones that taste just as good using a buttermilk substitute?
The good news is, the answer is yes! Greek yogurt & milk can make biscuits that are almost as tasty as the real deal.
Best buttermilk substitute for sour cream
Buttermilk and sour cream are often used as substitutes for each other. If you’re looking for a way to substitute sour cream, we’ve actually got a whole laundry list of options on our sour cream substitutes post here.
Best buttermilk substitute for ranch dressing
Buttermilk has two purposes when it comes to homemade ranch dressing.
First, the signature tang is a must-have. Second, buttermilk helps thin out the dressing’s base, which normally consists of sour cream and mayonnaise*.
Milk and vinegar or milk and lemon will do just the trick as a buttermilk substitute, since they provide the same two things that normal buttermilk brings to the table.
Best buttermilk substitute for cornbread
The ultimate goal here is a tender, fluffy texture, so going for a substitute that creates the chemical properties of buttermilk will be the winning solution.
Kefir is a good option, but it’s not as common to have on hand. For ingredients that you are likely to have, try going with clabbered milk to get the acidity you need.
No buttermilk? No problem! We’ve got lots of vegan buttermilk substitutes as well as dairy-based substitutes for buttermilk that can help you if you’re in a bind.
Find out which buttermilk replacements are best for buttermilk pancakes or buttermilk biscuits too!