While buttermilk was traditionally a byproduct of making butter, modern-day buttermilk is made by adding lactic acid bacteria to milk, which ferments it.
It has a tangy flavor and thicker consistency than milk and is commonly used to make biscuits, pancakes, waffles, muffins, and cakes.
Buttermilk gives baked goods a light, moist, and tender texture. Its acidity activates the baking soda in recipes and acts as a raising agent.
Still, many people don’t keep it on hand, and others don’t use it due to dietary restrictions.
Surprisingly, you can make buttermilk substitutes — either dairy-based or nondairy — using ingredients you probably have on hand.
Here are 14 great substitutes for buttermilk.
The key elements of a buttermilk substitute, whether dairy-based or not, are acidity and a liquid — ideally one similar in flavor and composition to buttermilk.
Here are several dairy-based buttermilk substitutes:
1. Milk and Vinegar
Adding vinegar to milk gives it an acidity similar to that of buttermilk. You can use various kinds of vinegar, such as apple cider or distilled white vinegar, but the latter has a more neutral flavor.
You can use any kind of milk as well, but if your recipe calls for a certain type of buttermilk — such as low-fat — it may be best to use a similar type of milk to make a substitute.
To make 1 cup of buttermilk substitute, add 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of vinegar to a liquid measuring cup. Then, add milk to the 1-cup line (237 ml) and stir. If you measure the milk separately, you’ll need a scant — or not quite full — cup (around 222 ml).
Though many sources recommend letting the mixture sit for 5–10 minutes before adding it to your recipe, experts suggest this isn’t necessary.
2. Milk and Lemon Juice
Lemon juice is an acid you can use instead of vinegar to make buttermilk.
To make 1 cup of buttermilk substitute, add 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of lemon juice to a liquid measuring cup. Then, add milk to the 1-cup line (237 ml) and stir.
You can either use fresh-squeezed lemon juice or bottled lemon juice. However, bottled varieties typically contain preservatives, such as sodium benzoate and sodium sulfite. Sulfites may trigger asthma symptoms in some people ().
3. Milk and Cream of Tartar
Another acidic substance that can be combined with milk to make a buttermilk substitute is cream of tartar, chemically known as potassium bitartrate.
This fine white powder is a byproduct of making wine and has a neutral flavor ().
To make a buttermilk substitute, use 1 3/4 teaspoons (5 grams) of cream of tartar per 1 cup (237 ml) of milk.
Cream of tartar tends to clump when stirred directly into milk. Therefore, it’s better to mix the cream of tartar with the other dry ingredients in your recipe, then add the milk.
Alternately, you can whisk the cream of tartar with 2 tablespoons (30 ml) of milk, then add this mixture to the rest of the milk to avoid clumping.
4. Lactose-Free Milk and Acid
Buttermilk is lower in lactose than regular milk, so people with lactose intolerance may find that they can tolerate it ().
Simply add 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of lemon juice or vinegar to a liquid measuring cup. Then add lactose-free milk to the 1-cup line (237 ml) and stir.
5. Sour Cream and Water or Milk
Sour cream is made by using lactic acid bacteria to ferment cream, giving it a tangy flavor similar to buttermilk ().
However, sour cream is thicker than buttermilk, so it’s best to thin it with water or milk when making a buttermilk substitute.
To replace 1 cup (237 ml) of buttermilk in a recipe, combine 3/4 cup (172 grams) of sour cream with 1/4 cup (59 ml) of water or milk and whisk the mixture until smooth.
6. Plain Yogurt and Water or Milk
The tangy, acidic flavor and composition of yogurt is similar to buttermilk, so plain yogurt makes for a good substitute.
You can replace buttermilk cup for cup with plain yogurt, but it may work better to thin the yogurt with water or milk, especially for recipes that make a thin batter, such as for cake.
To make 1 cup (237 ml) of buttermilk substitute, combine 3/4 cup (163 ml) of plain yogurt with 1/4 cup (59 ml) of water or milk and whisk until smooth.
7. Plain Kefir
Unflavored kefir is a fermented milk beverage that looks and tastes similar to buttermilk ().
You can use plain kefir to replace buttermilk cup for cup. Therefore, if your recipe calls for 1 cup of buttermilk, simply substitute 1 cup (237 ml) of kefir.
Though kefir contains a wider range of beneficial bacteria and other microbes than buttermilk, heating it will kill many of the microbes (, ).
8. Buttermilk Powder and Water
You can buy powdered, dehydrated buttermilk and return it to a liquid state by adding water, per the instructions on the package.
One common brand advises combining 1/4 cup (30 grams) of powdered buttermilk with 1 cup (237 ml) of water to yield 1 cup (237 ml) of buttermilk.
If you’re using powdered buttermilk for baking, it may work best to mix the buttermilk powder with the other dry ingredients, then add the water at the point when you’d normally add liquid buttermilk.
Summary A common way to make a buttermilk substitute is to add an acidic substance — typically lemon juice, vinegar, or cream of tartar — to milk. Alternately, you can use plain yogurt, sour cream, kefir, or buttermilk powder as a substitute.
There are several plant-based milk alternatives and soy products you can use to make a buttermilk substitute depending on your dietary needs ().
These soy-based alternatives are both dairy-free and vegan. The included recipes make 1 cup (237 ml) of buttermilk substitute:
- Unsweetened soy milk and acid. Add 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of lemon juice or vinegar to a measuring cup. Add soy milk to the 1-cup line (237 ml). Alternately, you can use 1 3/4 teaspoons (5 grams) of cream of tartar for the acid.
- Vegan sour cream and water. Add 1/2 cup (118 ml) of water to 1/2 cup (120 grams) of vegan sour cream and stir. Adjust the proportion of water and sour cream based on the desired thickness.
- Tofu, water, and acid. Use a blender to puree 1/4 cup (62 grams) of soft, silken tofu with a scant 3/4 cup (163 ml) of water and 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of vinegar or lemon juice.
Low-Carb, Paleo-Friendly Options
The following plant-based buttermilk substitutes are low-carb and paleo-friendly. Paleo diets typically exclude dairy products, grains, and legumes, allegedly based on the diet of prehistoric human ancestors. These substitutes are also vegan (, ).
The recipes below make 1 cup (237 ml) of buttermilk substitute.
- Unsweetened coconut milk and acid. Add 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of vinegar or lemon juice to a measuring cup. Add unsweetened coconut milk to the 1-cup line (237 ml) and stir. Coconut milk’s consistency is similar to buttermilk’s.
- Unsweetened almond milk and acid. Pour 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of lemon juice or vinegar into a measuring cup. Add unsweetened almond milk to the 1-cup line (237 ml).
- Unsweetened cashew milk and acid. Add 1 tablespoon (15 ml) of vinegar or lemon juice to a liquid measuring cup. Add unsweetened cashew milk to the 1-cup line (237 ml) and stir.
Summary You can use soy- and other plant-based milk alternatives in combination with acidic ingredients to make a buttermilk substitute that’s dairy-free, vegan, paleo-friendly, and/or low in carbs.
Buttermilk is a useful ingredient, but if you don’t typically buy it or have dietary restrictions, you can easily make substitutes at home.
The key elements of a buttermilk substitute are an acidic ingredient — typically lemon juice, vinegar, or cream of tartar — and a liquid, such as milk or a plant-based milk alternative.
If you’re curious about one of these options, try it the next time you’re baking.