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All About Buttermilk: What It's For and How To Fake It

Buttermilk is the secret ingredient that makes pancakes light, biscuits fluffy, and adds a subtle tang to everything it touches. Here's how to use it in everyday recipes, plus how to make easy substitutions if you find yourself fresh out.


Buttermilk Substitute

Photo by Baking Nana

Buttermilk FAQ

Q: What is buttermilk?
A: Don’t let the name fool you; there’s no butter in buttermilk. It used to be that traditional or old-fashioned buttermilk was the liquid left behind after cream was churned into butter. But these days, you’re more likely to find cultured buttermilk, which is made by adding a special bacteria culture to pasturized nonfat or low-fat milk, causing it to ferment and become thicker than regular milk, with a tart flavor like yogurt. It also comes in shelf-stable powdered form.

Q: How is it used in cooking and baking?
A: Buttermilk makes almost everything better. In baked goods like pancakes, waffles, cakes, and biscuits, its natural acidity works with other leavenings to produce a light and tender finish without adding extra fat. Its thickness and tart taste add body and flavor to salad dressings and dips. And when used as a marinade, buttermilk’s enzymes break down and tenderize proteins like chicken, beef, pork, and fish, along with adding that signature tangy flavor.

Q: I'm fresh out of buttermilk. Is there something else I can use?
A: Yes! Here are 5 easy ways to replicate its acidic effect and flavor in recipes (each substitute makes 1 cup):

  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar + enough milk to make 1 cup
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice + enough milk to make 1 cup
  • 1 ¾ teaspoon cream of tartar + 1 cup milk
  • ¾ cup yogurt + ¼ cup milk
  • ¾ cup sour cream + ¼ cup milk

Stir the ingredients together and let them sit for about 10 minutes so the milk can “sour.” Then proceed with the recipe. One cup of real or substitute buttermilk = one cup of whole, skim, or non-fat milk.

Watch: All About Buttermilk

Favorite Recipes

All of these top-rated recipes owe their tangy, tender goodness to buttermilk.

Baked Goods

Sadie's Buttermilk Biscuits


Sadie's Buttermilk Biscuits

Photo by PTRICK

Buttermilk Pancakes II
Tender and Easy Buttermilk Waffles
Buttermilk Doughnuts
Blueberry Buttermilk Coffeecake
Black Magic Cake
Irish Soda Bread

Dressing and Dips

Buttermilk Blue Cheese Dressing


Buttermilk Blue Cheese Dressing

Photo by Baking Nana

Chef John's Ranch Dressing
Restaurant-Style Coleslaw II


Southern-Style Buttermilk Fried Chicken


Southern-Style Buttermilk Fried Chicken

Photo by So Me

Idaho-Style Finger Steaks
Southern Fried Catfish
Fried Pickles

Find more recipes using buttermilk.

About Vanessa Greaves

Good food, friends, and fun are always on the menu. Find me as foodelicious on Allrecipes and vanny.gee on Instagram (but only if you don't mind cat pics and cocktails).