How to Make Buttermilk

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Learn how to make buttermilk with ingredients you already have in your kitchen. Various easy buttermilk substitute options mimic that tangy taste of cultured dairy products in savory or baking recipes.

Learn how to make buttermilk at home using a variety of methods.
Table of Contents
  1. What is buttermilk?
  2. Why is buttermilk added to recipes?
  3. How to make buttermilk substitutes
  4. Lemon juice
  5. Vinegar
  6. Cream of tartar
  7. Yogurt
  8. Greek yogurt
  9. Sour cream
  10. Kefir
  11. Dairy-free and vegan buttermilk substitutes
  12. How to freeze buttermilk
  13. Ways to use buttermilk
  14. Frequently asked questions
  15. Why doesn’t plant-based milk thicken when acidified?
  16. How to Make Buttermilk Recipe

When you see that a recipe calls for buttermilk on the ingredient list, it’s not always something you keep stocked in the refrigerator. To save you a trip to the grocery store and buy buttermilk, I’ll show you clever ways to make it, plus dairy-free options.

The unique tangy flavor and thick texture make buttermilk a popular ingredient in recipes. The acids in cultured dairy milk naturally enhance the taste, increase the rise of baked goods, and are great for tenderizing meats.

What is buttermilk?

Buttermilk is the by-product liquid extracted from churning cream into certain types of butter. It will either be sweet cream buttermilk fermented afterward or sour cream buttermilk when made using cultured cream. It does not yield much of the low-fat, high-protein liquid for commercial sales.

Instead, what you find in store-bought buttermilk uses bacterial cultures to ferment the milk for the tangy taste and thick consistency. It’s typically sold as 1% low-fat buttermilk, or 1.5 to 2% reduced fat.

Why is buttermilk added to recipes?

The acids in buttermilk have a range of functions in food. Lactic acid is sour, which acids naturally enhance and balance the taste of salt and sugar. It can be used in a chicken marinade to help tenderize the meat. The milk fat makes baked goods more tender and adds richness to salad dressings and sauces.

It’s paired with baking soda as the acid component to encourage carbon dioxide development for rising in baked goods. It also neutralizes the metallic taste of the leavening agent. It’s a great ingredient to add to make vanilla cake, fluffy pancakes, tall biscuits, crispy fried chicken, and ranch dressing.

How to make buttermilk substitutes

Lemon juice

Pouring lemon juice into a measuring cup to make buttermilk.

The citric acid in fresh lemon juice makes for a tangy ingredient to make buttermilk. The acid reduces the pH of the milk, causing some of the proteins to curdle, also called clabbered milk. It’s best to use in baked applications since it won’t be as thick and have a citrus taste. Combine 1 cup of whole milk with 1 tablespoon lemon juice, then let it sit for 10 minutes.

Vinegar

How to make buttermilk with vinegar.

Acidic vinegar instantly adds a sour taste to milk and curdles it like lemon juice. Use in baked applications, as the vinegar taste can be sharp in flavor when eaten raw. The heat of the oven helps to volatilize those pungent aromas. Combine 1 cup of whole milk with 1 tablespoon white distilled vinegar or apple cider vinegar. Let it sit for 10 minutes before use.

Cream of tartar

Using cream of tartar to make buttermilk.

Potassium bitartrate is a white acidic powder that comes from grapes during the winemaking process. It’s a combination of tartaric acid (a natural acid in grapes) that is neutralized with potassium hydroxide. It’s often used in baking and flavoring cookies like snickerdoodles. It’s already added to baking powder to neutralize baking soda and stabilize whipped egg whites like meringues.

It’s a great way to acidify the milk without adding a lot of flavors, like lemon juice or vinegar—Mix 1 cup of whole milk with 1 ¾ teaspoon of cream of tartar. The ingredient can become clumpy when added to the milk. Alternatively, add the powder to the dry ingredients to make it easier to disperse and hydrate.

Yogurt

Plain yogurt in a white ramekin and on a spoon.

Various yogurt types are made from fermented milk with lactic acid bacteria. Lactic acid is produced, creating a tangy taste and thicker texture as the proteins coagulate. Use low-fat plain yogurt for the most similar texture and richness.

Add as a 1:1 replacement. However, it will be thicker in consistency. To thin out when adding to baked goods like cakes, use 2/3 cup yogurt mixed with ⅓ cup milk or water, or as needed to thin it out.

Greek yogurt

Greek yogurt in a ramekin.

Greek yogurt is a fermented dairy strained to remove the liquid whey proteins. This creates a super thick and creamy texture as the proteins and fat, if any, are condensed. Use plain low-fat Greek yogurt (around 2% fat)—Mix ½ cup of greek yogurt with ½ cup milk or water.

Sour cream

Sour cream in a ramekin.

Sour cream is fermented cream, which creams a super creamy and thick texture, a very tangy taste. Low-fat sour cream can be used as a direct substitution for buttermilk. If using full-fat sour cream, mix ½ cup sour cream with ½ cup milk or water to make it thinner.

Kefir

Plain unsweetened kefir in a small bowl.

Kefir is a fermented milk product packed with probiotics and often consumed for digestive health. It’s made with pasteurized milk cultured with Lactobacillus caucasius and two yeasts, Saccharomyces kefir, and Torula kefir. [Soucre] This gives it a unique, slightly tangy, thick, and effervescent taste. Use it in a 1:1 substitution for buttermilk.

Dairy-free and vegan buttermilk substitutes

Two ramekins filled with dairy-free and vegan buttermilk  substitutes.

Plain dairy-free or vegan yogurts and sour creams can be used. Add directly to the recipe, or whisk in some coconut, soy, cashew, oat, almond milk, or water to thin out the consistency. Canned coconut milk is my top choice to swap for cow’s milk because it stays creamy when acidified.

Plant-based milk like almond, cashew, soy, or oat can be used but will be thin. Add cream of tartar, vinegar, or lemon juice to acidify the dairy-free milk.

How to freeze buttermilk

Leftover buttermilk can be transferred to an ice cube tray, frozen, then removed and placed in a resealable bag. The liquid could also be transferred to a small plastic bag in portioned amounts, like ¼ to ½ cups, then frozen. Defrost before using. Buttermilk can be frozen for up to 3 months.

Buttermilk in a clear glass bottle.

Ways to use buttermilk

Frequently asked questions

How do you get buttermilk from regular milk?

For a quick substitute, low-fat or whole milk is typically used to make homemade buttermilk. They both contain some fat to add tenderness to recipes. The ratio is one cup of milk plus 1 tablespoon vinegar, lemon juice, or 1 ¾ teaspoon cream of tarter to acidify the milk and make it sour. This will make one cup of buttermilk.

What can you substitute for buttermilk?

Plain yogurt or Greek yogurt, sour cream, kefir, powdered buttermilk, or acidified milk using lemon juice, vinegar, or cream of tartar. Super thick ingredients must be diluted with milk or water before adding the homemade buttermilk to baked goods, dressings, sauces, or marinades.

What are dairy-free buttermilk substitutes?

Any nut milk like almond, soy, cashew, oat, or canned coconut milk can be acidified to make a dairy-free buttermilk substitute. Dairy-free yogurts and sour creams can be added directly or diluted if needed.

Pouring buttermilk out of a measuring cup and into a mixing bowl with flour.

Why doesn’t plant-based milk thicken when acidified?

Cow’s milk contains a protein called casein that is suspended in the milk. When the environment becomes very acidic, at a pH of 4.6 and below, casein will start curdling, thickening the milk. Plant-based milk won’t thicken when acidic ingredients are added because there are no casein proteins to clump together. It will instead, thin with the added liquid.

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How to Make Buttermilk

Buttermilk is not something you always keep stocked in the refrigerator. Here's various ways to make it with ingredients you may already have.
5 from 3 votes
Prep Time15 mins
Cook Time0 mins
Total Time15 mins
Servings 1 servings
Course Condiment
Cuisine American

Ingredients 
 

  • 1 cup whole milk, or low-fat
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

Instructions 

  • Combine Ingredients: Add 1 cup of milk to a liquid measuring cup or bowl. Stir in lemon juice.
  • Let Sit: Allow to mixture to sit for 10 minutes. This will slightly curdle the proteins in the milk, for a tangy taste and a bit thicker texture. Stir before using.

Notes

  • Recipe Yield: 1 cup
  • Vinegar: Combine 1 tablespoon of distilled white vinegar or apple cider vinegar with 1 cup of milk. Sit for 10 minutes to slightly curdle, stir before using. 
  • Cream of Tartar: Combine 1 ¾ teaspoons of cream of tartar with 1 tablespoon of milk to dissolve the powder. Whisk together with the remaining 1 cup of milk. Let sit for 10 to 15 minutes, then stir. Alternatively, add directly to dried ingredients, then add milk. Thickens more overnight.
  • Plain Yogurt: Add as a direct substitute. If thick, dilute up to 2/3 cup yogurt with ⅓ cup milk or water. Use less liquid as needed.
  • Plain Greek Yogurt: Combine ½ cup yogurt with ½ cup milk or water.
  • Sour Cream: Combine ½ cup yogurt with ½ cup milk or water.
  • Kefir: Add as a direct substitute for buttermilk.  
  • Make It Dairy-Free or Vegan: Use plant-based milk like unsweetened canned coconut milk, almond, soy, cashew, or oat milk instead of cow’s milk. Use plain plant-based yogurt, diluting with plant-based milk or water if needed. 
  • Storing: Store any unused buttermilk substitute in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 3 months. 
Nutrition Facts
How to Make Buttermilk
Amount Per Serving
Calories 150 Calories from Fat 72
% Daily Value*
Fat 8g12%
Saturated Fat 5g25%
Polyunsaturated Fat 0.3g
Monounsaturated Fat 2g
Cholesterol 29mg10%
Sodium 93mg4%
Potassium 381mg11%
Carbohydrates 12g4%
Fiber 0.1g0%
Sugar 12g13%
Protein 8g16%
Vitamin A 396IU8%
Vitamin C 6mg7%
Calcium 301mg30%
Iron 0.01mg0%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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5 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. JJ says

    BOY can I use this information!! I love to make fresh Ranch dressing and have thrown out at least half of the quart size of fresh buttermilk whenever I make it (NO idea it could be frozen). I love that you also have a vegan/non-dairy recipe…it’s the direction we’ve been going for about a year now. Definitely a keeper!

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Glad to hear that this guide is helpful! I would use the coconut milk version if you make a vegan ranch dressing. The texture stays thick, compared to other plant-based milks.

  2. Ellen says

    Is it possible to use a small amount of buttermilk as a culture in some regular milk to make more buttermilk at home?

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