We Tested 8 Buttermilk Substitutes and Found a New Method to Love
In some homes buttermilk is a staple ingredient that’s always in the fridge, while in others it’s a specialty ingredient only picked up occasionally. But whichever camp you fall into, you’re bound to find yourself without buttermilk from time to time, which can dash your hopes of making fluffy pancakes or a batch of juicy fried chicken.
When I’ve run out of buttermilk, I’ve always reached for a jug of whole milk and a lemon, but is that really the best buttermilk substitute? I was determined to find out.
How I Tested the Buttermilk Substitutes (It Involved Lots of Pancakes)
After extensive research, I compiled a list of eight buttermilk substitutes to test. But that led to another question: How? I wanted to see how the substitutes reacted in a recipe that relies on buttermilk for flavor and function. So although buttermilk is an essential element of creamy, herby ranch dressing and classic Southern fried chicken, I landed on buttermilk pancakes as the ultimate test for buttermilk substitutes.
Why are pancakes the ideal test? Buttermilk pancakes rely on a combination of ingredients for their light and airy texture: buttermilk, baking soda, and baking powder. Baking powder contains both an acid and a base, and needs moisture to activate. Buttermilk provides the moisture and more acid, which is why you need to add some baking soda (a base) to get your acids and bases back in balance.
The light texture of a buttermilk pancake is dependent upon this acid-base reaction. Pancakes made with low-ranking buttermilk substitutes may be dense and spongy, while those made with higher-ranking substitutes will have air bubbles evenly distributed (which gives the flapjacks a light and fluffy texture).
So, What Is the Best Buttermilk Substitute?
While a number of the buttermilk substitutes performed well in my tests, my favorite was powdered buttermilk. Read on to find out why this product is worth keeping in your cupboard and to learn more about other methods you might want to try.
A Few Notes on Methodology
Pancakes: I used a variation on Kitchn’s Lofty Buttermilk Pancake recipe — a recipe I’ve used often before — to test the buttermilk substitutes. The original recipe calls for a combination of buttermilk and regular milk, but when I reviewed the recipe back in 2017 I found that buttermilk can replace the portion of regular milk with great success. For this showdown, I used 2 1/2 cups buttermilk substitute rather than 2 cups buttermilk plus 1/2 cup regular milk.
Tests: I mixed eight batches of the pancake ingredients, keeping the wet and dry ingredients separate. I prepared the buttermilk substitutes separately, then added them to the wet ingredients (melted, cooled butter, and egg yolk). Once all of the ingredients were measured and ready, I combined the wet and dry ingredients and set the batters aside for five minutes. I did my best to cook a sample of each batter at the same time on an electric griddle, so that I could do a side-by-side observation and comparison of the consistency of the batter, lift, and timing of each variation.
Results: I first judged pancakes made with the buttermilk substitutes on their own in comparison to pancakes made with whole-milk buttermilk. I then tasted each of the buttermilk-substitute pancakes as soon as they came off of the griddle on their own, and again with butter and syrup. The final rankings were based on a combination of those judgments.
Ratings: Each method is rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being absolute perfection. The factors I considered were consistency of the buttermilk, tangy flavor, and leavening. A perfect pancake will spread slightly on the griddle into a round shape. Bubbles of carbon dioxide should form when the batter is mixed, and again when the pancake is portioned onto the cooking surface. After cooking on the first side, the pancake should puff again when it’s flipped. I also took into account the convenience of the substitute, ease of preparation, and timing. Here’s what I found.
Buttermilk Substitute: Almond Milk + Apple Cider Vinegar
About this method: Almond milk is currently the most popular plant-based milk in the United States, according to Statista.com, so I used that for the base of this plant-based buttermilk substitute. To make about 1 cup buttermilk substitute, vegan blogger Shane & Simple recommends using 1 cup unsweetened plain almond milk and 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar. (Note: While many sources also indicate that lemon juice and white vinegar can be used here, in my research apple cider vinegar was the overwhelming choice for vegan buttermilk substitutes.)
Results: The almond milk and apple cider vinegar mixture was tart but also had quite a bit of natural sweetness from the almonds. The proteins in the almond milk separated almost immediately from the liquid, forming small curds. When mixed with the other ingredients, the batter was very thin with very tiny bubbles. This batter spread wide on the griddle and had almost no rise at all after flipping. The pancakes were pale with a dense, spongy texture. Simply put, these pancakes were a complete disappointment.
Buttermilk Substitute: Whole Milk + Cream of Tartar
About this method: For this test I used Kitchn’s method, which calls for combining 1 cup whole milk and 1 3/4 teaspoons cream of tartar for each cup of buttermilk. Once I combined the milk and cream of tartar, I set the mixture aside to thicken for 10 minutes. The mixture appeared slightly thickened with some curdling.
Results: This buttermilk substitute was very thin with a flat, sour flavor reminiscent of milk a day or two past its peak (obviously not something you’d want to add to your cereal bowl). When mixed with the other pancake ingredients it had a standard pancake batter consistency with an abundance of tiny bubbles. Those bubbles dissipated as the batter rested, leading to a rise that wasn’t impressive. While these pancakes had a nice golden color, that’s where the accolades end. These pancakes developed a rubbery texture on the underside as they rested on the plate, making them unpleasant to eat.
Buttermilk Substitute: Whole Milk + Lemon Juice
About this method: The combo of whole milk and lemon juice is one of the most common substitutes you’ll see for buttermilk, because both ingredients are so readily available. For this test I used Kitchn’s method and combined 1 scant cup whole milk and 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice for each cup of buttermilk. Once I combined the milk and lemon juice, I set it aside for 10 minutes to thicken, per the recipe instructions.
Results: Large soft curds formed when the whole milk and lemon juice were stirred together. (This curdling is normal and expected because the acids react with and denature the milk proteins.) The flavor was sweet and milky and distinctly lemony. The pancake batter made with this mixture was thinner and not as bubbly as it was when made with true buttermilk. The pancakes were thin and didn’t puff when I flipped them. The lack of bubbles means that the pancakes didn’t have enough air to trap to give them the light, lofty texture I was looking for. These pancakes also didn’t brown as deeply as others in this showdown. All in all I was less than impressed with what had been my go-to buttermilk substitute.
Buttermilk Substitute: Whole Milk + White Vinegar
About this method: Similar to the whole milk and lemon juice variation, adding distilled white vinegar to whole milk is another pantry-friendly way to increase the acidity of whole milk. For this test I used Kitchn’s method and combined 1 scant cup whole milk and 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar for each cup of buttermilk. Once I combined the milk and vinegar, I set it aside for 10 minutes to thicken.
Results: The whole milk appeared noticeably thicker as soon as the vinegar was added. After 10 minutes, it was obvious to see the milk proteins separating from the liquid and curdling to a much greater degree here than with the lemon juice. (Household white vinegar is more acidic than lemon juice, so this wasn’t a surprise.) This buttermilk substitute was surprisingly pleasant, with a clean, milky flavor and a touch of sourness. Everything about this pancake was adequate — but not outstanding. The batter was moderately thick with an average amount of bubbles. The finished pancakes were slightly puffy with a distinct — albeit one-note — tang.
Buttermilk Substitute: Sour Cream Thinned with Water
About this method: Sour cream can provide an acidic buttermilk-ish tang, although it’s obviously much thicker. For every 1 cup of buttermilk needed, I used Kitchn’s recommendation of 3/4 cup sour cream and 1/4 cup water. There is no thickening time required for this method, although I did use a whisk to ensure the water was completely incorporated with the sour cream.
Results: The thinned sour cream was smooth, mild, and creamy with a slight tang. When mixed with the dry pancake ingredients the batter was thick with a tart aroma. These pancakes were by far the puffiest of all the tests — so thick that the pancakes didn’t spread and were not perfectly round. The texture was soft and light — no gumminess in sight! Although the flavor was well-balanced, the telltale buttermilk tang was missing.
Buttermilk Substitute: Whole-Milk Regular Yogurt Thinned with Water
About this method: Whole-milk regular yogurt is made when bacterias ferment the milk sugars (lactose) from whole milk into lactic acid. That acid provides both the tart and tangy yogurt flavor you know and contributes an acidic element to the acid-base equation for our pancakes. For every 1 cup buttermilk needed, I used Kitchn’s recommendation of 3/4 cup plain whole-milk yogurt and 1/4 cup water. There is no thickening time required for this method, although I did use a whisk to ensure the water was completely incorporated with the yogurt.
Results: This mixture still tasted very much like plain yogurt, with a slightly sour, drying effect on the tongue. It was not as thick or rich as the sour cream variation. The pancake batter made with this buttermilk substitute was very thick, but surprisingly smooth with bubbles slow to appear. While the speed of bubble formation was evident in this side-by-side test, I doubt it would have piqued my attention during normal Saturday morning breakfast prep. The pancakes took time to puff after flipping, rising as the batter warmed on the griddle, eventually achieving the light loftiness and nice golden color I was looking for. The tart buttermilk flavor was apparent and the texture was light despite some larger tunnels. (The tunnels may have been cause by overmixing or by the development of slower, yet larger air bubbles.)
Buttermilk Substitute: Whole-Milk Greek Yogurt Thinned with Milk
About this method: To make a buttermilk substitute, King Arthur Baking Company recommends combining 1 part Greek yogurt to 2 parts 1% or skim milk. So for each cup of buttermilk, I combined 3 ounces (about 1/3 cup) plain whole-milk Greek yogurt with 6 ounces (3/4 cup) 1% milk.
Results: Thinning Greek yogurt brings the mixture to the consistency of regular yogurt, and this mixture was quite creamy. This batter was the thickest of all and did not spread at all on the griddle. The thin Greek yogurt reacted with the other raising agents to create the bounty of bubbles that resulted in a light, fluffy pancake with a pillowy center. The outside of the pancakes developed a rich ,golden color and a pleasant textural contrast between the outside and inside of the pancakes.
Buttermilk Substitute: Powdered Buttermilk
About this method: Powdered buttermilk is the pantry-friendly answer to a chilled jug of fresh buttermilk. (Look for it at your local grocery store or find it online — a two-pack costs about $17 from Amazon.) I followed the package directions, and for each cup of buttermilk I whisked 1/4 cup buttermilk powder into 1 cup water.
Results: The consistency of this substitute was surprisingly thin, but the flavor was the closest match to the flavor of true buttermilk. The batter made with the powdered buttermilk mixture thickened as it rested and had a steady development of bubbles. The batter spread slightly on the griddle before rising when flipped — exactly what I was looking for!
These pancakes developed an evenly golden exterior on both sides, which made them look great and taste even better. The interior was light, soft, and fluffy, with no gumminess, sponginess, or tunneling in sight. The telltale buttermilk tang was distinct, pleasant, and buttery. It would be very difficult to tell the difference between pancakes made with true buttermilk and those made with buttermilk powder, which makes this substitute the clear winner.
There’s no question that powdered buttermilk takes home the gold in this culinary competition. There simply was no way to beat the rich, buttery flavor, perfect pancake texture, and convenience of a powdered product.
The most surprising thing about this Skills Showdown was that my go-to method — whole milk and lemon juice — scored so low in the head-to-head competition. Who knew I’d been serving subpar pancakes for so long?
But even if you don’t have time to pick up a package of powdered buttermilk before your next pancake-palooza, you’re likely to have an adequate substitute already in your fridge. I wouldn’t hesitate to mix a batch of batter with yogurt (Greek or regular) or sour cream any day, and neither should you. I can’t wait to try powdered buttermilk next time I make fried chicken and ranch dressing.