Buttermilk Substitutes You May Have at Home
What is Buttermilk?
Dozens of iconic Southern recipes call for buttermilk, the incomparable cultured milk that lightens, tenderizes, marinates, flavors, and performs other works of kitchen magic. When buttermilk is at the heart of a recipe, should a cook turn to a substitute when the fridge is buttermilk-less? The answer is maybe, but only in a pinch.
Buttermilk adds more than liquid to a recipe. It's brimming with active cultures, similar to the good-for-us probiotics found in natural yogurt and sour cream. Those delicious tangy cultures are what enable buttermilk to work wonders in recipes, which means that liquid buttermilk should always be our first choice.
How to Substitute Buttermilk
When buttermilk isn't available, the best substitute for buttermilk is another cultured dairy product, such as natural yogurt, cultured sour cream, or kefir – perhaps thinned with a little milk or cream if it's too thick to pour from a measuring cup.
It's a shame that so many well-intentioned but misguided recipes encourage us to use milk curdled with lemon juice or vinegar as a replacement for buttermilk. That's bad advice, especially with skim milk and bottled lemon juice. Other than being acidic, curdled milk bears no resemblance to buttermilk, and it cannot deliver the goods. It's akin to rice cakes in lieu of hot biscuits, or, yes, water for chocolate.
Dry powdered buttermilk can help with tenderness and browning in baked goods when whisked into the flour. It can also add tang to a recipe, akin to using a flavoring. But when reconstituted, it falls short of the real deal. It's comparable to instant coffee when you crave a freshly brewed cup.
Some cooks are reluctant to buy buttermilk lest it go bad before it's used up. It's true that buttermilk eventually separates into solids and whey as it sits in the fridge, but if it comes back together when shaken, then it's fine to use, even if it's a few days past its expiration date. Remember, buttermilk is already cultured and tangy, so a little age isn't a deal breaker. It can also be frozen. Safekeeping and versatility are what made savvy Southern cooks fall in love with buttermilk in the first, so it's wise keep it on hand. It can be used in all sorts of recipes and many of us like to drink it plain, so you're unlikely to have leftovers for long.
How to Make Buttermilk
But, wait, can a home cook learn how to make buttermilk? Yes, and it's easy, requiring little more than cream and a food processor. However, homemade buttermilk is the original, old-school by-product left from making butter, which is considerably different from store-bought, and might not be as successful in baked goods. But it's wonderful in most everything else.