Although buttermilk was traditionally a byproduct of making butter, modern 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 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 likely already have in your pantry or fridge.
Here are 14 great substitutes for buttermilk.
How to make a buttermilk substitute
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.
Generally, you can mix a small amount of acid, such as lemon juice, with a liquid like dairy milk or soy milk. This mixture curdles quickly and works well in recipes that call for buttermilk — though it may be unpleasant to drink on its own.
Summary: It’s quick and easy to make a buttermilk substitute in your kitchen. Add a dash of lemon juice or white vinegar to the milk. If you don’t have milk, non-dairy milk or yogurt will do in a pinch.
Dairy-based substitutes for 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, 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 (240 mL) of buttermilk substitute, add 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of vinegar to a liquid measuring cup. Then, add milk to the 1-cup line (240 mL) and stir.
If you measure the milk separately, you’ll need a scant — or not quite full — cup (around 220 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 that you can use instead of vinegar to make buttermilk.
To make 1 cup (240 mL) of buttermilk substitute, add 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of lemon juice to a liquid measuring cup. Then, add milk to the 1-cup line (240 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 (240 mL) of milk.
Cream of tartar tends to clump when stirred directly into the 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 be able to tolerate it.
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However, if you have a very low lactose tolerance, you can make a buttermilk substitute with lactose-free milk — though it may taste a little sweet.
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 (240 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 (240 mL) of buttermilk in a recipe, combine 3/4 cup (172 grams) of sour cream with 1/4 cup (60 mL) of water or milk, and whisk the mixture until smooth.
6. Plain yogurt and water or milk
The tangy, acidic flavor and thick texture 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 cake.
To make 1 cup (240 mL) of buttermilk substitute, combine 6 ounces (170 grams) of plain yogurt with 1/4 cup (60 mL) of water or milk and whisk until smooth.
7. Plain kefir
Unflavored kefir is a fermented milk beverage that looks and tastes like buttermilk.
You can use plain kefir to replace buttermilk cup for cup. Therefore, if your recipe calls for 1 cup (240 mL) of buttermilk, simply substitute 1 cup (240 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.
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Mixing about 1/4 cup (30 grams) of powdered buttermilk with 1 cup (240 mL) of water should yield 1 cup (240 mL) of buttermilk.
If you’re using powdered buttermilk for baking, it may work best to mix the powder with the other dry ingredients, then add the water when you’d usually add liquid buttermilk.
Summary: To make a dairy-based buttermilk substitute, add an acidic substance — typically lemon juice, vinegar, or cream of tartar — to milk. You can also use plain yogurt, sour cream, kefir, or buttermilk powder.
Dairy-free, vegan substitutes
Several plant-based milk alternatives and soy products make great buttermilk replacements, depending on your dietary needs.
9–11. Soy-based options
These soy-based alternatives are both dairy-free and vegan. These recipes make 1 cup (240 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 (240 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 (120 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 purée 1/4 cup (62 grams) of soft, silken tofu with a scant 3/4 cup (160 mL) of water and 1 tablespoon (15 mL) of vinegar or lemon juice.
12–14. Low carb, paleo-friendly options
The following plant-based buttermilk substitutes are low-carb and paleo-friendly.
Paleo diets, which are allegedly based on the diet of prehistoric human ancestors, typically exclude dairy products, grains, and legumes.
These substitutes are also vegan.
The recipes below make 1 cup (240 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 (240 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 (240 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 (240 mL) and stir.
Summary: You can combine plant milk with acidic ingredients to make buttermilk substitutes that are dairy-free, vegan, paleo-friendly, or low in carbs.
Buttermilk is a practical ingredient for giving baked goods a rich texture and depth of flavor, but if you don’t typically buy it or have dietary restrictions, you can easily make substitutes at home.
Suggested read: 7 creative substitutes for sour cream
The key elements of a buttermilk replacement are an acidic ingredient — typically lemon juice, vinegar, or cream of tartar — and a liquid, such as dairy or plant-based milk.
If you’re curious about one of these options, try it the next time you’re baking.