Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Buttermilk – does it have butter in it?

What do you think of when you hear the word “buttermilk”? I know I think of buttermilk pancakes but that is certainly not the only use for buttermilk. What it is and how to use it is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Before the 1920s, buttermilk was different than it is today. Cooks left their unpasteurized cream to sit for a few days to thicken before churning into butter. During this time, naturally occurring bacteria caused it to ferment by converting milk sugars into lactic acid. This resulted in a liquid with a mildly sour taste and a slightly thickened texture. This is also where the name buttermilk comes from as it results from the process of churning butter.

Today, almost all milk/cream is pasteurized at high temperatures, killing the bacteria. Makers of buttermilk reintroduce lactic acid bacteria into this pasteurized milk. This is called “Cultured Buttermilk” and is what you will find in the store.

When you use buttermilk, it is often combined with baking soda. The lactic acid paired with the alkaline baking soda causes a chemical reaction that leads to the rise that you want in pancakes or buttermilk biscuits. It adds a tangy flavor as well as acting as a tenderizer in baked goods. You can also use it in cooking but it can curdle if heated too quickly. To incorporate into hot dishes, warm it separately in a saucepan over medium-low heat first.

Most recipes only call for a small amount of buttermilk and most stores only sell it in 1 quart or ½ gallon sizes. Less commonly, you might be able to find it in a pint size. It does last longer in the refrigerator than other dairy products as the lactic acid inhibits bacterial growth. According to the USDA, buttermilk can be kept in the refrigerator for about two weeks. It can also be frozen for up to three months. To do this, pour into an ice cube tray and once solid, move to a plastic bag. You can defrost it overnight in the refrigerator although it will separate. A quick whisking will bring it back together. You can also microwave it on medium power. Testers have found there is not much difference using frozen as compared to fresh buttermilk.

What if you don’t have any buttermilk on hand and do not want to buy it in the quantities offered? A look in cookbooks and websites will give you a number of alternatives. Here is a list.

  • Milk and vinegar
  • Milk and lemon juice
  • Milk and cream of tartar
  • Sour cream
  • Yogurt
  • Powdered buttermilk

Many of these sources just repeat what they have been told or read without asking if they are good alternatives. Do they really work as well as real buttermilk? I have found a couple sources (Cooks’ Illustrated and that have actually put these alternatives to the test. I will try to summarize the results.

Milk & acid

  • This is done by adding 1 tablespoon of either lemon juice or vinegar to 1 cup whole milk, stirring together and then allowing it to sit for 10 minutes to thicken. A different acid that can also be used is cream of tartar. Add 1¾ teaspoon to 1 cup whole milk.
  • Although mixing vinegar, lemon juice or cream of tartar into whole milk will produce an acidified product, they do not compare to real buttermilk.
    • Lemon juice adds a distinct lemony taste that you may not want.
    • Pancakes do not brown as well and do not get as puffy as with real buttermilk.
    • Cream of tartar can lead to very rubbery pancakes. If you decide to try this, the cream of tartar should be added to the dry ingredients as it will clump when added to the milk.
  • Cooks’ Country found better results with recipes for biscuits and chocolate cakes. The biscuits made with either buttermilk powder (see below) or soured milk were lighter and fluffier as compared with liquid buttermilk. Many also preferred the flavor of those made with soured milk.  The upshot was that all were acceptable.

Sour cream or yogurt

  • Both of these products should be thinned with water. Most recommend using ¾ cup of the dairy product and ¼ cup of water. They should be whisked together but no resting time is necessary.
  • Some testers found that both sour cream and yogurt performed better than the acidulated milk but not as good as real buttermilk.
  • They also concluded that Greek yogurt the best choice. Whisk together ⅓ cup whole milk Greek yogurt with ¾ cup 1% milk. This was an excellent alternative in terms of results.
  • Cooks’ Country tested yogurt and buttermilk in biscuits, pancakes and sheet cake. They tried just yogurt, just buttermilk and also a mixture of half yogurt and half buttermilk. In sheet cakes & biscuits, all worked well. In pancakes, pure yogurt did not work as the batter was too thick making it hard to cook all the way through without getting the exteriors too dark. However, the 50/50 mixture worked well.

Buttermilk powder

  • This product is made from buttermilk that has been heated and dehydrated to produce a stable powder. The product made by Saco Pantry (not the only brand available) is made from actual cultured, churned sweet cream buttermilk. Because of this, some feel that there is more richness as compared to its liquid counterpart. The latter is made from skim milk that has been inoculated with bacteria.
  • Another great thing about this product is that is has a long shelf life. Once opened, it should be refrigerated. It is usable up to the expiration date, which is about 2 years after you buy it.
  • To use the buttermilk powder, follow the instructions on the canister, which has you mix the powder with the same amount of water as the buttermilk that is called for in the recipe. For baked goods, it is best to add the powder to the dry ingredients and then add the water when the recipe says to add the buttermilk.
  • It is said to add flavor, tenderness and richness as well as improved moisture retention and enhanced browning. King Arthur’s Test Kitchen Charlotte Rutledge uses it in her pie dough as she says it impedes gluten development and makes rolling it out easier and increases the crust’s delicate texture.
  • In testing, King Arthur flour tried it in buttermilk pie, buttermilk cake, biscuits and sugar cookies. They liked how it worked in all the recipes. They did find two differences as compared to using liquid buttermilk. Those baked goods made with the powder are slightly lighter in color and the flavor is more creamy-buttery rather than tangy. They state they you can use milk rather than water, which gives even better texture and flavor.
  • Cooks’ Illustrated also loved it for baking applications. However, they found problems in other recipes such as coleslaw and mashed potatoes. It led to watery, looser results. The recommend decreasing the water by 25% while using the normal amount of powder. When used for coating fried chicken, the coating did not stick. They found no way around this problem.
  • Finally, it was the favorite from the testing done on although the only recipe tested was a buttermilk pancake recipe. They found its flavor was the closest to true buttermilk and the pancakes were evenly golden with a light and fluffy interior.

In summary, if you usually have liquid buttermilk on hand, that’s great. If you don’t, though, you may want to grab a can of powdered buttermilk. It can do as well and sometimes even better than the liquid buttermilk in most applications. I know I always have a can in my refrigerator. What about you? What do you use?