How to make buttermilk substitutes for fluffy pancakes on the fly

No buttermilk, no problem. We'll show you how to mix up reliable replacements

Published September 25, 2021 4:29PM (EDT)

 (James Ransom / Food52)
(James Ransom / Food52)

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Buttermilk has a huge range of uses in your kitchen. If you bought a bottle to make pancakes, you could end up using the extra for everything from fried chicken to peach sherbet. But what if you don't have any — and don't want to go to the store? Or you did go to the store and they're all out? Today, we'll break down how to make your own buttermilk substitutes, and share some highly recommended recipes to put them to good use.

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What is buttermilk, anyway?

Traditionally speaking, buttermilk is a liquid by-product of butter-churning. Here's the gist: You start with cream, churn (or food-process) until it separates, and end up with butter and buttermilk. If you're making American-style butter — with fresh cream as the starting point — the buttermilk will be equally fresh. If you're making cultured butter — with crème fraîche as the starting point — the buttermilk will be as tangy as expected, but not quite as thick as what you'd find at the supermarket (more on that in a bit). Because the butter claims most of the fat and little of the protein, old-school buttermilk is also naturally low-fat and rich in protein.

But perhaps you've seen (and possibly been confused by) recipes calling for whole-milk buttermilk, like this Cracklin' Cornbread from chef Sean Brock. In the past, this would have been an oxymoron. These days, however, commercially available buttermilk "is just cultured milk," according to dairy farmer Randy Lewis. "It has nothing to do with butter. And whether it's full-fat or low-fat depends on the milk you start with."

Can I really make my own buttermilk at home?

Sure! To make modern-day buttermilk, you just need to culture milk. This can be accomplished with a culture like Flora Danica. Or — just like making homemade yogurt or crème fraîche — you can add buttermilk to milk (The Joy of Cooking recommends ½ cup buttermilk to 1 quart skim milk, both room temperature). Let the two become one over a day or so, depending on how warm or cold your kitchen is.

That said: If you don't have something like Flora Danica, a starter's worth of buttermilk, or a bunch of time to spare (hey, me neither), worry not. This is where homemade buttermilk substitutes you can make with fridge and pantry staples come in handy.

Easy buttermilk substitutes

Milk plus lemon juice or vinegar. Estimate 1 cup of milk (any type works) to 1 tablespoon of acid. Stir together and leave at room temperature for about 10 minutes, or until curds start to form, then use right away.

Plain or Greek yogurt, thinned with milk or water. Add milk or water, splash by splash, to any kind of yogurt (or even sour cream or crème fraîche) until you reach a buttermilk-esque consistency, and whisk until smooth.

Kefir. This cultured dairy product has a similar thickness to commercial buttermilk. What's more, if a recipe calls for whole-milk buttermilk and you aren't able to find that in stores, whole-milk kefir is your next best bet.

Powdered buttermilk Dehydrated buttermilk powder can be found at specialty markets online and consists of exactly what it sounds like. Add a few tablespoons of buttermilk powder to a cup of water for an excellent substitute that doesn't require keeping a bottle or carton in the refrigerator. You can also add buttermilk powder directly to dry ingredients for a flavor boost.

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Very good ways to use buttermilk

Buttermilk Mochi Pancakes

These pancakes will taste richer, more buttermilk-y, and more complete in any side-by-side taste test — all thanks to one little ingredient switcheroo. The end result is a fluffy, extra-satisfying texture you have to experience to believe.

Buttermilk Waffles

This buttermilk waffle recipe that welcomes buttermilk substitutes recipe is adapted from the base of Kenji Lopéz-Alt's Bacon, Cheese, and Scallion Waffles on Serious Eats (just with more butter). Make a big batch — they reheat beautifully.

Buttermilk Biscuits with Sausage Gravy

Bake buttermilk biscuits, cook up a pan of meaty gravy, and prepare for a breakfast so hearty and satisfying it will force your bowl of cereal into retirement.

Punjabi Buttermilk Stew with Spinach Dumplings

Similar to chili, this buttermilk stew tastes better as the days go by and the flavors develop. It has a rich, tangy taste thanks to the buttermilk, punctuated by the sharpness from the garlic and ginger.

Strawberry Buttermilk Gelato

This excellent no-cook ice cream is perfect for summer: Quick and easy, no need to turn on the stove, and it highlights summer berries at their peak. The creamy texture and tang of buttermilk and sour cream balance it out.

Classic Southern Buttermilk Bathed Fried Chicken

Chef James writes that this recipe for took nearly 20 years to develop, and we think it shows. The result is intensely flavorful and expertly spiced chicken with a crisp, dark skin reminiscent of parchment and juicy, flavorful meat thanks to a pre-frying buttermilk soak.

Buttermilk Chocolate Chip Cookies

The colossal cookies have a slightly cakey texture and a gooey, moist center. The touch of tang from the buttermilk is the perfect counterbalance to the incredible sweet, slightly salty dough.

Instant Pot Buttermilk and Leek Mashed Potatoes

The world's easiest mashed potatoes are made in the Instant Pot, and this buttermilk-infused recipe that puts leeks front and center is no exception. All variations are fair game with these potatoes: If you don't feel like rinsing and chopping leeks, swap in shallots, more garlic, a yellow onion, or nothing at all.

Maida Heatter's Lemon Buttermilk Cake

This light, moist, lemony cake is genius for so many reasons: It's powerfully puckery. It's got both more fresh lemon juice and zest than you'd expect or normally see in a recipe, and the flavor holds up under heat.

Buttermilk White Beans with Eggs and Greens

Boil beans with a bit of onion and garlic and, once they're tender, cool with a generous amount of buttermilk and fresh garlic. As they soak, the buttermilk adds lots of acidity and tanginess, while the garlic adds depth of flavor.

By Emma Laperruque

MORE FROM Emma Laperruque

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