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Ingredients

Answering All Your Buttermilk Questions, from Storage to Substitutions to Recipes 

Everything you need to know about buttermilk.
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Published Apr. 10, 2023.

Here at America’s Test Kitchen, we go through refrigerator staples such as buttermilk much faster than folks at home. Buttermilk is a key ingredient in many recipes—from pancakes to fried chicken—and for good reason. Being acidic, buttermilk not only gives baked goods a smooth tang but also lift when combined with a basic (or alkaline) ingredient such as baking soda. 

Here's everything you need to know about buttermilk.

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What Is Buttermilk?

The buttermilk found in the dairy case today is not your grandmother's buttermilk, which was the tangy, watery substance left behind when cream was churned into butter. The liquid buttermilk available today is made more in the fashion of yogurt, in which harmless bacteria are added to milk to break down the milk sugar (lactose) and, in the process, create lactic acid, which thickens the milk and helps produce a tangy flavor. 

How To Freeze Unused Buttermilk

Leftover buttermilk doesn’t have to go to waste. If you have a surplus of buttermilk, fill ice cube trays with your excess buttermilk and pop them into the freezer. Once the cubes are frozen solid, transfer them to zipper-lock bags and return them to the freezer to use at a later date. (Buttermilk can be frozen for up to a month.)

Once you’re ready to use the buttermilk, the fastest, most efficient way to defrost the cubes is to microwave them on medium power until melted. Letting the frozen buttermilk defrost in the refrigerator overnight causes the whey and milky solids to separate, but they can easily be whisked back together with no ill effects. 

Buttermilk Substitutes

The three most common substitutes for fresh buttermilk are soured (or acidulated) milk, nonfat plain yogurt, and buttermilk powder. To see how well each one worked, we prepared batches of biscuits, pancakes, and chocolate cakes that call for buttermilk with each of these ingredients.

Soured Milk: A great buttermilk substitute can be made with ingredients you probably have on hand. Take 1 cup of milk (any kind will do), stir in 1½ tablespoons of lemon juice or 1 tablespoon of distilled white vinegar, and let it sit for 5 minutes; the mixture will begin to thicken to a buttermilk-like consistency. Use this mixture as you would buttermilk, and you'll never be without fluffy pancakes again. (This substitute works best in biscuits and pancakes.)

Recipe

Pat-in-the-Pan Buttermilk Biscuits

Biscuits belong at every meal. So they need to be easy.
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Low-Fat Plain Yogurt: Supermarket buttermilk is typically low-fat, so for a fair comparison, be sure to use low-fat plain yogurt. You can substitute equal parts low-fat yogurt for buttermilk when making cakes or biscuits. For pancakes, however, first thin the yogurt with an equal amount of low-fat milk or water. This will ensure that the batter isn’t too thick, allowing the pancakes to cook all the way through the interior and brown evenly on the exterior. 

Recipe

Best Buttermilk Pancakes

We found the secret to buttermilk pancakes that cook up fluffy from batch to batch.
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Powdered Buttermilk: Powdered buttermilk is made from buttermilk that has been heated and dehydrated to produce a shelf-stable powder. Powdered buttermilk is easy to use, pantry-friendly, has a long shelf-stable life, and is affordable. Simply follow the conversion chart on the label to add the correct amounts of powder and water. You’ll get the most success if you add the powder along with the dry ingredients and then add the water when the recipe says to add the liquid buttermilk. (Powdered buttermilk is delicious in most applications; for a fluffy chocolate cake with an even texture, this was the best substitution.)

Recipe

Simple Chocolate Sheet Cake

For an easy, foolproof, last-minute cake that packs in great chocolate flavor, just whisk together a few ingredients and bake.
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Creative Ways to Use Up Buttermilk

If you don’t have room in your freezer, one creative way to use up buttermilk is to substitute buttermilk for milk in a Strawberry Milkshake. Some of our other favorite recipes that call for buttermilk are Buttermilk Pie and Strawberry-Buttermilk No-Churn Ice Cream.

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