Buttermilk 101: How to Make It & How to Substitute It
Filed Under: Baking Science | Bread | How To

What is Buttermilk?

June 8th, 2023
5 from 2 votes
5 from 2 votes

Diving into buttermilk 101 – A fun visual guide to buttermilk including what it is, what it does in baking, and exploring side-by-side substitute comparisons.

Yield: 10 to 12 biscuits

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook: 15 minutes

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When it comes to the baking questions I get asked most frequently, substitutions is definitely one of the major themes.

Whether it’s due to food allergies or intolerances or lack of availability or convenience, I know it’s not always possible to have or use every ingredient on hand for a recipe you might want to try out.

Answering specific substitution questions becomes challenging, however, when I haven’t tested a particular substitution for a particular recipe. It makes me uncomfortable to answer these types of questions because I simply don’t have 100% confidence to say whether a substitution will definitely work or not.

That’s actually why I created my Baking Substitutions guide. It’s a super handy resource for those times when you don’t have a particular ingredient on hand; however, even though it took me weeks to make that guide, I still haven’t tested every substitution instance or done in-depth side-by-side comparisons.

That’s also why I love to do these kinds of baking experiments. It’s so hard to judge the taste and texture of a substitution without testing it directly next to the original, or the “control.” And since buttermilk is an ingredient I get asked about a lot, I thought a Buttermilk 101 post would be a perfect reference for your own baking experiments!

If you like these kinds of posts then you’ll LOVE The Magic of Baking online course + community. It dives deep into baking science in a fun, visual, & approachable way so you can enter the kitchen with complete confidence.

Tools and Ingredients Used

I made every effort to replicate each batch as perfectly as possible, using the same exact tools and ingredients whenever applicable. I used a kitchen scale to measure ingredients to ensure 100% accuracy and used an oven thermometer to gauge exact baking temperatures. Each batch was baked for exactly 13 minutes.

Here are the base ingredients and tools I used for reference:

What is Buttermilk?

  • Essentially, buttermilk is fermented milk.
  • Originally, buttermilk was the leftover liquid produced following the churning of cream into butter. When butter was made at home, that leftover liquid was left out overnight to ferment.
  • Modern buttermilk is now made by adding lactic acid-producing bacteria to milk (usually low-fat milk) to “culture” it in a controlled environment.
  • The acid affects the casein proteins’ ability to come together by lowering the pH of the milk, and that’s what produces the thick texture of buttermilk.
  • Buttermilk is used primarily for its pleasant tangy flavor, but it can also help tenderize and leaven certain baked goods.

Testing Buttermilk Substitutes

different types of buttermilk products

When it comes to buttermilk, the most common question I get is how to best substitute it.

I get it, most of us don’t have “real” buttermilk in our fridge all of the time, and running back to the grocery store for one or two things can be such a hassle. However, since I know from all of my Ultimate Guides, one small change in a baking recipe can have significant results. So I decided to put the most common buttermilk substitutions to the test.

experiments with buttermilk substitutions using buttermilk biscuits, all side-by-side on a baking tray

Control Recipe

1 cup store-bought buttermilk

All of the biscuits I baked were based on my go-to biscuit recipe found at the bottom of this post. I re-made the same recipe each time, simply changing out the buttermilk for each batch.

These control “real” buttermilk biscuits were exactly as I anticipated: tangy, buttery, tall, appealingly craggy, with a coarse open crumb – as traditional buttermilk biscuits should be. These represent why I love buttermilk so much! The flavor was fantastic.

three buttermilk biscuits stacked in a pyramid

buttermilk biscuits stacked in a pyramid, with one torn open so you can see the inside of the biscuit

DIY Buttermilk + How to Make Buttermilk

1 scant cup whole milk + 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar

I combined the two and let sit for 5 minutes before mixing into the dough. The mixture was definitely thinner than actual buttermilk, and the dough was much wetter and stickier, which made it more difficult to work with.

I was super excited to do a direct taste test with these “homemade buttermilk” biscuits compared to the “real” buttermilk biscuits. When I pulled these out of the oven, I was impressed by the lovely brown color they had developed. Unfortunately, the DIY buttermilk noticeably lacked the complex tangy flavor of the control buttermilk biscuits and instead contained a sharp sourness. They also had a finer crumb which I found to be more similar to store-bought or fast food biscuits.

biscuits made with DIY Buttermilk, showing the structural differences

biscuits made with DIY Buttermilk, with one torn open so you can see the inside of the biscuit and how it differs from the biscuits made with real buttermilk

a biscuit made with DIY Buttermilk, next to a biscuit made with real buttermilk. You can see how the biscuit made with real buttermilk is much taller and looks like it's a better texture

Buttermilk Powder

1 cup water + 4 tablespoons buttermilk powder

I used the Saco brand of cultured buttermilk powder that I found at my grocery store and followed the substitution directions listed on the packaging. I used filtered water. The package’s instructions directed me to blend the powder into the dry ingredients, which is what I did.

Where the control biscuits were pleasantly tangy, these biscuits were strangely sour. They also baked up flatter than any of the other batches. The package directions also said to store the powder in the refrigerator after opening, which to me doesn’t make it all that much more convenient than actual buttermilk, especially for the amount of flavor you’re giving up to use this.

three biscuits made with buttermilk powder, stacked in a pyramid. These are much shorter than the biscuits made with real buttermilk

biscuits made with buttermilk powder in place of real buttermilk, with one torn open so you can see the insides of this biscuit

Whole Milk

1 cup plain milk

These regular milk biscuits turned out craggy and nicely golden, and had an intense buttery flavor. They tasted the most buttery of all the batches, which makes sense considering there was no excess acidity here to cut through the fat and richness. These also had a finer crumb similar to the DIY buttermilk biscuits, which was interesting. The finer crumb reminded me again of fast food biscuits or premade store-bought biscuits.

biscuits made with regular whole milk instead of buttermilk, showing the different texture this yields. They're shorter and less flaky

biscuits made with whole milk, with one torn open so you can see inside. These are softer and less flaky

Plain Yogurt

1 cup thinned plain yogurt

I thinned the yogurt considerably with water until it was pourable, before adding into the dough. Surprisingly, these biscuits ended up being my favorite behind the control batch. They had good flavor and a tall, even shape. The only downside was that, like the DIY buttermilk biscuits, these had a finer texture similar to fast food biscuits (think KFC). However, because I know some people enjoy that texture, using plain yogurt might be a great option for you! You could even try a similar experiment with sour cream.

three biscuits made with yogurt instead of buttermilk, stacked in a pyramid. These are tall and golden brown

three biscuits made with yogurt instead of buttermilk, stacked in a pyramid, with one torn open so you can see the insides

Vegan/Dairy-Free Buttermilk Substitute

1 scant cup full-fat canned coconut milk + 1 tablespoon distilled vinegar

I combined the two and let sit for 5 minutes before mixing into the dough. I did *not* substitute the dairy butter in this batch because I wanted a direct comparison against the control batch and because this post is all about buttermilk. Check out my biscuit comparison with butter vs. shortening here if you’re interested.

I was curious to see if I could make a dairy-free substitute this way, thinking that coconut milk is rich and thick, unlike other non-dairy milks like almond milk or soy milk. The consistency ended up being very similar to real buttermilk, which made me excited. However, the resulting biscuits had a completely different flavor profile from all of the other biscuits and were way more crumbly. These were definitely not my favorite.

biscuits made with coconut milk as a DIY buttermilk as a vegan alternative to buttermilk. These biscuits are short and don't taste good

biscuits made with coconut milk DIY buttermilk, as a vegan alternative to buttermilk, with one torn open to show the insides. These biscuits were not very good

Final Comparison

all our buttermilk biscuits and biscuits made with buttermilk substitutions and alternatives, on a marble background next to each other, for direct comparison

It’s funny because I feel like the biscuits appear to look very similar, but there were definitely noticeable differences in taste and texture.

Looks like I’ll be sticking with store-bought real buttermilk for the foreseeable future, since homemade buttermilk substitutes just didn’t yield the same results.

I also have tested a standard muffin recipe with whole milk vs. buttermilk to see how it impacts a different type of recipe:

two muffins beside each other, one made with whole milk and one made with buttermilk, both with muffin liners on, showing the muffin top better. The buttermilk muffin has a much taller, more pronounced peak

two muffins beside each other, one made with whole milk and one made with buttermilk, with the muffin liners pulled down to see the structure of the muffin better

aerial view of two muffins beside each other, one made with whole milk and one made with buttermilk

two muffins beside each other, one made with whole milk and one made with buttermilk, both sliced open so you can see the insides of the muffins

The buttermilk muffins had a more craggly open-crumb texture than the whole milk muffins and were SUPER moist and flavorful. I absolutely loved this batch and don’t think I’ll make muffins without buttermilk again. You can see my full Ultimate Guide to Muffins post here.

So as you can see, real buttermilk is the BEST choice. But since I know it’s not always easy to keep buttermilk on hand, I created the below video on How to Freeze Buttermilk so you always have some ready to use (and so you don’t waste any).

How to Freeze Buttermilk

More Baking Science Articles:

Recipes with Buttermilk:

If you need more help with baking substitutions and swaps, check out my free guide:

5 from 2 votes

How to make
Basic Buttermilk Biscuits

Yield: 10 to 12 biscuits
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Diving into buttermilk 101 – A fun visual guide to buttermilk including what it is, what it does in baking, and exploring side-by-side substitute comparisons.


  • 2 cups (254 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon fine salt
  • 6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter, very cold
  • 1 cup buttermilk, chilled


  1. Preheat the oven to 450°F.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Using your fingertips or a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal. You can also do this in a food processor. The faster you do this the better, you want the fat to remain cold. Stir in the buttermilk until just combined. DO NOT overmix, the dough will be slightly sticky.

  3. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and dust the dough with flour. Gently pat the dough out until it’s a 1/2-inch in thickness. Use a 2-inch round biscuit cutter to push straight down through the dough to cut out circles, try not to twist the cutter. Place the biscuits on the baking sheet, spacing 2-inches apart. Reform the scrap dough into 1/2-inch thickness, being sure to work with it as little as possible, before cutting out more circles.

  4. Bake the biscuits until golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes.

Recipe Video

Course : Dessert
Cuisine : American

Buttermilk 101 Article Credits:

  • Written by Tessa Arias
  • Edited by Jessie Bruce, Master’s of Public Health Nutrition and Dietetics Candidate at UC Berkeley


Tessa Arias
Author: Tessa Arias

I share trusted baking recipes your friends will LOVE alongside insights into the science of sweets. I'm a professionally trained chef, cookbook author, and cookie queen. I love to write about all things sweet, carb-y, and homemade. I live in Phoenix, Arizona (hence the blog name!)

Tessa Arias

About Tessa...

I share trusted baking recipes your friends will LOVE alongside insights into the science of sweets. I'm a professionally trained chef, cookbook author, and cookie queen. I love to write about all things sweet, carb-y, and homemade. I live in Phoenix, Arizona (hence the blog name!)

Find Tessa on  

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Recipe Rating

  1. #
    Ken — August 6, 2023 at 10:53 am

    I laminated this recipe dough three times and it was great! So east to make! The laminating just helped them rise even higher in the oven.
    Served them split with macerated strawberries and whipped cream. Will def make this one again!!

  2. #
    VictoriaSj — March 27, 2021 at 3:33 am

    Hi Tessa, love your cookie book! I have done several recipes for the kids and they just love it and my baking skills have improved so much. Here in the Philippines we do not have the liquid buttermilk. Commonly I use the powdered buttermilk. What is the best substitute for a liquid buttermilk aside from the powdered one.

  3. #
    Mary — March 1, 2021 at 12:15 pm

    Thanks for another very interesting comparison. Sadly you didn’t compare my go to subsitution for buttermilk, which is homemade milk kefir…easy to make and always available in my fridge 🙂 I would love to hear your results.

  4. #
    Edgard — March 21, 2020 at 2:43 pm

    I just came accross your videos yesterday, looking for information on baking soda vs baking powder. Since them I have watched and read a bunch of stuff. Everything is very good, and I really like your scientific approach to baking.
    I can’t this weekend, but next I am going to try making buiscuits. It has been a long time since I tried my hand at them, and now I realize that I was over-mixing them a lot, which is probably why I was never satisfied with them…
    I have a question about this recipe. I see that you use both baking soda and baking powder, and I was wondering why you didn’t just use baking powder?
    The other question is related. I am from Panama City, Panama, and here buttermilk is very rare. I doubt that I can get a hold of some. So I will probably have to use milk. The question is this. Since I won’t be using the acidic buttermilk, do I need to add more baking powder, or remove the baking soda (as there won’t be an acid ingredient)?

  5. #
    Jim — January 5, 2019 at 12:29 pm

    I’m not an expert, but I believe when you make substitutions either with or for buttermilk, you have to adjust for the change in acidity or your results will not be good. Baking soda is alkaline and will react with the acidity in the buttermilk to make the carbon dioxide bubbles that raise the dough. Baking powder contains an acid along with baking soda, so it works to raise the dough all by itself. If you substitute buttermilk for regular milk, the extra acid will overwhelm the baking powder and it will not raise well, so you have to reduce or eliminate the baking powder and add some baking soda. The same is true in reverse. If a recipe is formulated for buttermilk it probably calls for baking soda. If you substitute regular milk there will not be enough acidity to react with the baking soda, so you need to replace it with more baking powder. I suspect that’s why some of your trials resulted in a finer crumb, because they weren’t able to raise fully.

  6. #
    Sidney Frank — October 28, 2018 at 12:51 pm

    Have you used buttermilk past the due date? It doesn’t seem to smell much different.

  7. #
    Jillian — July 27, 2018 at 4:04 am

    I’ve only ever tried vinegar or lemon in milk, so i’m curious about the yogurt option. How much yogurt and water would I need to make 1 cup of buttermilk substitute?

  8. #
    Katie — September 12, 2017 at 12:43 pm

    I was very interested in reading this article as I’ve always made my own buttermilk (I don’t use it often enough to keep a carton in the fridge). But I’m wondering if lemon juice would have a better flavor than vinegar. The way you describe the taste is exactly how I imagine DIY with vinegar would taste (I use lemon juice myself). Have you ever done a side-by-side comparison with the two methods?

    • #
      Tessa — September 12, 2017 at 3:14 pm

      Hardly any difference, Katie. The taste AND texture of *any* DIY version vs the real thing are very different (even if directly sipped for taste side-by-side without baking).

  9. #
    Nathalia — September 12, 2017 at 5:22 am

    This was so helpful! Thanks Tessa! Also, I love how you suggested to first try be recipe exactly as written so you know what it’s supposed to taste like. Awesome advice. Thanks again!

    • #
      Tessa — September 12, 2017 at 3:14 pm

      I’m so glad you thought so, Nathalia!

  10. #
    Dalya – It’s Raining Flour — September 11, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    This was so interesting! I love these types of articles! Keep them coming!

  11. #
    Sandra — September 9, 2017 at 4:59 am

    I enjoy these guides so much….thank you! I’ve read lemon juice (in place of vinegar) and milk is another common buttermilk substitution. Have you ever tried it? Would it be similar to the milk/vinegar sub?

    • #
      Tessa — September 11, 2017 at 9:34 am

      Yes, Sandra, that’s basically the same as the vinegar version.

  12. #
    Bruno — September 9, 2017 at 4:18 am

    These tests are very useful, thank you for conducting them. When we live outside the US, some ingredients are hard to find. Here in Brazil we do not have buttermilk, I’ve always used the milk+vinegar substitution. I’ve never tried the yogurt substitution, I’ll give it a try. But I was wondering if thinning it with low fat or whole milk would be better than water. Have you ever tried it?

    • #
      Tessa — September 11, 2017 at 9:35 am

      I found water worked best to thin it to the right consistency.

      • #
        Sharon Keef — June 25, 2022 at 1:19 pm

        Katie can u not sub. Sour cream for buttermilk

  13. #
    Sabrina Best — September 8, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    Such a valuable resource, have always needed to know more about buttermilk as an ingredient but don’t use it enough to really get a handle on it, certainly not enough to have done all of the research in this article, so thank you for this valuable info!

  14. #
    Amanda — September 8, 2017 at 1:08 pm

    Amazing! Send your resume to America’s Test Kitchen. The work that you put into this for all of us is very much appreciated. It is so thorough, easy to understand, and beautifully displayed.
    Thanks, Tessa!

    • #
      Tessa — September 11, 2017 at 9:38 am

      Awe, thanks so much Amanda!

  15. #
    Sunny — September 8, 2017 at 10:20 am

    This is a particularly useful guide. I’m disappointed that the buttermilk powder didn’t yield good results, that would have been so handy! As I’ve only seen buttermilk in quarts, do you know if it freezes well? Also, thanks for including coconut milk, my son is vegan, so that would have been a waste of my time and money.

    • #
      Tessa — September 11, 2017 at 9:39 am

      I know :/ Yes, buttermilk does freeze well! You can freeze it in ice cube trays. You’ll want to vigorously whisk or blend the buttermilk after thawing before using because it will separate.

  16. #
    Sue — September 8, 2017 at 9:53 am

    Hi Tessa, this is such a wonderful guide. I often won’t even consider recipes calling for buttermilk but now I can give them a shot! With your yogurt substitution do you recall exactly how much water you added to the Greek yogurt?

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