How to make buttermilk

Buttermilk is one of those ingredients that we often find on the list of ingredients for a recipe, but aren’t always able to find in the back of the fridge.

If you find yourself in need of buttermilk but don’t fancy a rummage through the supermarket’s dairy section (or if they’re fresh out of the stuff), here’s how you can reproduce it at home.

But first…

What the heck IS buttermilk?

Buttermilk (seen above on the right) is a kind of fermented milk, with a more sour and tangy taste than plain milk.  You can drink a glass of buttermilk straight, but its tart flavour can be an acquired taste, so it tends to be more often used in cooking.

Buttermilk is NOT milk with added butter, extra-creamy/fatty milk, or liquid butter.  It’s an easy mistake to make if you haven’t used it before – the first time I heard of the stuff, its name led me to imagine a liquid form of Homer Simpson’s favourite “rich, creamery butter”.

So if it doesn’t contain butter, why is it called “buttermilk”?

The name “buttermilk” comes from the origins of traditional buttermilk, which is made from the liquid left over after butter has been churned out of cream.  This liquid is usually left for a short time while the butter seperates, and this waiting time causes it to ferment slightly, producing the lactic acid that creates its tangy taste.

You don’t necessarily need to be living on a traditional dairy to make traditional buttermilk at home.  Take some heavy cream and stir it intensely (a blender is super-handy here) until its consistency changes and butter starts to separate.  Simply strain away the butter, and what you’re left with is buttermilk.

Not only will this process give you buttermilk, but you’ll also get fresh butter out of the deal!  This butter will probably need a bit more preparation, but that’s a blog for another day…

In India, this same technique is performed using yoghurt instead of cream, and the resulting buttermilk is often combined with spices to create a refreshing drink called chaas.

While this may be the traditional method of preparing buttermilk, it isn’t the most efficient way of making it.  Most of the commercial buttermilk you’ll find available in shops is in fact cultured buttermilk, made by carefully adding bacteria to plain milk to accelerate its fermentation.

It may sound like culturing buttermilk at home is as simple as letting your milk go slightly off, but don’t do that.  You’re more likely to create something foul-smelling and gross that’ll make you sick.  The bacteria in your fridge is almost certainly NOT the same type as that used by food scientists, who carefully culture and pasteurise buttermilk under controlled conditions.  Leave culturing to the professionals.

If you need buttermilk quickly and don’t have time to churn cream or study for a microbiology degree to properly cultivate bacteria, you can instead make acidified buttermilk, where an acidic substance mildly curdles plain milk to reproduce that tangy taste.

The simplest way to make acidified buttermilk at home is to simply add a little bit of something tart and sour to a regular batch of milk.  Most recipes call for adding a tablespoon or so of lemon juice or white vinegar to cup of milk.

Leave it for a short time until it starts to look a bit curdled – this is a good thing, showing that a mild chemical reaction is taking place, changing the substance of the milk and increasing its acid content.

You can also create a serviceable substitute for buttermilk in a pinch by combining plain milk with natural yoghurt or sour cream, as these are also cultured dairy products and contain a similar (though not identical) bacteria.

What can buttermilk be used for?

Buttermilk is almost as versatile as plain milk, but excels in a few areas of cooking and is not so great in others.  For example, don’t use buttermilk in rice pudding – so sour!

If you don’t mind its acquired sour taste, you can drink buttermilk by itself, or add spices to it to make the chaas mentioned earlier.

Since it’s also a cultured dairy product, buttermilk can sometimes be substituted for yoghurt in a recipe, as demonstrated by Kim’s Awesome Apricot Loaf.

One of the most interesting uses for buttermilk we found on Best Home Chef was in SarahKate Abercrombie’s Coleslaw with Buttermilk Dressing.

But buttermilk really shines when it comes to the science of baking, thanks to its acidic content.  Try and use buttermilk in any recipe that calls for a dash of bicarb soda – this reacts strongly with buttermilk’s acidic content, generating more carbon dioxide, which creates bigger bubbles in the mixture, and leads to a fluffier overall result.

To see a buttermilk recipe in action, check out our video of how to make Amanda’s Buttermilk Pancakes with Apple Cinnamon Compote (pictured above), hosted by the incomparable Pieter:

Mark Bristow
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Mark Bristow

Mark is the proud owner of an impractically large paella pan, and enjoys putting strange new twists on classic recipes. Google+

Leave a Comment

  • Great article Mark. And yes folks learn from my mistakes – buttermilk and rice pudding do not mix. (I ate it anyway, but that’s besides the point…)


    by Louise Carter on 09/04/2013, 11:51
    Louise Carter
  • Thanks so much for this information. It’s always such a pain when I have a whim to make something and the only ingredient I don’t have is buttermilk (it’s a difficult ingredient to just have in the fridge).


    by Maggie Carter on 20/04/2013, 13:40
    Maggie Carter
  • Just like I wanted, and just when I needed this explanation. All those best waffles recipes contains buttermilk. I googled it so I knew a bit of something, but now it’s all clear to me. Thanks!


    by Nina Klemen on 22/04/2013, 07:42
    Nina Klemen