What Is Buttermilk and Why You Should Be Using it More

It might seem old-fashioned, but this ingredient is a must for baking and beyond. We'll tell you exactly what buttermilk is and how it can make your recipes more delicious.

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When I’m deciding between recipes, there are a few keywords that always help sway me. Terms like “gooey” (hello, Gooey Butter Cake) and “silky” (I’m talking about this Silky Chocolate Pie) get me every time. Another word that always stops me while I’m scrolling: buttermilk.

That’s right! After all, what sounds better: plain ol’ pancakes or Buttermilk Chocolate Chip Pancakes? Basic biscuits or Southern Buttermilk Biscuits? The buttermilk version always wins in my book.

But why does buttermilk make such a difference? And what is buttermilk anyways? I’ll tell you, and you’ll be sure to stock this baking must in your fridge at all times.

What is buttermilk?

Now, there are a few answers to this question. Years ago, buttermilk used to refer to the liquid leftover after churning butter.

These days, though, the buttermilk you find at the store is actually a mix of milk and cultures (that’s safe lactic acid bacteria) to make a new acidic dairy product. Buttermilk has a bit of tang to it, much the way yogurt or sour cream does.

You’ll find cultured buttermilk at the store which is typically made with skim milk as well as whole-milk buttermilk which is made with, you guessed it, whole milk.

And, according to Food Editor Rashanda Cobbins, “There are more benefits nutritionally than people realize: more calcium than milk, plus other vitamins and minerals.”

While you may not be focusing on the nutritionals when you’re planning on stirring this into a batch of pancakes, it doesn’t hurt to know that one cup of buttermilk has 35% of your daily calcium and 10 grams of protein.

Why use buttermilk in baking?

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Buttermilk is a unique ingredient that you should definitely add to your regular roster. Thanks to its acidity, buttermilk helps break down long strands of gluten and proteins in baked goods. That means every recipe that uses a splash of buttermilk is just a bit more tender than those that call for regular milk or water. Who doesn’t want more tender and luscious treats (Old-Fashioned Whoopie Pies, anyone?).

But that’s not all that this ingredient is good for. “Buttermilk is acidic and reacts with the alkaline baking soda to add more loft when the oven’s heat hits the dough,” says Prep Kitchen Manager Catherine Ward. That means your scratch-made biscuits and cakes will rise higher and have a lighter texture.

And let’s not forget that buttermilk adds flavor. In more streamlined recipes like this Quick Buttermilk Cornbread, you’ll really be able to detect its signature satisfying tang.

How to Use Buttermilk in Other Recipes

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Buttermilk isn’t just a great ingredient to use in a tender Bundt cake or blueberry scones. It can do wonders for savories as well.

Marinate chicken in buttermilk before frying. The buttermilk will help tenderize the meat for an even more decadent fried chicken experience. You can even use buttermilk as a marinade for grilled chicken.

Buttermilk also adds extra flavor in recipes that typically call for regular dairy milk. A splash of the stuff can really transform mashed potatoes or picnic-ready slaw.

And don’t forget that buttermilk is essential in condiments like ranch dressing.

What if you don’t have buttermilk?

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If you ask me, using the real deal is always the best, especially when it comes to recipes with just a few ingredients. In recipes like biscuits, there’s not a lot of room for substitutions to hide, so do your best to use classic buttermilk there.

However, some recipes let the other flavors shine, like this Coconut Layer Cake. In instances like this, buttermilk substitutes are fair game. You can easily make your own buttermilk at home by adding a bit of vinegar or lemon juice to milk. These ingredients add the acid that many recipes with buttermilk require.

Because sometimes I don’t even have a lemon on hand for this shortcut, I like to keep a jar of powdered buttermilk in my fridge. To use this, just add the appropriate amount of powder to your dry ingredients (there’s a handy chart on the package) and water—you don’t even need milk. And no need to rush to use up this large container. It stays fresh for over a year!

Try These Tasty Uses for Buttermilk
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Lisa Kaminski
Lisa is a former Taste of Home editor and passionate baker. During her tenure, she poured her love of all things sweet (and sometimes savory) into Bakeable, Taste of Home's baking club. Lisa also dedicated her career here to finding and testing the best ingredients, kitchen gear and home products for our Test Kitchen-Preferred program. At home, you'll find her working on embroidery and other crafts.