Tangy, fermented buttermilk pops up frequently in recipes for salad dressings, baked goods and more. Here are some delicious ways to use it, as well as a rundown of its nutritional benefits, how to make buttermilk and buttermilk substitutes.

Woman pouring buttermilk into a bowl
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Have you ever stumbled across a recipe for buttermilk pancakes or buttermilk fried chicken and wondered, "How do you make buttermilk?" You're not alone: Some home cooks shy away from foods made with this useful ingredient, either because they don't have any on hand or the thought of making a buttermilk substitute from scratch seems overwhelming. But this piquant, slightly sour ingredient can give baked goods a rich new dimension, and also add complexity to sauces, salad dressings and vegetable side dishes.

How to Make Buttermilk

True buttermilk is made by mixing or shaking heavy cream past the whipped cream stage, until the fat (or butter) separates. The residual liquid, minus the butter, is what's known as buttermilk. A large batch can be made in a standing mixer or, for a fun project with kids, a small amount can be shaken in a tightly closed Mason jar. (Here's a fun experiment from Scientific American.)

Store-Bought Buttermilk

Since agitating heavy cream can be somewhat labor intensive, you might prefer to simply buy buttermilk at your local grocery store or farmers' market. (Another benefit: Many cookbook and other recipes, especially those for baked goods, are created and tested using store-bought buttermilk.) "The buttermilk you get at the store is usually cultured non-fat or low-fat milk, meaning an acid, usually lactic acid, was added so it's a fermented product," says Eating Well Test Kitchen Manager Breana Killeen, M.P.H., R.D.

According to Killeen, this addition can be helpful to those who are lactose intolerant. "Buttermilk can be easier to digest because it contains lactic acid, which is necessary to break down lactose," she says. Make sure to read the ingredients carefully, since some store-bought buttermilk brands can contain additional ingredients such as sodium, and thickeners such as carrageenan, a food additive that some researchers have linked to digestive issues.

Powdered buttermilk (made by brands such as Saco) is another option to keep in your pantry; once open, it lasts approximately 6 to 12 months. It comes with conversion instructions: For example, one cup of buttermilk is equivalent to four tablespoons of the Saco powder mixed with one cup of water.

Homemade Buttermilk Substitutes

If you're seriously craving those buttermilk biscuits and don't have any store-bought or homemade stuff, Killeen suggests making your own by adding one tablespoon of an acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice, to one cup of milk, letting it sit for a few minutes before using.

Buttermilk Nutrition

One serving (1 cup) of low-fat cultured buttermilk contains:

  • 98 calories
  • 2.5g fat
  • 1.5g saturated fat
  • 12g carbohydrate
  • 8g protein
  • 13g sugars
  • 284mg calcium (28% Daily Value)
  • 218mg phosphorus (31% DV)

Buttermilk delivers a nice amount of protein and calcium. It's also low in fat and saturated fat, despite being creamy and thick.

Whole-Grain Buttermilk Pancakes

Buttermilk Recipes

This mix of savory and sweet dishes prove that buttermilk might be one of the most versatile ingredients in your refrigerator. Expand your repertoire beyond buttermilk pancakes with these recipes.

Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes: One cup of buttermilk is added to the potatoes at the end to help balance the flavor and create a velvety-textured puree.

Fried Chicken Salad with Buttermilk Dressing: The chicken is marinated in a mix of marinade of buttermilk, garlic, salt and pepper, and the buttermilk's lactic acid helps tenderize the meat. The flavorful dressing contains mayonnaise, buttermilk and garlic powder.

Spicy Stewed Potatoes and Spinach with Buttermilk: Also called aloo chaas, this spicy side dish is made with a mix of potatoes and spinach, and flavored with cilantro, turmeric and dried red chiles. Adding nonfat buttermilk at the end gives it richness without too many extra calories, and using one tablespoon of whipping cream prevents it from curdling.

Buttermilk Oatcakes: A healthy alternative to classic buttermilk pancakes, one serving of these oatcakes has a generous nine grams of fiber, thanks to the addition of rolled oats and whole-wheat flour. It's also possible to swap in kefir, a fermented beverage made from whole milk and kefir grains, for the buttermilk.

Honey and Goat Cheese Fig Muffins: Make a large batch over the weekend and this distinctive flavor combination will add a bit of sophistication to weekday mornings. When used in baked goods, buttermilk's acidity helps tenderize the flour's gluten and give them a soft, fluffy texture.

Buttermilk Pound Cake: This treat has about 275 calories per serving. Many cooks find that adding buttermilk makes an especially moist pound cake.

Poppy Seed Doughnuts: Doughnuts can sometimes be an overly sugary proposition, but the combination of sour cream, buttermilk and lemon zest yields a final product that's both sweet and pleasantly tangy.

Want more ideas? Browse all of our healthy buttermilk recipes.