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Why use Buttermilk in Baking ?

Updated: Apr 25

A glass of fresh buttermilk.

In the realm of baking, where every ingredient is carefully chosen for its ability to elevate flavor, texture, and moisture, buttermilk stands out as a true unsung hero. This tangy, creamy liquid has been a staple in kitchens for centuries, and for good reason. When I first started out baking, I was frustrated when I would see that buttermilk was part of the recipe (because I never seemed to have any on hand, and I didnt want to buy a whole carton of it for just one recipe). Silly me, little did I know that it was so easy to make with ingredients that I already had, but also that it would take my bakes from mediocre to magic.

So, let's dive right in and uncover the magic of buttermilk and why it deserves a prime spot in your pantry.

Freshly Churned butter in a glass jar.

A Brief History of Buttermilk:

What is buttermilk in the first place?

To understand the significance of buttermilk in baking, it's essential to grasp its origins. Traditionally, buttermilk was the liquid left behind after churning butter from cream. This process yielded a slightly acidic, fermented liquid that was cherished for its tangy flavor and subtle richness. Over time, as industrialization changed the landscape of dairy production, cultured buttermilk—made by adding lactic acid bacteria to milk—became more prevalent. Regardless of its production method, buttermilk retained its characteristic tang and versatility in the kitchen.

A baked cake using buttermilk.

The Science Behind Buttermilk:

Why is having acidity in the milk important?

What sets buttermilk apart from other dairy products is its acidity. This acidity is crucial in baking for several reasons. Firstly, it activates baking soda, causing baked goods to rise by producing carbon dioxide gas. This reaction is essential for achieving light and fluffy textures in cakes, muffins, and pancakes. Secondly, the acidity of buttermilk helps tenderize gluten in flour, resulting in a more delicate crumb. Finally, buttermilk's acidic nature contributes to the overall flavor profile of baked goods, adding a subtle tang that balances sweetness and enhances complexity.

Moist piece of cake which was made using buttermilk.

Texture and Moisture:

Why does buttermilk make my bakes moist?

One of the most significant benefits of using buttermilk in baking is its ability to impart moisture and tenderness to baked goods. The presence of acid in buttermilk not only reacts with leavening agents but also breaks down proteins in flour, resulting in a softer texture. Cakes, biscuits, and quick breads made with buttermilk often boast a moist and tender crumb that keeps them fresh for longer periods.

Buttemilk used in all kinds of baked goods.

Versatility in Baking:

What can I bake with buttermilk?

Buttermilk's versatility knows no bounds in the realm of baking. From classic buttermilk pancakes and tender biscuits to rich chocolate cakes and tangy scones, buttermilk enhances a wide range of recipes. Its acidic flavor pairs beautifully with sweet and savory ingredients alike, making it a versatile addition to both traditional and experimental baking endeavors.


Health Benefits:

Is buttermilk healthy?

Beyond its culinary prowess, buttermilk also offers several health benefits. It is a rich source of calcium, vitamin D, and probiotics, which promote bone health, support immune function, and aid digestion. Additionally, the fermentation process involved in making buttermilk increases the bioavailability of nutrients, making them easier for the body to absorb.

Buttermilk in a glass jug.

Tips for Using Buttermilk in Baking:

How can I make buttermilk if I have none?

For those new to baking with buttermilk, a few tips can ensure success in the kitchen. Firstly, when substituting buttermilk for regular milk in recipes, it's essential to adjust the amount of baking soda accordingly to maintain the proper balance of acidity and leavening. Additionally, if buttermilk is unavailable, you can make a DIY version by adding a tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar to a cup of milk and letting it sit for a few minutes until it curdles slightly.

When making a DIY buttermilk substitute by adding lemon juice or vinegar to regular milk, a chemical reaction occurs that mimics the acidity of true buttermilk. The acid in lemon juice or vinegar causes the milk to curdle slightly, creating a tangy, creamy liquid reminiscent of authentic buttermilk. This transformation is beneficial in baking because it not only provides the necessary acidity to activate leavening agents and tenderize gluten but also imparts a subtle tanginess that enhances the overall flavor profile of baked goods. Additionally, the curdled milk adds richness and moisture to batters and doughs, resulting in softer textures and more flavorful finished products. Therefore, utilizing a DIY buttermilk substitute ensures that your baked creations achieve optimal taste, texture, and moisture, elevating them to a level of excellence that regular milk alone cannot match.

Finally, when incorporating buttermilk into batters and doughs, avoid overmixing to prevent gluten development, which can result in tough textures.


In the world of baking, buttermilk reigns supreme as a secret weapon for achieving moist, tender, and flavorful treats. Its acidic nature enhances leavening, tenderizes gluten, and adds complexity to a wide range of recipes. From classic cakes and biscuits to modern pastries and bread, buttermilk's versatility knows no bounds. So, the next time you embark on a baking adventure, consider reaching for that carton of buttermilk—it just might be the key to unlocking culinary perfection.

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