Wednesday, March 14, 2012


When you use buttermilk in your recipes, what exactly are you using? I had this conversation with some other bakers a while ago, at which time I was informed that there's full-fat buttermilk. I was surprised by that, since I thought that buttermilk was naturally fat-free and that's all I'd ever seen.

Turns out that even though real buttermilk is fat-free or very low-fat, cultured buttermilk can come with different levels of fat in it.

Buttermilk was originally the liquid that was left over after butter was churned from cream. Since the fat was churned into butter there shouldn't have been much left over in the liquid. The process of letting the milk sit to separate the cream resulted in some fermentation in the liquid, which gives the buttermilk its sour tang.

When they make cultured buttermilk acids are added to regular milk to give it the fermentation and the sour flavor. Those acids are useful in baking because they react with baking powders and act as a leavener.

It appears, from searching online baking forums, that different types of cultured buttermilk are more readily available in different parts of the country. Some people have trouble finding fat-free, while other people can't get full-fat versions. I think that I'd only seen fat free, so when we were talking about the full-fat version I didn't even know they made that! Turns out that the people I was talking about it with didn't know that there was fat-free buttermilk, but they live in different parts of the country, so all they'd seen was the full-fat.

I started looking around for it, and I noticed that sometimes the stores that I go to did have both types, and sometimes they only had fat-free. Today I saw the rare trifecta, all three types in one place.

So watch out when you buy your buttermilk, since the fat level can affect how your recipes work. You might want to adjust things if you've been using full-fat and you suddenly find that all you can find is the lower-fat versions. Just be aware of it....

 Kara Buntin owns A Cake To Remember LLC in Richmond VA, and cake supplies online at and


BrynnCody said...

I didn't know all of this! So what is your suggestion when a recipe just calls for "buttermilk" and doesn't specify a fat-content? Which should I look for?

Kara Buntin said...

I think I'd try to get th full fat type, but if you can't find that use what you can get and see if it makes a difference. I'd always used the fat free because it was what was available and I didn't know that full fat was available, and it worked fine. I you use the fat free and your cake seems dry, the recipe might need full fat.

Eva Farragher said...

We get a cultured buttermilk commercially which is 98% fat free. It is cultured using the same cultures found in yoghurts, and there is no 'real' buttermilk to be found outside of a private butter-churning dairy these days! Probably too because in Austalia we are hypersensitive about food safety. So our buttermilk is normal homogenised, pasteurised milk treated with a culture to create "buttermilk".

Still, this does not stop me from propagating my own buttermilk which I use in my baking. It is excellent for red velvet cake made from scratch. And just as you propogate the yoghurt culture to make more yoghurt, what you do to make your own buttermilk is to first buy a carton of the commercial stuff, use all except about half a cup. In a clean, dry jar (about one litre/2 pints), put the fresh buttermilk and fill about 3/4 way with fresh milk (either light milk or real milk - I always use real, 3.8% fat milk). Give it a stir, then leave on your kitchen bench in ambient temperature until it thickens. Voila - buttermilk! Put it immediately in the fridge and use as normal. When you get to the last 1/2 cup repeat the process.

I should say that you need to be aware that in hot weather, or even if you leave it out too long, your buttermilk may turn. For me, it is an easy smell-test to see if its turned. If you do not have experience in making/buying/using/smelling fresh buttermilk then maybe my method is not for you!

I have kept a culture going for about 3 months, meaning one $3.00 carton of buttermilk (expensive!) can last me 3 months, with the addition of every day cheap homogenised, pasteurised milk.

Love from down under


Kara Buntin said...

Very interesting, Eva...I think I'd be scared to make my own, but I didn't even know that you could!

Canterbury Cakes said...

I have used natural yoghurt mixed with milk as an alternative to using buttermilk in recipes and this works really well. I know some people simply use sour cream as a replacement. Another alternative is to add cream of tartar to milk - I have used that with great success too.

Clau said...

I love your article, since I am a new baker, from Mexico, is difficult to find buttermilk, or I am not sure what is that in Spanish. I brought some from USA, but is powder buttermilk, have you use it? what are your recommendations?
From Saco, Cultured Buttermilk Blend

Kara Buntin said...

I've used the dry Saco brand and it works fine. I actually keep some on hand in case I only need a little bit.