Buttermilk is an ingredient commonly used in Southern cuisine, like biscuits, pancakes and much of Paula Deen’s repertoire. Traditionally, buttermilk was created from the liquid left over after cream had been churned into butter. Bacteria grew as it sat, causing the milk sugar to turn into lactic acid and ferment, thus leaving behind a slightly thickened and mildly sour substance. Apparently, it was one of those situations where when no one died after eating it; it was deemed a good thing.
Today, since all commercial dairy products are pasteurized, bacteria is reintroduced into the milk afterward. Although this provides the same flavor and function in baking, it is void of the beneficial bacteria present in traditionally made buttermilk.
In baking, buttermilk is used for several reasons. It provides a tangy flavor that pairs well with certain baked goods like biscuits. And since the fermentation makes it acidic, it allows the leavening agents (any ingredient that causes the baked good to rise and soften by introducing gas bubbles, such as yeast or baking soda) to do their job. Buttermilk also tenderizes the gluten in flour, giving it more body and a softer texture.
But can buttermilk be made dairy free? It certainly can, and it’s quite simple to make your own dairy-free buttermilk or buttermilk substitute yourself. These versions are called, “clabbered” (thickened) buttermilk and there are several ways to create it at home.
Since vinegar is acidic, it will curdle dairy-free milk when left to sit. Simply add one tablespoon of vinegar per cup of milk and let sit a room temperature for at least 15 minutes, until the liquid has thickened a bit. While many recipes call for apple cider vinegar, white vinegar can be used as well.
Lemon juice is also acidic and can be used in place of vinegar to make dairy-free buttermilk as well. Use the same amount as you would vinegar (one tablespoon to one cup milk) and leave the milk sit for at least 10 minutes before using.
Some people find lemon juice does not create the same texture or consistency as real buttermilk, but experimentation found it still produced the same end result. Vegan Aebelskivers (Danish Pancake Balls) uses lemon juice to create the dairy-free buttermilk used in these cream puff-like treats.
Cream of Tartar
Cream of tartar is an acid with less flavor than lemon juice or vinegar and is usually used to stabilize egg whites for meringues and soufflés. And no, it does not contain cream. Its chemical name is potassium bitartrate, and it is actually a byproduct of wine making.
Use one and a half teaspoons to one cup of milk, but it’s better to mix it into the dry ingredients as it tends to clump when mixed into liquid. It can give your baked goods the same light and fluffy effect as buttermilk, without vinegar or lemon aftertastes.
Yogurt or Sour Cream
While lemon juice, vinegar, and cream of tartar can produce the same result as buttermilk in baking, they are devoid of the beneficial bacteria found in the traditionally made form. One way to create soft and light baked goods but still keep the added health benefits of good bacteria is to use dairy-free yogurt or sour cream in addition to dairy-free milk. 1/2 cup dairy-free milk plus 2/3 cup dairy-free yogurt or sour cream will yield 1 cup of dairy-free buttermilk substitute.
Traditionalists who enjoy making their own buttermilk (but not churning butter) often use buttermilk culture to create their own, filled with beneficial bacteria. Unfortunately, it’s not very easy to find dairy-free buttermilk culture.
However, it is possible to find dairy-free kefir culture (make sure you purchase what’s called water kefir!) and dairy-free yogurt culture. Follow the instructions on the packet, but kefir is basically made by adding the culture to the milk (or even coconut water!) and letting it sit at room temperature for a number of days.
Kefir can be substituted in the same measurements as buttermilk in recipes, and includes beneficial bacteria. Cultures For Health is a great website to purchase water kefir grains, vegan yogurt cultures, and learn more about natural fermentation.
It is also important to note that dairy-free milks have a different nutritional makeup which may affect your buttermilk. For instance, soy milk has the highest protein content of dairy-free milks and is, therefore, closest in makeup to cow milk. Which Milk For Which Recipe is a great guide to many of the dairy-free milks you can make at home.
You can choose your buttermilk according to what you have in your pantry, how much time you want to spend or to complement the other ingredients in your recipe. For example, if you’re craving lemon-thyme biscuits, making your buttermilk with lemon juice would be perfectly acceptable.
Thankfully, there are several options to make your own dairy-free buttermilk, free of the upper body strength needed to churn butter. Although after recreating a Paula Deen dish, you might need a good workout.
Lead image source: Navy Bean Biscuits and Gravy