Five Vegan Buttermilk Substitutes

As the vegan lifestyle has become more popular, there has been an ever-increasing array of vegan substitutes for many cuisines. But while it’s easy enough to make vegan versions of Asian Fusion fare and Tex-Mex platters, classic Southern food can be more challenging, and for one reason: buttermilk.

Buttermilk is an ingredient dreaded by vegans all over the world. It seems to be everywhere in recipes for sweet and savory treats, from pancakes and pastries to fried fish and soda bread. So how is a vegan supposed to enjoy those dishes that depend on buttermilk? 

But fear not, dear reader, for there are ways to make a vegan buttermilk substitute. In fact, this article details five of them.

What Do You Need From a Vegan Buttermilk Substitute?

Before we launch into the substitutes themselves, it’s important to know what buttermilk is, its flavor profile, and what we need to do to replace its ingredients while maintaining its flavor and functionality.

Despite its name, buttermilk is not butter mixed with milk. It is a byproduct of the butter-making process. To make butter, you have to churn the fat leftover from the top of milk or cream until it condenses into a semi-solid form. After churning, there is still some cream leftover. When that cream substance ferments and thickens, it becomes buttermilk.

In terms of its gastronomic function, buttermilk is incredibly versatile because it brings milk proteins, sugars, and acids, which is a product of fermentation, in one package. The acids are perfect for adding extra flavor to baked goods, activating baking soda, and tenderizing meat. They also give buttermilk its characteristic slight vinegary tang.

The lesson for us aspiring vegan food scientists is that we need to make sure our vegan buttermilk substitutes bring a bit of thickness and plenty of acid to the table. As you will see, some of the best combinations depend on mixing the two. Depending on how you plan to use your vegan buttermilk, you may have to choose one substitute over the other.

Substitute One: Vegan Milk and Lemon

One of the easiest vegan buttermilk substitutes is a mixture of vegan milk and lemon. It is incredibly simple and easy to make.

In a bowl, squeeze about a tablespoon of lemon juice into a cup of almond milk, then wait about 15 minutes for the mixture to thicken.

There are many options to customize your buttermilk depending on which vegan milk you prefer. Different kinds of non-dairy or plant-based milk will produce a different flavor profile than buttermilk. If you want something that most closely substitutes the texture of buttermilk, you might want to go for thicker milk like soy milk. If you want the signature buttermilk tang, go for cashew or oat milk.

Whatever you choose, you’ll have successfully created a healthier vegan buttermilk version of traditional buttermilk. One cup of cashew milk contains just 50 calories compared to buttermilk which has 110. Cashew milk also only has around two grams of fat similar to buttermilk. Lemon juice adds three calories and just one gram of carbohydrates.

We also recommend choosing unsweetened and flavored milk for an authentic tangy buttermilk substitute.

Substitute Two: Vinegar and Vegan Milk

The next option for a vegan buttermilk substitute is similar to the last one: vinegar and vegan milk.

To make it, add a tablespoon of white or apple cider vinegar for each cup of unsweetened, plain non-dairy milk in a bowl. Whisk until combined and let it sit for about 10 minutes to thicken and curdle. We do not recommend using oat milk for this substitute because it will not curdle due to its low fat content.

Choosing vinegar over lemon juice for your vegan buttermilk has pros and cons. 

Vinegar comes in handy when you don’t have any fresh lemons in your pantry. The vinegar also offers a more assertive, neutral tang unlike lemon and its distinctive flavor–though if it helps, the lemon likely does not come through in the final product. On the other hand, some people find vinegar, specifically darker vinegar, too strong. If you’re unsure which vinegar to choose for your vegan buttermilk, default to distilled white vinegar. 

Regardless of your flavor preference, vinegar is a very healthy and nutritious option for your buttermilk. One tablespoon of vinegar does not contain a single calorie and is neutral across the board. It simply complements whatever non-dairy milk you prefer and provides a lot of nutrition. Further, certain kinds of vinegar contain antioxidants, which protect cells against carcinogenic free radicals.

When cooking with vinegar or lemon-curdled vegan milk, go for more savory foods like fried chicken, soda bread, fried fish, or mashed potatoes. The acid from the lemon or vinegar will have the desired chemical effect on the food, while the neutral milk will simply support the flavor of the food.

Substitute Three: Silken Tofu

If you’re looking for a vegan buttermilk substitute that’s less focused on exact imitation and more focused on food with a low nutrition profile, consider using a silken tofu mixture.

Silken tofu, a very soft and gelatinous delight, is a popular ingredient for vegan diets. Unlike firm or extra-firm tofu, this is variety of tofu is not made by coagulating curdled soy milk. It is also rather liquidy.

Besides being a delicious ingredient in smoothies and traditional Chinese cuisine, the silken tofu pudding-like texture also makes it a solid foundation for a vegan buttermilk substitute. Talk about a superfood!

To alchemically transmute your silken tofu into buttermilk, start by putting your tofu in your blender. A good rule of thumb is to use a quarter cup of tofu per cup of buttermilk you need. Add a pinch of salt, and blend the tofu until it resembles a puree. Then, add a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice, a half cup of water, and no more than three tablespoons of water. 

Blend the mixture and let it rest for about 15 minutes. Then, bada-bing, bada-boom, you’ve made some delicious tofu buttermilk!

This buttermilk substitute has a different flavor profile than the more neutral substitutes discussed above. The silken tofu in the mix has a strong soy flavor but is still delicious.

Nutritionally, each quarter-cup of silken tofu brings about 16 calories, .8 grams of fat, 1.6 grams of protein, and about .8 grams of carbohydrates. Silken tofu has considerably fewer calories than your average vegan substitute, with about the same amount of protein as almond milk. Although, it has significantly less protein than soy milk.

If you are looking for a dish where this vegan buttermilk substitute would work well, consider adding it to something with a little bit of sweetness. It will also work well in a less flavorful dish where the soy can form a dominant element of the flavor profile.

Substitute Four: Vegan Yogurt or Sour Cream

While the previous vegan buttermilk substitutes focused most on simplicity and fidelity to buttermilk’s flavors, this next option draws on the same chemical processes that go into buttermilk. 

As we mentioned above, buttermilk gets its signature acidic flavor and chemical profile from its healthy bacterial cultures. And like buttermilk, vegan yogurts and many vegan sour creams contain probiotic bacterial cultures, which impart the same flavor and effect.

If you’re looking for a simple version of this substitute, grab your favorite premade vegan yogurt. You can also use sour cream, but make sure it is cultured. Scoop out three-quarters of a cup into a bowl. From there, whisk in your vegan milk of choice or water until you get the texture you need. The texture should be slightly thicker than milk, but not thick as heavy cream.

On the flavor end, vegan yogurt and sour cream adds a nice, authentic thickness and tanginess to your buttermilk thanks to its bacteria cultures. Vegan yogurt or sour cream works well in baking if you need buttermilk as a thickening ingredient.

In addition, yogurt-based vegan buttermilks are excellent on the nutritional front. While 3/4 cup of almond milk yogurt contains 190 calories and 15 grams of fat, which is certainly more than “real” buttermilk or one of the substitutes above, it does bring six grams of protein, three grams of fiber, 1.1 micrograms of Vitamin D, and 110 milligrams of Calcium to the table. 

Premade vegan sour cream is even more nutritiously dense. A 3/4 cup of Follow Your Heart’s nondairy sour cream, for example, contains 675 calories, 12 grams of fat, and a whopping 54 grams of fat. It might taste good, but keep those hefty figures in mind when preparing. 

Substitute Five: Homemade Vegan Sour Cream

If you’re looking for a vegan sour cream that isn’t as processed or fatty as what you might get at the store, you could also try a homemade vegan sour cream as the basis of your buttermilk substitute. Thankfully, the process is relatively simple.

To make vegan sour cream, soak 1¼ cups of raw cashews in cool water overnight. Drain the cashews, then blend them in a blender or food processor until smooth. Subsequently, add three probiotic capsules, which you can buy online, cover the mixture tightly, and let it rest for about 48 hours.

After letting the mixture rest, add salt, about a tablespoon of lemon juice, and a teaspoon of white or apple cider vinegar. Stir to combine the ingredients.

Once that’s done, you can approach this sour cream like the premade mixtures in the previous entry. Add vegan milk or water until it comes out to the right texture. Your homemade vegan sour cream is ready to use in any recipe your heart desires!

The benefit of this recipe is that it cuts down on processed ingredients and preservatives, which is excellent if you want to keep your body spick and span. Additionally, it gives a flavor that goes above and beyond the premade yogurts and sour creams you would get at the store.

That said, though, it is a rather complicated process to make this at-home vegan sour cream, which means that you should save it for a recipe where authentic tasting buttermilk is essential. You might want it on potatoes, buttermilk pancakes, or any recipe where buttermilk takes center stage. After all, you don’t want to spend two days making this sour cream only to barely taste it in the final product!

Nutritionally, it is also much healthier than your store-bought sour cream. This homemade sour cream on its own has less than 350 calories and approximately 18.5 grams of carbohydrates, 26 grams of fat, 11 grams of protein, 230 grams of sodium, and 400 milligrams of potassium. It seems like this is a high amount of fat, and it is, but the protein benefits of this sour cream more than make up for it.

Final Thoughts

Your best bet with vegan buttermilk is to break it down into its component flavors. Although cuisine is the art of crafting flavors, it’s fundamentally rooted in chemistry. To substitute one food for another, you have to make sure that they serve the same chemical function. In the case of buttermilk, the chemical function is to thicken and add acid.

From there, you have plenty of options to explore vegan buttermilk. To closely imitate the chemical foundation of buttermilk, go for the homemade vegan sour cream. It has similar bacteria cultures that yield that tangy taste.

If you’re looking for a simple yet flavorful option, add vinegar or lemon to your favorite non-dairy milk. It won’t have the same probiotic taste, but for recipes like fried fish and fried chicken, it won’t make a huge difference. Plus, it is just easier.

For a more adventurous flavor, try out silken tofu. It lacks the tang of probiotic-rich milk, but brings a yummy soy flavor and plenty of nutrition.

The key to vegan cooking is persistence.The dairy industry has thousands of years of practice, whereas vegan foods are relatively new. So don’t fret when things don’t work out and keep trying!

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Jason Hughes
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