Old-school buttermilk is the milk left after churning butter and is not today's 'cultured buttermilk'.

A recent answer to the question about what to use for 'sweet milk' mentions :

Buttermilk was what was left after the soured milk had been churned and the butter removed. There were always small particles of butter left in it

For years I had assumed that skim milk was the best substitute (as it's milk with the fat removed), but this suggests that it's both soured and has a little bit of fat left (but not even close to homogenized).

Is there something roughly equivalent available today, or something that I can make to approximate old-school buttermilk without churning my own butter**?

** It also hints that today's 'sweet cream' butter is not the same as butter in the old days. I don't know if 'cultured butter' might be closer, or a blend of cultured & sweet cream butters.

Clarification: I am not looking for a replacement for modern 'cultured buttermilk'. I'm quite aware of the substitution for today's buttermilk when baking of using milk plus an acidic liquid, or of thinning yogurt. It's possible that this is also a good substitute for historical buttermilk; if so, please acknowledge in your answer that you're aware that they're different. If you've spent time on a dairy farm, please let us know if the dairy was using fresh or soured milk for their butter (because everything that I've found said that it was made with soured milk historically).

From The Settlement Cookbook (1945), in the discussion of dairy products (pp. 45-56):

Cream is the fat that rises to the top of the milk if left standing. For Whipping Cream, see page 498. Skim Milk is the milk left over after cream has been skimmed off. Buttermilk is the liquid left over after cream is churned into butter. ... Cultured Sour Cream and Buttermilk may be obtained from most milk dealers.

In this case, it doesn't specifically mention that soured milk is used, but I've seen other references from the late 1800s to early 1900s that said that butter was made from soured milk. (and one of them would occasionally say 'new milk' instead of 'milk', suggesting that their use of 'milk' was sour milk or buttermilk. I suspect that before refrigeration, it's quite possible that milk left to separate into cream would sour by the time it was finished. They do mention in that same section:

Sour Milk is valuable in cooking and may be obtained by keeping milk (preferably raw milk) undisturbed in a shallow covered pan at a temperature of 90° to 100°F. until it becomes thick and clabbered. If it sours too slowly it becomes bitter.

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    Reconstituted Buttermilk Powder.. maybe? King Arthur Flour Co. and Bob's Red Mill both make it. The drying process might give it the flavor notes you seek, and you can vary the viscosity by adding or reducing water. Just a thought.. not having tasted vintage buttermilk, it's a hard Q for me to answer.
    – Paulb
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 18:12
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    Skim milk wouldn't have the acid content that buttermilk does... This doesn't necessarily answer your question but most sites recommend a soured milk mixture if you don't have buttermilk... so a cup of milk with a tablespoon of either lemon juice or vinegar.
    – Catija
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 18:15
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    @Catija this is a rather bad substitute which does not come close to modern buttermilk at all in taste, the only use I have discovered for it is that it helps activate the baking soda - but if this is really what you are trying to do, you can simply use baking powder and milk instead of milk+acid+baking soda. It seems that Joe's goal here is to get the authentic taste and not just something that kinda works, so milk+vinegar is no better than milk without the vinegar.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 18:52
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    @MickLH : But I don't know how sour it's supposed to be. Or how fatty. So I can't just adjust 'to taste', because it's something that's not commonly available these days. It'd be the same if you were trying to use a foreign recipe and it called for ingredients not found in your area.
    – Joe
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 21:49
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    @MickLH This is a general question for a reason: it's about approximating the old-style buttermilk, regardless of the recipe it's to be used in; knowing the recipe won't tell you the characteristics of the buttermilk it calls for. If you want to claim that the only acceptable thing is actual old-style buttermilk, and that it's not worth trying to approximate it with modern ingredients, please write an answer. If you need clarification on the question, by all means ask for it, but preferably without implying the OP is badge-fishing.
    – Cascabel
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 22:22

5 Answers 5


Given the variabilities in "buttermilk" from place to place and time to time, you should get sufficiently equivalent results by substituting modern cultured buttermilk. That's the job it was designed to do.

Recipes from the early 19th century and before are notoriously vague. They were generally written more as reminders of something you already knew through experience, rather than detailed instructions for creating it from scratch. Quantities and temperatures were much harder to control, and so recipes basically assumed you'd recognize a dough with enough liquid or a sufficiently-roasted quail. (One of my favorite instructions from an 18th century cookbook: "Cook until it is enough".)

Given those wide margins, you should find that simply using cultured buttermilk will make the recipe work. It's true that it will lack the tiny bits of butter present in "true" buttermilk, but there isn't enough to have a radical effect on the result. The really important parts (dairy protein, water, acidity) are present, in about the same quantities they would be in true buttermilk.

You'd certainly notice the difference if you were to just drink it straight. If that's what you want, you're just going to have to find somebody who makes it, or do it yourself. I've found it's often available at the kinds of farmers markets that insist on local producers. Personally, I find it nasty, but YMMV.

So if you're trying to revive an old recipe, just start with commercial buttermilk. You're going to have to tweak it from there anyway. If it needs richness, add butter, but probably only a teaspoon per cup.

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    You could also try a mixture of milk and yoghurt (presumably a rather sharp natural yoghurt) or milk and sour cream as may be used as a substitute for cultured buttermilk. This would allow you to play with the proportions
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 20:37
  • "'Til it looks right" is alive and well today, I assure you. ;) Just not so much in written recipes.
    – jpmc26
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 22:33
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    If you are not looking for 100% accuracy then off-the-shelf buttermilk is likely to be your best bet. Making buttermilk is pretty easy. Just leave some heavy whipping cream out for 24 - 30 hours. Then fill a glass jar about half-way full with it, shake for about 10 minutes. The solids are butter, and the liquids are the buttermilk. Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 23:55
  • @DavidBaucum that's not even the easy way. Put in stand mixer for 10 minutes. No arm fatigue.
    – Catija
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 1:21

In the end, it seems that what the usage is, determines the product being called for.

I found an interesting Slate article about buttermilk. Apparently, over the years, the word "buttermilk" has referred to three different products:

So, prior to the 20th century, buttermilk could refer to at least three different categories of beverage: regular old milk that had gone sour; the sour byproduct of churning sour milk or cream into butter; and the “sweet” byproduct of churning fresh milk or cream into butter.

The reason for the discrepancy is that butter is made in two ways - with fresh, sweet cream and with leftover, slightly soured milk due to lack of refrigeration.

The confusion surrounding this drink dates back to the 18th century or before. Until the age of refrigeration, milk soured quickly in the kitchen, and most butter ended up being made from the slightly spoiled stuff. As a result, some historical sources use the word buttermilk in the Laura Ingalls Wilder sense, to describe the byproduct of butter-making; others use it to describe butter-making's standard ingredient at the time—milk that had gone sour from sitting around too long. To make matters more confusing, the butter-byproduct kind of buttermilk could be either “sour,” if you started out with the off milk that was itself sometimes called buttermilk, or “sweet,” if you started out with fresh cream (like Laura’s mom did).

It further posits that any baking recipe after the late 1800s is calling for sour buttermilk, so it's necessary to have something with acid content so that it can react with baking soda. Today's cultured buttermilk should work fine for that.

By the late 1800s, buttermilk had taken on a more specific meaning and usage in the kitchen. Cookbooks started calling for the sour version of buttermilk in recipes for bread made with baking soda. Church & Co., the company that would later create the ubiquitous Arm & Hammer label, first started processing and packaging sodium bicarbonate as baking soda in 1846. The new product was more reliable and faster to use than yeast, but it wouldn’t work unless mixed with an acid. In the 1860s, Church & Co. began distributing instructions for making baking-soda cornbread, biscuits, muffins, pancakes, and waffles—and it recommended the use of sour milk as an activator. “The farmer’s wife has always an acid free to her hands in the shape of sour milk or buttermilk, which can be used both as an acid to neutralize the Soda or Saleratus [an old-fashioned word for baking soda], also as a means of wetting the dough,” stated a 1900 edition of the booklet. (“Sour milk” and “buttermilk” may be meant as synonyms here.)

If the recipe doesn't call for baking soda, and it seems that a sweet flavor would be more likely, you'll probably want something more like fresh buttermilk - it's most similar to low fat or skim milk. While, yes, you can certainly make this at home by leaving cream in your stand mixer for 15 minutes or so, if that's not an option, you're most likely to find it at local dairies or at a farmer's market, though be sure that they're selling actual sweet buttermilk and not their own cultured product.

Butter-byproduct buttermilk, meanwhile, remains mostly the province of small farmers and DIYers. Large butter manufacturers now dry their butter byproducts and sell them to processed-food manufacturers as means of adding body and texture. (If you’ve ever eaten ice cream or a candy bar with “buttermilk solids” on its ingredients list, you’ve consumed the byproduct of butter.) In other words, the “good, fresh buttermilk” I’d read about as a child isn’t exactly easy to get your hands on.

And, as a test, the author used her homemade buttermilk in a recipe for biscuits:

Further, my homemade buttermilk didn’t reveal any special attributes when I tried to bake with it: A batch of buttermilk biscuits made using the DIY stuff (sans baking soda, since there wasn’t any acidity in the liquid) were indistinguishable from any biscuit made with regular milk: dry, crumbly, ho-hum.

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    +1 for the research! I knew there were differences but based on first hand experience, I still think Joe is probably not off course,
    – Cindy
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 1:33
  • Leaving cream in your mixer for 15 minutes makes what? Buttermilk or skim milk? I've never heard of that.
    – Rob
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 18:26
  • @Rob it makes butter and buttermilk. epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/…
    – Catija
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 18:27
  • So you mean mixing for 15 minutes?
    – Rob
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 18:28
  • @Rob Why would you just put it in the bowl without mixing?
    – Catija
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 18:29

My mother and father were both raised on farms in the early 1900's. They did not use soured milk to make butter. They used fresh milk that was neither homogenized or pasteurized.

I have had fresh churned butter and the remaining buttermilk on family farms when I was a bit younger. There was no sour taste. In fact the buttermilk was quite sweet.

The cultured buttermilk sold today is absolutely nothing like it. So, I would have to say that skim milk would be the closest in flavor to the buttermilk that came from our family members' farms.

That said, I know that people in different regions may have done things differently. So, I am not saying that this was the only way things were done, just that this is the way it was done where my parents were from.

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    Soured milk comes together as butter more easily, so most butter producers did it that way. There's nothing preventing you from doing it with sweet milk, though. It just takes more effort, and I think a lot of people liked the tangy taste. You can still get cultured butters that taste like that. The one thing that would be odd is that sweet buttermilk wouldn't provide acid for leavening. Most buttermilk recipes (even older ones) assume sour buttermilk. Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 22:30
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    @JoshuaEngel Point taken. :) These were not big dairy farms, etc. This was a time when people raised their own animals for food and dairy and grew their own vegetables. And as I said in my answer, I don't expect that this was the only way things were done. That's just my experience and, I'm sure, the same for some others.
    – Cindy
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 22:50
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    Over here (Germany) you'll still read on the label of your butter whether it is "sweet cream butter" (Süßrahmbutter) or "mildly soured" (mild gesäuert, the most common variety) or the sour cream version (Sauerrahmbutter). @JoshuaEngel: baking powder is a much newer invention (close to 1850 by Horsford/Liebig) than buttermilk - but anyways I'm pretty sure that also sweet buttermilk will turn sour when left standing long enough/warm enough (provided lactic acid bacteria are available).
    – cbeleites
    Commented Dec 18, 2016 at 0:57
  • @cbeleites Very interesting. Here (US), at least in mainstream channels, we only get sweet cream butter.
    – Cindy
    Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 20:23
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    Over here, baking soda has never reached the popularity I noticed in North America. It is regularly used for certain types of cake and cookies but usually not as the sole leavening agent: those recipies also use eggs and often also rum or wine. Also, yeast dough is frequently used for cakes and even more so for savoury baking. The idea of using baking soda for bread sounds really weird to us...
    – cbeleites
    Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 15:37

To substitute for buttermilk, mix one cup of regular milk with 1 tablespoon of white vinegar or lemon juice. Stir; let the mixture stand for approximately five minutes. Modify proportions appropriately for more or less "buttermilk substitute."

I have used this replacement and it works perfectly.

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    Yes, but this doesn't taste like buttermilk if you want to drink it out of a glass. It's chemically similar enough to work in a recipe but that doesn't make it a general substitute.
    – Catija
    Commented Dec 14, 2016 at 21:55
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    Well, considering the OP asked specifically for a recipe substitute, not for a beverage, I thought this would fill the bill.
    – David W
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 1:08
  • Apple cider vinegar also works.
    – bishop
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 2:45
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    OP is specifically not asking for a replacement for modern buttermilk, but for the differences between modern buttermilk and 19th century buttermilk, which may not be the same thing at all.
    – Joe M
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 18:15
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    OP is asking, as cleverly noted in the title of the thread (which I quote): "What should I use for old recipes that call for 'buttermilk'?" I'm not sure how one can misinterpret that.
    – David W
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 19:38

Buttermilk is usually up to 50% lactose, hence the sweet stickiness. Any manufactured/packet equivalent is not really equivalent, so don't bother. Try making butter from fresh unpasteurised grass-fed milk, it'll be genuine. I worked for 9 years in a large dairy factory. Got sick of the smell of milk!

  • 2
    The question specifically says that they don't want to make it themselves. I'm also not sure about the lactose content claims. With traditional buttermilk, the cream would have been left to ferment, which would have converted much of the lactose into lactic acid.
    – Catija
    Commented Dec 15, 2016 at 0:39

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