Difference between Buttermilk, Sour Cream, or Milk for Baking


Baking is a fun, exciting way to make tasty, delicious treats. At the heart of it, baking is a simple chemical process. Everything has to be measured out carefully for that perfect finish.

This balancing act is always in the back of every baker’s mind. It’s such a major part of baking that we decided to tackle it head-on. So, today, we’re going to talk about the difference between buttermilk, sour cream, or milk for baking.

Each ingredient has certain chemical compounds that work to enhance your baked goods and boost their flavor. Keep reading to learn more about each of these three ingredients, and how to best use them in your baking.

The Difference between Buttermilk, Sour Cream, or Milk

In any baked goods recipe, there’s a fine balance between acidic and alkaline ingredients. If there’s not enough acidity, your end products won’t rise the way they should.

Buttermilk and sour cream tend to be more acidic than regular milk. That’s why they’re typically combined with baking soda, which has a more alkaline nature.

In contrast, milk is best suited for recipes that use baking powder. One reason is that baking powder has an acidic agent already built-in. This means you don’t need to add any more to your recipe.

Baking with Buttermilk

Hoosier Hill Farm Buttermilk Powder, Gluten Free & Hormone Free, Made In USA, 2 Lb

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of buttermilk? Pancakes? Biscuits? All these mouth-watering baked goods are made with buttermilk.

So, what is buttermilk exactly? In its simplest forms, buttermilk is what’s left over after making butter. So, it’s low in fat and one of the healthiest choices on our list.

Buttermilk makes the final product more tender and moist. The reason? It contains lactic acid that helps break down the gluten strands found in baked goods. Not only that, but lactic acid helps produce certain types of bacteria that smooth out the batter’s consistency and make it softer.

In addition, buttermilk has small amounts of baking soda. This well-known chemical leavening agent causes the batter to rise during the baking process.

The science behind it is that baking soda is alkaline. When it blends in with the acids in buttermilk, they react and form bubbles of carbon dioxide. Then, once in the oven, the heat during the baking process causes these bubbles to expand.

As a result, you get fluffy baked goods, such as pancakes. If you use buttermilk to make biscuits, the chemical reaction lifts the dough, causing the layers to separate and become flaky. With muffins or cakes, these bubbles give them that crumbly, yet moist, feel we all know and love.

A third reason is that buttermilk has the highest water content, compared with sour cream and milk. This helps liquify the batter without drying it the final up, as milk does.

Fun fact: you can make buttermilk at home. If your recipe calls for some buttermilk and you don’t have any, try this homemade alternative:

  1. Measure one tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar. You can also use 1¾ teaspoons cream of tartar.
  2. Add the ingredient of your choice to a cup of warm milk.
  3. Let the mixture sit for up to 10 minutes.

Buttermilk Substitutes

If you prefer to replace buttermilk in your recipe, try one of the following:

  • One cup yogurt
  • ¼ cup milk and ¾ cup yogurt
  • ¼ cup milk and ¾ cup sour cream

Baking with Sour Cream

PRAIRIE FARMS SOUR CREAM 16 OZ PACK OF 3

Sour cream is famous for its thick, creamy consistency. It’s made by acidifying regular milk, giving it a distinct tangy flavor. Its acidic nature is what makes your baked goods tender and springy to the touch

A couple of sample recipes that call for sour cream are sponge cakes and pound cakes. Since these baked goods tend to come out dry and flat, sour cream gives them the buoyancy they need. It also boosts their moisture content.

Keep in mind that sour cream is higher in fat but lower in water content. If you’re using sour cream in your recipe, but don’t want the added fat, you can use a fat-free or light version.

However, it’s worth mentioning that these two alternatives may alter the taste of your final product. Not only will the flavor be different, but the consistency will be affected as well. It may not come out as smooth and rich as you’d like.

Sour Cream Substitutes

If your recipe calls for sour cream, you can use either regular cream or yogurt. They’re both good substitutes because they all contain the bacteria Streptococcus diacetylactis. This bacteria helps boost the acidity of your recipe while reducing its pH balance. This, in turn, helps soften and tenderize baked goods.

Like buttermilk, sour cream contains lactic acid. This acid helps break down the gluten strands in baked goods for a moist and tasty final product.

You can use buttermilk in place of sour cream. However, buttermilk has a more fluid consistency. So, you’ll need to add butter to get the same consistency as sour cream.

To replace one cup sour cream, mix one cup warm milk cream with one tablespoon lemon juice. Let the mixture sit overnight, and you’ll have curdled milk cream that you can use as sour cream in your recipes.

You can also beat together these two ingredients:

  • ¾ cup buttermilk
  • ⅓ cup butter
[Related Article: Can You Use Ricotta Cheese Instead Of Sour Cream?]

Baking with Milk

Milk is a common, everyday ingredient. It’s more convenient because you can find milk pretty much in almost every home.

Milk may give the impression that it adds moisture to your recipe, but it’s quite the opposite. If you’re not careful, milk can make your final product dry, bulky, and even bland.

The reason is that milk has more of an alkaline pH balance. Furthermore, it can’t balance out the acidity of baked goods. This reduces the amount of carbon dioxide bubbles. If the batter consists of too few bubbles, it won’t be able to rise the way it should while it’s baking. This causes your baked goods to become dry and hard.

Milk Substitute

You can use buttermilk as a substitute for milk. Remember that buttermilk is high in acidity, which reacts with baking soda. Together, they form a leavening agent, which helps make your final product fluffy and moist.

At the same time, buttermilk can disrupt the action of the baking powder. It prevents it from reacting, so the final product sags once it’s had a chance to cool down. The two together can also give your recipe an odd taste.

To balance out the difference following these two tips for every cup of buttermilk used:

  • Use 2 teaspoons less baking powder
  • Add half a teaspoon more of baking soda
[Related Article: 10 Best Dry Milk Substitute List You Need To Start Baking]

Our Final Verdict

After reading about the difference between buttermilk, sour cream, or milk for baking, consider yourself a baking expert! You have the know-how to choose the right ingredient for your next recipe.

For example, if you use buttermilk or sour cream, you’ll get a moist cake that’s soft and springy. On the other hand, if you use milk, your cake will have a firm and solid structure. You’ll also notice that it has a nice, golden crust all over.

There you have it! Three different ingredients with three different chemical compounds to give you three different results.

So, the next time you bake something, use each of the three ingredients we talked about today. Then, see which one gives you luscious flavor without compromising any of its moistness. You may also be keen on 10 Best Storage Containers for Baking Supplies and Buying Guide.

Jessica Blythe

Jessica Blythe is a passionate home cook, preparing delicious home cook meals daily for her family, She also enjoys baking as her favorite hobby.

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