When you bake a cake from scratch, you already know you need to follow the directions exactly as they’re printed. If your recipe calls for milk or buttermilk, many people think the two ingredients are interchangeable, but is that really true?
Can you use milk when the recipe calls for buttermilk and vice versa? A few things must be considered before determining the answer.
Learning the Basics
When a cake recipe calls for a liquid to be added, it isn’t just to make it easier to mix the ingredients together. Liquids such as water and milk might seem like they’re interchangeable, but in fact, their fat content and acidity level are different and, therefore, the texture and even the taste of the final product may differ.
Here is how the breakdown occurs:
- When the batter is mixed together, the fat content is what provides the moisture and, thus, tenderizes the cake. The lower the fat content, the less tender the cake will be.
- The batter’s acid content directly affects its starch gelation and protein interaction.
If the recipe calls for one type of liquid and you choose another type, you essentially change the way the fats and acidity levels interact with one another. Whole milk has .14% acidity level and 9 grams of fat per 8-ounce serving.
Buttermilk, on the other hand, has 1% acidity level and 2.5 grams of fat per 8-ounce serving. This means that when the cake is baked, it will have a different taste and texture depending on the type of milk you choose.
Let’s Talk Practical Considerations
What does all of this mean in practical terms? It doesn’t mean the cake will taste worse – or even better – with milk as opposed to buttermilk. What it does mean is that the taste and texture will differ somewhat.
In most cases, cakes made with whole milk are usually a bit darker in color than cakes made with buttermilk. In addition, the crumbs of cakes made with milk are a little coarser as well.
Sometimes, the taste of the cakes made with milk is a little more bland than cakes made with buttermilk or other ingredients, such as sour cream.
Does this mean that cakes made with milk instead of buttermilk aren’t as good? Not necessarily. If the recipe calls for milk, you should definitely use it, and it should be whole milk instead of skim or low-fat milk unless the recipe says otherwise.
Cakes made with buttermilk tend to be lighter in texture and have crumbs that are finer and more tender than cakes made with whole milk. Both buttermilk and milk cakes come out incredibly moist; however, so if moisture is what’s most important to you, the “buttermilk versus milk” debate can be settled quickly.
So, if you’re considering whether you should use milk or buttermilk the next time you bake a cake, here are a few things to remember:
- Whatever the recipe calls for, it’s always best to stick with that.
- Milk and buttermilk both make the cake moist, but the texture and taste will be a little different with each.
- When the recipe calls for milk, you should always use whole milk unless the recipe says otherwise.
- Buttermilk is especially good when used in pound cakes.
Also remember that buttermilk has less fat than whole milk does, as well as more acid levels. If that bothers you, you can add a little extra baking soda to the batter to make sure the cake doesn’t turn out too much on the tangy side. Higher acidic levels equal a more tangy taste.
If this is something you like, you don’t have to add the baking soda. If it isn’t, just add a teaspoon or two in addition to what the recipe calls for.
What If You Don’t Have Buttermilk?
Even if the recipe calls for buttermilk, you may not have it on hand. After all, buttermilk is not something most people keep in their homes on a regular basis. Not to worry, because all you have to do is place one tablespoon of vinegar in a one-cup measuring cup, then fill the rest of the cup with milk. Wait 10 minutes, then use it like regular buttermilk.
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.