How to Make Buttermilk

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Buttermilk in front of butter
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

I shock people every time I chug a frosty glass of buttermilk, but I swear, they’re the ones who are missing out. It’s a habit I picked up after visiting a friend in Berlin many years ago, where he taught me that a glass of buttermilk was a common breakfast option along with the rolls, butter, jams, honey, deli meats, and cheeses that also made up a typical morning meal. I’ve been drinking it ever since and love its cultured dairy flavor, not at all unfamiliar to those who like to drink or eat keffir, yogurt, and other similar products.

The catch, though, is that here in the United States, most of what is sold as “buttermilk” is not real buttermilk. I still drink the supermarket stuff, but it’s not quite the same as true buttermilk, which is a byproduct of butter-making, as its name has been telling us all along. Most store-bought buttermilk is simply low-fat milk that’s been inoculated with cultures that help thicken it up and give it a characteristic tang.

Real buttermilk, on the other hand, starts with fresh cream that’s been fermented with the help of friendly bacteria into a thick cultured cream most commonly known today by its French name, crème fraîche. Once whipped past the point of no return, the crème fraîche breaks into a sloshy mix of rich, yellow butterfat floating in the liquid that remains: naturally low-fat, wonderfully tangy buttermilk.

It’s an easy thing to make at home, and is one of the only ways to get real buttermilk with fresher, brighter, and sweeter flavor compared to the fake stuff. And if you make your own crème fraîche from scratch, which is an easy thing to do (and actually requires some store-bought buttermilk to kick off the fermentation), it’s also a cost-effective way to get all three pricey products: crème fraîche, delicious cultured butter, and the best buttermilk ever.

Give it a try. I think there’s a good chance it might become a thing you chug down with relish too.

In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a food processor or in a large mixing bowl with a whisk, beat crème fraîche until it reaches and then passes the whipped stage, large globules of butterfat coalesce, and liquid begins sloshing all around it. The timing for this can vary depending on the tool used, but usually happens quickly with crème fraîche, in about 1 to 2 minutes.

Two image collage of adding creme fraiche to a stand mixer and after butter has separated from buttermilk
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Separate buttermilk from butterfat, straining it well. The buttermilk can now be enjoyed or refrigerated in a glass or jar until ready to drink. The cultured butterfat can be washed in a few changes of cold water until water runs clear, then kneaded into a mass, blotted dry with clean towels, and seasoned with salt, if desired. Once compressed into an even mass, it can be wrapped tightly in plastic or waxed paper and refrigerated until ready to use.

Side view of straining buttermilk from butter into a bowl
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

Stand mixer, food processor, or whisk

Make Ahead and Storage

The buttermilk can be refrigerated for up to 5 days. The cultured butter can be refrigerated, well wrapped, for up to one week; discard if it grows moldy or unpleasantly sour.

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