Buttermilk vs. Heavy Cream: is buttermilk similar to heavy cream?

Published Categorized as Ingredients

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Whilst buttermilk is a popular ingredient in some of our favourite treats, such as biscuits and pancakes, it can also be slightly harder to come across than your regular milks and creams. On the other hand, many recipes, both savoury and sweet, can call for heavy cream. Heavy cream gives a delicious and rich flavor and texture to many meals and desserts and many chefs would consider it a necessity in the kitchen.

But what happens if you have no buttermilk, or no heavy cream? Can you substitute buttermilk for heavy cream? Can heavy cream be replaced with the sweet, tangy flavour of buttermilk? Well today I am going to be answering this. In this article I will explain some of the key differences between buttermilk and heavy cream and then go on to work out whether these differences are too large to allow one to be used in place of the other.

Table of Contents

Buttermilk vs Heavy Cream_Alices Kitchen

What is Buttermilk?

Traditionally, buttermilk is the liquid that remains after churning the butter out of cream, creating a fermented dairy drink. Buttermilk is a lot more common in warmer climates, as unrefrigerated milk will become sour more quickly. Because buttermilk is the liquid leftover after the butter is scooped out, it has quite a rich flavor but is still very low in fat, as all of the fat ends up in the butter. It is full of healthy cultures (harmless lactic acid bacteria) that develop naturally when cream is left at room temperature. The cultures allowed for buttermilk to keep longer than regular milk, which is why it is used for cooking and baking.

However, as time has gone on, it is not as common for butter to be made in small quantities in churns, and so the rich tasting liquid that is buttermilk, is no longer developed. Instead, buttermilk is developed by most dairies these days by using regular, pasteurized milk and combining it with cultures. This can then be bought in bottles and cartons in grocery stores. Store-bought buttermilk is often thicker and tangier than traditionally made buttermilk, so if a recipe calls for it then you should try to stick to store-bought to ensure it has the correct flavour and acidity. The acid in buttermilk helps with the leavening of the recipe, so many recipes will also require baking soda to help balance this out.

What is Buttermilk Used For?

Buttermilk is most commonly used in products like buttermilk biscuits or pancakes. However, the low fat content means it is a popular choice to have with breakfast cereals or porridges, and can also work great in certain breads, such as cornbread, as it brings a sour flavor and isn’t thick enough to alter the consistency of the dough.

What Does Buttermilk Taste Like?

As mentioned, buttermilk contains a lot of acid and so the flavor can be quite sour. This can work perfectly with sweeter treats though as the sweet and sour flavors combine well with each other and help to balance things out.

Buttermilk is one of those flavors that you either love or you hate. Personally, once you get used to that tangy hint, it can be delicious and can actually bring something to a recipe that may have been quite bland.

A lot of cakes call for buttermilk as it helps preserve the cakes for longer as it doesn’t go out of date as quickly as regular milk. However, when mixed in with cake batter the flavor of buttermilk often makes very little difference.

The fact that it has curdled means that the milk has a slightly more yellow color to it than regular milk or cream, but this is simply just due to the acidity and should not suggest the milk may be out of date, unlike when regular milk has a yellow tone or thicker consistency.

Key Qualities of Buttermilk

To sum it up, buttermilk has some key factors to consider when comparing it to other dairy products:

  • Produced from cows
  • Traditionally the sour liquid leftover from churning butter
  • Cultured (curdled) by lactic acid bacteria
  • Has a tangy flavor
  • Slightly yellow in color
  • Used in cakes, biscuits, pancakes and cornbread
  • Nutritional profile (per 100g):
    • 40 calories
    • 116mg calcium
    • 4mg cholesterol
    • 105mg sodium
    •  0.9g fat
    • 0.5g saturated fat
    • 1mg vitamin C
Buttermilk vs Heavy Cream_Alices Kitchen

What is Heavy Cream?

On the other hand, heavy cream is a product that derives straight from cow’s milk but uses the high-fat part. Heavy cream is a very thick substance and usually consists of around 36% to 40% fat. It can often be referred to as heavy whipping cream, as although it is similar to regular whipping cream, heavy cream has a higher fat percentage than almost all other forms of fresh cream.

Whilst buttermilk is a byproduct of churned butter, heavy cream is produced long before this. Heavy cream forms when fresh milk is left to stand and the heavy cream rises to the top and can be scraped off. This top layer is the fattest layer of liquid formed by the milk. If you are buying commercial heavy cream, it can often contain added vitamins, stabilizers and thickeners, but can also have sugar or vanilla added to it to add an even sweeter flavor.

What is Heavy Cream Used For?

Heavy cream is typically used in cakes or icing, or can be used to serve alongside a dessert, hence why it sometimes has additives that can sweeten the flavor even more. It can be poured, but can also firm up when whisked, meaning it can work well as a whipped frosting for a cake or can be piped nicely onto a dessert.

Alternatively, heavy whipping cream can also be used for savory meals. Quite often soups can have heavy whipping cream added to them to help thicken them up and bring that rich texture. It can also be added to sauces, such as a mushroom sauce or a cheese sauce, and this helps to thicken up the sauce without altering the flavor too much.

What Does Heavy Cream Taste Like?

Because heavy cream comes from the fattest part of the milk, it is also the most rich and dense in flavor. It has a very sweet, creamy flavor and often needs very little added to it in order to enjoy it. Of course, this rich flavor also comes with the added fat content and calorie count, meaning it is a delicious and sweet treat, but not ideal for anyone trying to diet.

Heavy cream keeps its beautiful, white color from the milk, unlike buttermilk. However, it does have a much thicker consistency which, much like the yellowness of buttermilk, should not be confused with it being out of date or unsafe to eat, it simply is just the texture due to the higher fat content.

Key Qualities of Heavy Cream

  • Produced from cow’s milk
  • Made from the high fat part of fresh milk
  • Thick consistency
  • Sweet and creamy flavor
  • White in colour
  • Used in cakes, soups, icings, chocolate, sauces
  • Nutritional Profile (per 100g):
    • 345 calories
    • 125mg calcium
    • 113mg cholesterol
    • 44mg sodium
    • 37g fat
    •  23g saturated fat
    • 0mg vitamin C

How to Make My Own Buttermilk

If you cannot get a hold of buttermilk, you can ferment your own milk at home and use this for your recipe. Adding lemon juice, vinegar, or cream of tartar to regular milk and leaving it to set will help create a similar substance to buttermilk. Alternatively, you can use sour cream, plain

yogurt or buttermilk powder, as these have a similar acidic flavour and texture.

How to Make My Own Heavy Cream

Making your own heavy cream is a lot easier than you may think as well. All you need is whole milk, butter and a little bit of elbow grease. To make 1 cup of heavy cream, mix 2/3 cup of whole milk with 1/3 cup melted butter and blend until it thickens. It really is as easy as that. Alternatively, if you don’t have milk on hand, you can also use 1/6 cup butter and 7/8 cup half-and-half.

Buttermilk Vs Heavy Cream

So, now that we have a good understanding of what each product is and what it consists of, it is time to get to business!

It is clear from the summaries of nutritional profiles that both products are very different in terms of their fat content, calorie count, but also flavor and texture. However, the real question is whether or not the differences between the two are too big to be able to substitute one for the other.

Can I Substitute Buttermilk for Heavy Cream?

Well, in simple terms, you can in some situations but in others you are not able to substitute buttermilk with heavy cream or heavy cream with buttermilk. It really depends on what you are making and the purpose of the milk or cream. The acidity of buttermilk means that it will not work in certain recipes and may cause a tangy taste, but the thickness of heavy cream means it may not work in a recipe calling for something slightly runnier.

As previously mentioned, buttermilk is commonly used in baking to help create a fluffier texture, but to also help preserve the cake. It is also used in bread as the acidity helps to break down the gluten meaning you not only end up with lighter, fluffier cakes, but can also be perfect for a lighter loaf of bread as well.

On the other hand, heavy cream is extremely rich and holds well if whipped. This means it is typically used to help combine ingredients for sauces, but also used in desserts and pastries and whipped to be used as an icing or decoration.

As a result, substituting one for the other would, more often than not, be unsuccessful. The thickness of heavy cream means that the runnyness of buttermilk would not hold the same and would not be able to be whipped and used in the same setting. Likewise, the tanginess of buttermilk means that it would not provide the same flavor if replaced with cream.

The acidity in buttermilk also helps to create fluffy batters and doughs, and therefore substituting it with heavy cream would not only thicken the mixture, but wouldn’t have the same gluten breakdown either.

Finally, the nutritional benefits of both are very different and so it is important to remember that using heavy cream in place of buttermilk will greatly increase the fat content and the calorie count of your dish.

What can I use in place of buttermilk?

If you do not have the ingredients to create your own buttermilk, you can also combine a small amount of white vinegar with regular milk and leave it to set. The sour taste can also be replaced with yogurt or sour cream, however these do have a higher fat content which is important to consider if you are sticking to a certain diet.

What can I use in place of heavy cream?

In place of heavy cream, you can look for single cream and add a small amount of butter to help thicken it. Alternatively, you can use sour cream in place of it if you are using it in a savoury dish. Similarly, you can replace it with crème fraiche if using it in a pastry or a dessert.

However, the best alternative for heavy cream is actually whipping cream. This is slightly less thick than heavy cream but most content is quite similar, though slightly lower in fat content, and once whipped it will hold the same and give the same thick texture as heavy cream.

Final Thoughts

So, to conclude things in simple terms, you should not swap out your buttermilk for heavy cream and vice versa.

The taste extremely differs and buttermilk will provide your dish with a tangier flavour. On top of the taste, the textures vary a substantial amount and so in most cases heavy cream will be too thick to replace buttermilk, and buttermilk will be too thin to replace heavy cream.

If used in a cake batter, buttermilk will help break the gluten down to give a fluffier final product, however the taste of both will not come through the cake too much and so in this instance you would be okay to substitute one for the other.

Further to this, the nutritional benefits of each product differ greatly and so this is important to consider if swapping one for the other. Buttermilk has a very low fat content and so it would be a healthier option to cook with.

Both buttermilk and heavy cream are easy to make yourself, and so this would be the best option if you do not have the necessary ingredients to hand. Alternatively, both have many options that would work as a better substitute and so if you have access to any of these then it would be best to opt for them.

When mixing one into a sauce, the flavor may alter and the sauce may not be as thick. When used as an icing or to fill a dessert, buttermilk will not hold and be shaped the same way heavy cream will when it is whipped. Heavy cream does not hold the same acidity as buttermilk and so its effect on cakes and bread will not be as delightful.

Overall, avoid substituting buttermilk with heavy cream wherever possible, but try not to worry too much if it is only an addition to your dish and you are not keeping an eye on your calories.


Can you substitute heavy cream for buttermilk?

Heavy cream would not be a good substitute for buttermilk due to the flavor, texture, and consistency differences between the two.

Is buttermilk healthier than heavy cream?

Buttermilk is a lot lower in fat content and calories than heavy cream.

Can I use heavy cream instead of buttermilk for fried chicken?

Heavy cream will bring a denser consistency to the outside of your fried chicken and may be too heavy to be enjoyable. It also will have a slightly different flavor. If you are using heavy cream for your fried chicken then it would be best to mix in some lemon juice with the crem first.

What’s the difference between buttermilk and cream?

Buttermilk is the leftover liquid from churning butter. This means it is lower in fat content and has a tangy flavor. Heavy cream is the layer created at the top of milk and is full of fat. It has a very rich and sweet flavor with a much thicker texture.

What is a good substitute for heavy cream?

You could use whipping cream or regular cream in place of heavy cream. Alternatively, you could use sour cream or creme fraiche or you could make your own heavy cream by combining regular milk or cream with melted butter and allowing it to thicken.