Sour Cream vs Buttermilk: What Are the Differences?

If you start making your own baked goods, you may notice that a lot of recipes call for either sour cream or buttermilk. Both of these products can be found in the dairy aisle but can appear very different and typically serve different purposes. So why are they both used in baking? Are they more similar or different from each other?

Both sour cream and buttermilk are made from dairy products that have been fermented using lactic acid. This causes the products to go sour and makes them great in baking. The acid in both products can help to make your baked goods more tender.

However, even though they can both be used in baking, there are some differences that you should consider before substituting them for one another. Generally speaking, there are some ways that you can substitute them, but others where you should just go to the grocery store and get the correct product.

What Is Buttermilk?

If you’ve ever ordered biscuits from a local restaurant or made homemade pancakes, chances are you’ve heard of buttermilk. Buttermilk is a common dairy-based ingredient that is made from milk that has been allowed to ferment and curdle slightly. 

This gives it a slightly sour taste that works well in baked goods like biscuits and pancakes. Some people also like to drink buttermilk on its own like regular milk with the addition of a small amount of pepper, but it is mostly used as an ingredient. 

Buttermilk starts with full-fat milk that has been allowed to ferment. This creates lactic acid which causes the milk to have that slightly sour flavor and curdle. Alternatively, you can use a small amount of vinegar or lemon juice in full-fat milk to create a similar effect.

The main reason that people use buttermilk in baking is because of the acidity that it provides. This acidity helps to break down the gluten and protein in the flour that can make the bread chewier. Using buttermilk makes your baked goods much more tender and fluffy which is great for foods like biscuits.

What Is Sour Cream?

Another common dairy product that is also fermented from lactic acid is sour cream. This thick cream has almost the texture of yogurt and has a great sour taste that makes it a super popular topping. It is also frequently used as a base for dressings since you can mix things into it to completely change the flavor.

To make sour cream you start off with a base of unflavored heavy cream. This is the same type of cream that is used to make whipped cream, just without the whipping. You can usually purchase it in a carton at the grocery store near the rest of the dairy products.

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After you’ve acquired your heavy cream you’ll want to add lactic acid. This is the bacteria that will cause the cream to thicken and give it that signature sour flavor that you’re looking for. If you’re making it at home, you can use vinegar or lemon juice to give a similar effect.

Ideally, you’ll want to let it ferment and curdle overnight before adding it to a recipe. So, if you’re planning on baking a recipe that requires sour cream, make sure to prep everything the night before. This will allow the curdling process to complete itself and make sure that your homemade sour cream tastes just like the store-bought version.

Can I Substitute Sour Cream for Buttermilk?

Since they are both dairy products that are fermented using lactic acid, it would make sense for you to be able to substitute them for each other, right? Generally speaking, you can substitute them but it will depend on the recipe and which you’re substituting.

In the case of sour cream for buttermilk, most of the time this is something that you can do fairly easily. The biggest issue that you’ll have with this substitution is the texture. Sour cream is made from a base of heavy cream, not milk, so it is much thicker than buttermilk. This could create a problem if your recipe uses buttermilk as the primary liquid.

To resolve this problem you’ll want to thin the sour cream out using water until it is roughly the same texture as buttermilk. Then you will make your measurements from this amount. So use 1 cup of the thinned out version, don’t measure the regular sour cream, and then thin it out or you’ll end up with too much liquid.

If you use sour cream in buttermilk’s place, you may notice a slight difference in the flavor, but it shouldn’t be too significant.

Can I Substitute Buttermilk for Sour Cream?

If you try to substitute buttermilk for sour cream, you may run into some extra challenges related to the texture. However, these are a bit more difficult to solve.

When a recipe calls for sour cream, it is counting on the thickness of the sour cream in the recipe. Buttermilk contains much more water and is much thinner meaning that it could result in a recipe that is overhydrated. 

If you are making a baked good, you may be able to use buttermilk if there are other liquids in the recipe. Then you just reduce the amount of liquid that is in the recipe overall to account for the extra moisture that the buttermilk adds. 

If you are using sour cream as the base for a dressing or as a topping for a baked potato then you won’t be able to substitute buttermilk. It is much too thin and won’t provide the same thick and creamy texture that you’re looking for.

Buttermilk vs. Sour Cream: Differences and Similarities

Since they are made the same way, sour cream, and buttermilk are relatively similar products in the grand scheme of things. After all, they’re both typically made from cow’s milk and use some form of lactic acid to ferment and curdle. 

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However, when you break it down and look at each product individually, you will find that the products have marked differences. Some of the aspects that you’ll see differences in are in the taste, texture, uses, nutritional profile, and how they are produced.

Taste and Texture

One of the most obvious differences that you’ll find when comparing buttermilk and sour cream is in the taste and texture of the two products.

When you eat either one of these products, you’ll notice that they both have a creamy “milky” flavor that is enhanced by quite a bit of tanginess. This tanginess comes from the lactic acid that is added to the product to allow it to go through the souring process. However, sour cream typically has a much more intense sour flavor, hence the name sour cream.

Even more evident than the difference in flavor is the difference between the textures. When you add lactic acid to a dairy product, it causes the product to thicken so both of these products will be somewhat thick. However, they start off with different bases which affect the thickness.

Since buttermilk starts off with a fully liquid whole milk base, the end product will also be relatively liquidy. It will be easy to pour, runs, and can be drunk from a cup. 

Sour cream starts off with a base of heavy cream which is already quite thick, but still pourable. After the acid is added, the cream thickens until it has a texture similar to yogurt. Spoonable and somewhat pourable, but too thick to drink. This is why sour cream is frequently used as a topping, you won’t have to worry about it running off the food.

Uses

Another place where you can see both similarities and differences is in how the products are used. Both sour cream and buttermilk are frequently used in baked goods. 

This is because the acid in both products can help to break down the tough gluten proteins that are found in most flours. This will result in baked goods that are much more tender and enjoyable without having to buy special baking flour that already has the proteins broken down.

However, you will still see differences in exactly what recipes these products are used in. Buttermilk is very frequently used in baked goods like biscuits that need to be light and fluffy with minimal chewiness. For this reason, they are also used in pancakes and other dessert-like bread.

In contrast, sour cream is most commonly used in dense baked goods like brownies. The density of the sour cream can help to make your brownies nice and fudgy. It can also help them to stay moist and so you don’t have any issues with a dry, crumbly brownie after a few days.

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Sour cream also has one unique use from the buttermilk. This product is frequently used as a topping and as a base for dipping sauces. Just add some dill and other spices in and you’ll have a delicious dip for all your favorite foods.

Nutrition

Another big difference between the two is in their nutritional content. Although they are both dairy products, their base of milk vs. cream results in two products with a completely different nutritional breakdowns.

The biggest difference between the two is in their fat content. 100 grams of buttermilk usually has around 1 gram of fat. This is because even though it comes from full-fat milk, it has a much higher water quantity. In comparison, 100 grams of sour cream has over 19 grams of fat. This is because it is made from heavy cream that has been fermented.

The other big difference between the two is in their caloric content. 100 grams of buttermilk has roughly 43 calories whereas the same amount of sour cream has 198 calories. This is largely due to the fat content causing the calories to skyrocket. 

The other nutritional markers, like protein and carbohydrates, are within a gram of each other and don’t significantly affect the nutritional value of the product.

Production

Finally, the last aspect where you’ll see similarities and differences between the two is how they are produced.

Overall, the production process for both is very similar. The base of the product will have lactic acid bacteria added to it and then allowed to sit and ferment at room temperature. This will usually take anywhere from 12 to 36 hours for the process to finish. Once the product has fully fermented it will be packaged and refrigerated to stop the fermentation process.

The only real difference between the two products is their base product and how long they have to ferment. Buttermilk is made from a whole-milk base whereas sour cream comes from a heavy cream base. Sour cream is typically fermented longer than buttermilk allowing more fermentation to occur, resulting in a tangier flavor.

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Final Thoughts

If you’ve never tried them before, the next time you go to the supermarket try picking up a container of sour cream and buttermilk. They won’t be perfect for every recipe, but in a lot of recipes, they can completely elevate the flavor and texture.

If you normally use regular milk in your pancakes, try buttermilk for an extra tender pancake that is super moist and fluffy.

If you’re a brownie connoisseur, try adding some sour cream to your brownie recipe. This will cause your brownies to be extra fudgy and moist. This can help to prevent your brownies from becoming hard and crumbly after sitting in the fridge for a couple of days as well.