Buttermilk and heavy cream are used in similar recipes, but they’re quite different and can’t be easily swapped. The main differences are texture (buttermilk is thicker and lumpy, while heavy cream is quite thin), taste (buttermilk is tangy, heavy cream sweetish), and fat content (heavy cream has 20 to 30 times more of it).
Because of those differences, substituting one for the other is quite difficult and can work only in specific scenarios.
Interested in learning about the differences, similarities, and swapping strategies?
If so, this article is for you. Read on.
When to Substitute
Buttermilk and heavy cream aren’t interchangeable, and swapping one with the other can only work if you adjust other ingredients in the recipe.
For instance, if you’re substituting heavy cream for buttermilk in pancakes, you also need to replace baking soda with baking powder for the pancakes to rise. And in certain contexts, swapping isn’t an option, as is the case when you need whipped cream.
That’s the gist of it. Now, let’s get into the nitty-gritty.
Can You Substitute Buttermilk for Heavy Cream?
You can’t swap buttermilk for heavy cream if you need it whipped, for a dessert, as a coffee creamer, or to whiten a soup. But if you need that heavy cream for a cooked or baked dish where it’s a part of the batter (e.g., muffin batter), you might try using buttermilk instead.
To do so, you pour in a bit less buttermilk than how much heavy cream is needed and add some extra fat like melted butter, oil, or egg yolks to make up for the much lower fat content of buttermilk. And consider adding a bit of sugar, as heavy cream is somewhat sweet, and buttermilk is quite tangy.
As you can tell, it’s not a simple swap but one that requires at least a bit of cooking intuition. For instance, if whatever you’re cooking uses a lot of heavy cream, using buttermilk instead might result in a somewhat tangy taste that you might not be happy about.
And truth be told, it’s easier to replace heavy cream with plain milk and melted butter in the above context.
Long story short, subbing buttermilk for heavy cream is quite tricky. And it’s probably better to search for a similar recipe that doesn’t include heavy cream or use a better alternative, such as milk combined with butter.
(The same is true when you’re trying to use sour cream instead of heavy cream.)
Can I Substitute Heavy Cream for Buttermilk?
You can sometimes use heavy cream instead of buttermilk, but you should note that it will make whatever you’re cooking more rich and creamy. And unless you add a bit of lemon juice or vinegar, you’ll lose the tangy flavor that buttermilk brings.
Plus, if the dish uses baking soda and doesn’t include any other acidic ingredient, and you don’t add the mentioned vinegar or lemon juice, you’ll need to swap baking powder for baking soda.
(That’s why it’s much easier to substitute sour cream for buttermilk, as both are acidic and activate baking soda.)
When subbing heavy cream for buttermilk, use a smaller amount, like half or a quarter of the amount, and replace the rest with milk or even water. This will make it thinner, but also cut back on the amount of fat in whatever you’re cooking.
Or simply replace buttermilk with milk and a teaspoon of lemon juice or half a teaspoon of vinegar per cup. That should be easier to work with, and you won’t be dealing with a lot of extra fat.
Alternatively, kefir is a great substitute for buttermilk if you have a bottle on hand.
Overall, you can play with swapping heavy cream for buttermilk, but there are alternatives much easier to work with. And ones that you quite likely have on hand, like the milk and lemon juice (or vinegar) duo.
Buttermilk vs. Heavy Cream: Differences and Similarities
The main differences between heavy cream and buttermilk are:
- Fat content. Heavy cream has 10 to 30 times more fat than buttermilk, depending on the varieties you compare.
- Texture. Heavy cream is similar to milk, while buttermilk is much thicker and lumpy.
- Taste. Buttermilk is tangy, while heavy cream is somewhat sweet.
- Acidity. Buttermilk is acidic enough to activate baking soda. Heavy cream isn’t.
- Whippability. You can whip heavy cream but cannot buttermilk.
That’s the short version of it.
Next, let’s talk about the similarities and differences between the two in several contexts.
Taste and Texture
Taste- and texture-wise, buttermilk and heavy cream are quite different, and it’s simple to tell which is which.
Buttermilk is tangy, similar to kefir and yogurt, and that slight acidity is why buttermilk is a staple in baking. On the other hand, heavy cream is somewhat sweet, which adds a nice contrast to soups, but doesn’t add much to the flavor of baked goods.
For texture, heavy cream is pretty thin and quite similar to milk. There’s a slight richness to it, but nothing to write home about. Buttermilk is much thicker and curdled, which, combined with its signature taste, makes it a tasty drink. Unfortunately, you can’t tell the same about heavy cream.
Here’s how the texture of both compares:
You can sometimes find heavy cream that’s yogurt-like thick. But it’ll always be somewhat sweet and without any curdles, unlike the buttermilk that’s tangy and lumpy.
|In baking muffins, biscuits, cakes, scones, and so on
|Making whipped cream
|In salad dressings (like ranch)
|Drinking it straight
|Baked goods, like muffins, cakes, and pies
|Pancakes, egg scrambles, and the like
There’s a lot of overlap between how buttermilk and heavy cream are used. Both are staples in baked goods (though for different purposes), salad dressings, and marinades.
But each has its unique uses, too.
For instance, you can’t whip buttermilk, so if you need whipped cream, having a bottle of buttermilk on hand doesn’t help you at all.
Conversely, heavy cream is not good if you’re looking for something pleasantly refreshing to drink. Unless you add it to a nice cup of coffee, of course.
Finally, buttermilk is acidic enough to react with baking soda, which leavens baked goods, and heavy cream isn’t. That’s why I suggest adding some lemon juice or vinegar, or subbing baking powder for baking soda, when substituting heavy cream for buttermilk.
Next up, let’s talk nutrition.
The macronutrient profiles of buttermilk and heavy cream are fairly similar, except for how much fat each has got. Here’s the breakdown (per 100g):
|Heavy cream [source]
The protein and carbohydrate numbers are both pretty low and fairly similar. The main difference lies in the fat content, as heavy cream typically has 10 to 30 times more fat than buttermilk. The exact number depends on whether you go with a reduced-fat or full-fat buttermilk.
(The fat content of heavy cream also varies a bit for different brands, but it’s typically between 30 and 40 percent, as opposed to 1 to 3 percent for buttermilk.)
That disparity makes heavy cream a much more calorie-dense product. So if you’re watching your fat intake or overall calories, make sure you don’t go overboard with heavy cream. Or stick to milk combined with lemon juice when subbing for buttermilk.
The buttermilk and heavy cream production processes are quite different, but in both cases, they start with milk.
Cream is a high-fat liquid that separates from cow’s milk and ends up on top of it. Nowadays, the separation process is accelerated by using centrifuges. That fat-rich liquid is then turned into half-and-half, heavy cream, double cream, and other cream varieties.
(The separation of fat on top might remind you of oil separating on the surface of peanut butter.)
The remaining milk is then homogenized, cultured with lactic acid bacteria, and left to ferment at about room temperature. After 12 to 36 hours of fermentation that turns lactose into lactic acid, buttermilk is ready. That fermentation process is what makes buttermilk thick and tangy.
As for heavy cream, there’s no fermentation, so the flavor stays relatively unchanged and the texture thin.
The Bottom Line
Buttermilk and heavy cream are quite different.
The former is thicker and lumpy, while the latter is relatively thin. Flavor-wise, buttermilk is tangy and a bit acidic, while heavy cream is somewhat sweet, so again, two very different products.
Because of that, they’re not interchangeable, and substituting one with the other usually requires adjusting other parts of the recipe too. Plus, there are much better and easier ways to substitute both buttermilk and heavy cream that resemble the original much more and don’t need nearly as much experience to pull off properly.
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