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Seb's Baking Helpline: Milk vs Buttermilk vs sour cream in Cakes

Samin Nosrat, James Beard Foundation Book Award Winner for her book Salt Fat Acid Heat,said, “Recipes don’t make food taste good. People do.” I’m in the process of reading this brilliant book and it is blatantly apparent that a huge factor of being a great cook (or baker) is knowing how food works.

I can supply you with all the recipes I research and come up with, but if I don’t also share my knowledge with you it won’t help you become a better baker. You can see patterns in your baking, but when you KNOW what is happening with the food because of different things being added or taken away that is where real learning and understanding takes place.

Today is the first part in a new series I’m doing on my website called Seb’s Baking Helpline. This is where I will share information I learn about food and baking, answer questions you have, share resources I’ve found useful in baking etc. I plan to do this bi-weekly and I’m really excited about it! I feel this will bring up a dialogue between all of us and we can all become great bakers together.

That being said, this week I wanted to share something I have been learning about lately.

Milk vs Buttermilk vs Sour Cream in Cakes

There tends to be one of these three liquids in every cake. I never understood why you would use buttermilk instead of milk and I never realized there are some cakes that contain sour cream! I did some digging into why each is used and here’s what I found:

First, you should know a little about these liquids. In each of the three there are two key factors at play; acid and fat.

- Fat

a. Fat will generally affect the richness of a cake.

b. The fat will also affect tenderness, coating flour and act as a barrier between the proteins and water, which slows down gluten development.

- Acid

a. Acid also affects tenderness, by shortening, or tenderizing gluten strands to make them less tough, thus tender.

b. Acid and baking soda will react together, creating additional lightness in a cake.

Milk Acidity 0.14*

Fat 9g

Characteristics in cake:

-coarser crumb

-darker color cake

-milder overall flavor

World renowned chef, Eddy Van Damme said, “What most people don’t know is that milk actually dries out rather than adds moisture to many recipes.” If you desire a drier cake, reach for milk.

Want to use milk instead of buttermilk in a recipe?

1. For each cup of milk you substitute in the recipe, add two teaspoons baking powder and take away half a teaspoon baking soda from the.

2. Add a splash of vinegar or lemon juice to the same amount of milk and let sit for about ten minutes. This will allow the milk to thicken in a way similar to curdling.

3. Half Greek yogurt and half milk should have the same effect as buttermilk.


Acidity 1.0

Fat 2.5g

Characteristics in cake:

-tender crumb

-light texture

-more complex, rich, flavor

Buttermilk seems to be the generally preferred choice of bakers for cake. It is rich without adding fat and adds moisture without making it heavy.

If you don’t want to buy fresh buttermilk, there is a dry option readily available in the baking section of grocery stores. You would add this to your dry ingredients and follow the box’s instructions on how much water to put with your wet ingredients.

Want to use buttermilk instead of milk?

1. For each cup of buttermilk you substitute in the recipe, take away two teaspoons baking powder and add a half teaspoon baking soda.

Sour Cream

Acidity 0.8

Fat 40g

Characteristics in cake:

-much finer and more tender crumb compared to the other two

-high in fat and acid meaning a better texture

-very light texture


-subtle sour notes

Sour cream seemed like the ideal liquid for a cake when I read about it. I think the thing that turns people away from sour cream is the mild sour taste it brings to a cake and that it isn’t usually a staple in people’s refrigerators. I did find that some bakers prefer sour cream to other liquids in cake which tend to be more dry, like sponges.

Want to use something else similar?

1. Full-fat Greek yogurt seems to be close

As an update to this research, in the coming days/weeks I will be baking cakes with all three liquids to find out which one I prefer. I’ll let you know what I find! In the mean-time let me know any baking questions you may have and I’ll do all the research I can to figure out the answer!

NOTES *each measurement of acidity and fat is based off 8 oz

Sources I used:


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