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Can I substitute sour cream for buttermilk in a cake?

I've been to the supermarket a few times and I haven't seen buttermilk, so I'm wondering if I can use sour cream instead of the buttermilk. Or should I just use a buttermilk substitute? I'm just nervous about using the buttermilk substitute that calls for adding vinegar to milk, because the recipe that I'm using already calls for vinegar in the batter. It's for a red velvet cake: http://divascancook.com/2009/11/the-b...

Will using a buttermilk substitute affect the flavor negatively, especially since there is vinegar already in the recipe? Will substituting one cup of sour cream for the one cup of buttermilk have a negative affect on the cake?

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  1. Rather than sour cream, I'd use a thinned down plain yogurt. That being said, I don't think a tablespoon of vinegar will make much difference in your recipe. You could also use a tablespoon of lemon juice to accomplish the same thing.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Leepa

      Sour cream would also work, though I'd thin it out as Leepa suggests with the yogurt, to account for the differences in moisture levels. You should be good though---don't worry!

      1. I've tried substituting sour cream one for one and it doesn't work. You could thin it out w/ milk, though. For that recipe, I think either a buttermilk substitute, like cultured dry buttermilk, or milk w/ vinegar would be fine, even though there is vinegar in the recipe.

          1. No, you can't substitute sour cream for buttermilk. What you need for your red cake is lactic acid (which is why you use buttermilk) and you can't get that from sour cream. The whole milk/vinegar trick isn't, IMO, a good idea either. You could try a bit of yogurt, thinned of course, just be sure contains the same percentage of lactic acid as the buttermilk. If you're going to try using whole milk and an acid, use lemon juice instead of vinegar; but not too much (about 1 Tbsp per cup of milk)

            5 Replies
            1. re: todao

              Why would you do lemon juice/milk and not vinegar/milk, todao?

              1. re: chowser

                The acidity in lemon juice is essentially stable, roughly 5 - 6%. The acidity in vinegar is a crap shoot, depending on many factors, and vinegar often has a slight bitterness that is undesirable in a confection.

                1. re: todao

                  Thanks. I usually use lemon juice (well, actually I use powdered normally if I don't have buttermilk but if I don't have either....) but always thought vinegar did the same thing. Since the recipe calls for vinegar anyway, I wondered why it would matter.

                  1. re: chowser

                    "Since the recipe calls for vinegar anyway, I wondered why it would matter."
                    You make a very good point. Frankly, I never really focused on that reality. I suspect that's because when I read "vinegar" in a recipe I think "lemon juice" - it's a mental thing. My recipe for red cake blends the acid and baking soda just before it's introduced to the rest of the already combined ingredients (I suspect for the initial lift it gives to the batter before it reaches the oven) and it uses no baking powder or other leavening agent. It does include buttermilk. I believe buttermilk is added to Red Cake to counteract the alkalinity of the cocoa. Without that added acidity you would probably have red pudding instead of red cake.

                    1. re: todao

                      Could you share your no baking powder recipe. Thanks

            2. RV is a buttermilk cake. That's the primary flavor of the cake, so if you leave that out, it's not really a red velvet cake anymore.
              That's odd that you can't find buttermilk. I've never been to a supermarket that doesn't have it. Can anyone tell me if that's a regional thing?

              5 Replies
              1. re: jmcarthur8

                The "cultured buttermilk" commonly sold in American supermarkets is not authentic buttermilk. Rather, it is lowfat (sometimes whole but not often) milk that has had an acid added. Not much difference from the DIY method. Genuine buttermilk, like the brand called Kate's, is the liquid left over from making butter. It is naturally lowfat and when I was a kid, it was lumpy. You can also look for Saco brand powdered buttermilk, which is in the baking aisle and also sold online. It comes in a can, or in packets that are equal to one cup. It keeps very well, virtually indefinitely, so you are not stuck with freezing or tossing the leftovers from a quart of fresh buttermilk.

                Because buttermilk is lowfat, using sour cream instead is a major difference in fat content. Lowfat or fat-free yogurt, on the other hand, especially if diluted a bit with water, is very similar to buttermilk. Many cake recipes originated 50 or more years ago. At that time, yogurt was not a common or popular supermarket item so no one writing recipes then would have suggested using it in place of buttermilk, which WAS popular.

                1. re: greygarious

                  Thanks so much! I'll look again for buttermilk when I go to the store; perhaps I've been overlooking it all this time... But I'll also keep an eye out for the powdered buttermilk. If I can't find it in the store, I might just get it online. Thanks for all the help!

                  1. re: lunettes

                    Both Organic Valley and Bob's Red Mill also make buttermilk powder. I've used the Organic Valley powder and like it better than the Saco's. I think King Arthur sells some on their site as well, not sure of the brand. So there are other alternatives out there to look for as you search.

                  2. re: greygarious

                    This is good information. It also explains why Saco works so well.

                    1. re: greygarious

                      greygarious, you got me curious about the history of buttermilk and RV cake. I did a bunch of reading online about both, and it seems that the cultured buttermilk products have been around for well over a century in various forms in the US, and even more iterations around the world.

                      Red Velvet cake has lots of mythology, but sifting through all that, it is a pretty modern recipe that has been developed using cultured buttermilk. It does seem that yogurt would work, but the flavor's not really the same to me, even though they both are tangy.

                      Here's an interesting aside that I learned this morning... the cocoa wasn't originally included to provide a chocolate flavor, it was there to tenderize the texture of the cake. That's why there's so little of it. So often I see recipes where they add even more chocolate - which makes it a chocolate cake, not a buttermilk cake.
                      I cannot stray from my old traditional buttermilk recipe (with boiled frosting). It's RV heresy to me!

                  3. Ack, I hate be the one to moan here, but I can't stand American cake recipes, and always try to avoid them. I took a look at the recipe, and sure enough it has baking soda, which is what the buttermilk will be for, but a whole teaspoon, PLUS a teaspoon of baking powder - is that really necessary? It seems like a lot.

                    The other thing is the use of vegetable oil and a lack of butter. I think it's a very American thing to do.

                    America has a lot of great things going for it in the food world, but I really don't envy your confectionary.

                    Sorry for the downer!

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: Soop

                      If ya think American's don't use much butter you probably haven't met Paula Dean ;=}\
                      But we also use, olive oil, ghee, rapeseed oil, pumpkin seed oil, corn oil, safflower oil, peanut oil, grape seed oil, sesame oil, walnut oil, almond oil, many other vegetable oils, some of which bring lighter textures to baked good than does butter.

                      1. re: Soop

                        Two teaspoons of leavening is not too much for a cake of this sort made with two cups of flour. That's very standard. Self-rising flour (self-raising to you), which is so common in England, has about 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder per cup. (A cup of flour is around 4.5 ounces.)

                        There are cakes that use oil for specific reasons. Oil cakes are moister and last longer before staling. There is also a whole very old and traditional category of cakes called chiffon cakes that are by definition made with oil. And as Becca says, there is plenty of butter in American baking.

                        It's certainly fine if you don't care for it (or at any rate, for what you've sampled), but you're quite dismissive of something it seems you might not have much experience with. Frankly, I've read and baked from British cookbooks, and structurally and ingredient-wise, the recipes aren't substantially different than American ones, in my experience.

                        1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                          Wow, I didn't know self-raising had that much baking powder.

                          Don't mind me though, I'm just grouchy, and I could easily be wrong. I'm probably basing my opinion on half-remembered twinkies.

                          1. re: Soop

                            drawing a parallel between a half-remembered twinkie and anything that comes out of an American kitchen from a halfway-skilled baker is much the same as drawing a parallel between a half-remember Jaffa and anything you'd get from a British kitchen from a halfway-skilled baker.

                            (and I *like* Twinkies and Jaffas...but they bear zero resemblance to anything homemade)