How many types of dairy product are lurking in your fridge right now? Mine usually contains whole plain yoghurt, probably some fruit yoghurt too, semi-skimmed and whole milk and often some creme fraiche. I don’t often buy cream, sour cream or buttermilk, even when a recipe specifically calls for them, as I know I can often substitute something else instead. But understanding which can you substitute and what adjustments to make can be tricky.
One of the many divides between British and American bakers is in our use of dairy, and the ingredients that are easy to obtain. This means that the ingredients called for in American recipes, such as buttermilk, are often a bit harder to obtain in the UK, and vice versa (creme fraiche, for example, is harder to track down in the U.S.). But most of these things can be easily substituted, if you are careful about what you swap it with.
American Baker Alice Medrich wrote a really useful piece for Food52 on when and how to swap dairy products in baking. Her rules of thumb also work for comparing British and American ingredients. When considering the ingredient you want to swap:
- Compare moisture content – how liquid is it?
- Compare fat content – in baking particularly, the fat is likely to play an important role in the texture
- Compare acidity – both for flavour and for rising when paired with bicarbonate of soda (baking soda).
The first thing to note is that there are cultured and uncultured dairy products. This has nothing to do with whether they like opera, and is all to do with whether microbes have been introduced into the milk to help preserve it at some stage.
Uncultured dairy products include milk, cream and half-and-half. Cultured dairy products include yoghurt, creme fraiche, buttermilk and sour cream. You can also get cultured butter and clotted cream sometimes, and more unusual cultured products like kefir and skyr.
The cultured products have been inoculated with bacteria to sour the milk or cream, producing something tangy that will last longer than the uncultured version. The key differences are in the bacteria used, which influences the flavour and the sourness, and how industrial the process is. I’m going to assume that we’re generally talking about products available in the supermarket here. You can also get homemade or more artisanal versions of all of these that will vary more in how they are produced, and perhaps give less predictable results in baking, but potentially with more flavour.
Cultured dairy will generally last longer due to their bacterial content. The deliberately added bacteria and the acid makes it a less hospitable environment for other bacteria and moulds. The higher the fat content, the less prominent the sour flavour will be, as the fat coats your tongue and helps to ease the sour tang.
The other factor is the fat content, which will affect the texture and thickness. The texture of the produce is also affected by milk proteins, which can start to coagulate when the acidity rises, as they do in yoghurt and many soft cheeses. Low-fat dairy products will generally have other things added to thicken it instead of the fat, such as guar gum, pectin and starches.
|Uncultured Dairy Products||Cultured Dairy Products|
|Skimmed milk||0.1-0.3% fat||Buttermilk||0.2% fat|
|Whole milk||3.6-4%||Whole plain yoghurt||3.5-6%|
|Half-and-half (US)||10-18%||Greek-style yoghurt||5-9.5%|
|Single cream (UK)||18-19%||Half-fat creme fraiche*||12-14%|
|Heavy cream (US)||33-40%||Sour cream||18%|
|Whipping cream (UK)||38-40%||Creme fraiche||40-41%|
|Manufacturing cream (US)||40-42%|
|Double cream (UK)||45-47%|
|Clotted cream (UK)||60%|
There is also a difference between the UK and US approaches to dairy. US cream tends to be lower in fat than the UK. It’s fairly common to buy a pot of double cream in the UK that is spoonable and hardly needs whipping. Heavy cream in the US is closer to UK whipping cream, and will be quite liquid, but will produce whipped cream eventually.
If you want to make whipped cream, the fat content is important. Less than 30% fat, and it isn’t likely to hold its shape. If you are mixing it directly into a recipe, you also want to aim for a similar fat content if you can.
If a few spoonfuls of cream are called for, for example in a soup or sauce, they can sometimes be left out, or I will often substitute with creme fraiche, which heats up well and can be kept in the fridge for a bit longer.
Cultured products can generally be substituted for each other if the thickness and acidity are similar. Look out for recipes that contain bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). It’s particularly important in these to make sure there is enough acid in the recipe to balance out the soda, as any excess will taste unpleasantly soapy in the final product. If you’re unsure, adding a bit of lemon juice will provide some insurance.
I use the following substitutions a fair bit:
To substitute buttermilk, mix plain yoghurt and milk roughly 50:50. You can also use whole milk, soured with a few drops of lemon juice or white vinegar.
To substitute for sour cream, use creme fraiche, or greek yoghurt sometimes with a bit more acid added.
To substitute for double cream in a sauce or even a chocolate ganache, use creme fraiche. There will be a bit of extra tang, but it will generally be masked by the other flavours. Creme fraiche won’t become whipped cream in the same way though, and half-fat creme fraiche might not behave the same.