The Real Difference Between Buttermilk and Heavy Cream


Buttermilk and heavy cream are both widely used dairy products. Though they are very similar, they are quite different.

The difference between buttermilk and heavy cream is the fat content. Heavy cream has a fat content between 36-40% while buttermilk only has about 2 grams of fat per cup. Buttermilk is more acidic and tangy, while heavy cream is sweet. For this reason, buttermilk is used in more bread-based foods.

Heavy cream and buttermilk are each used in diverse and specific ways to enhance the texture and flavor of a food.

The Difference in Buttermilk and Heavy Cream Ingredients

Heavy Cream Ingredients

Heavy Cream is made up of whole milk and butter. One can make their own heavy cream with a few simple steps. To make one cup of heavy cream, combine 2/3 cup of whole milk with 1/3 cup of melted butter. The rest is left up to mixing the ingredients together. Since heavy cream is just comprised of whole milk and butter, it will generally have a sweeter taste.

Since whole milk is used to make heavy cream instead of low-fat or fat-free milk, the resulting texture of the heavy cream is thicker, hence why it is called heavy cream.

Buttermilk Ingredients

Buttermilk was traditionally the liquid that was left after churning butter.

Though we no longer churn butter regularly in the 21st century, we can still find a type of buttermilk in stores called cultured buttermilk. This type of buttermilk is different from traditional buttermilk because cultured buttermilk is made by fermenting low-fat milk. Through the fermentation process, the sugars in the milk become lactic acid. Since the buttermilk has a more acidic taste, it will not be used in sweet-tasting foods as heavy cream will. Buttermilk, at its core, is sour milk.

Buttermilk, unlike heavy cream, is not as thick, though it is thicker than milk. The buttermilk’s thickness allows it to take on the role of a leavening agent as well as a marinade. Buttermilk is also tangy, as opposed to being sweet like heavy cream, hence why we will see less buttermilk used in sweet foods.

Different Uses Between Buttermilk and Heavy Cream

What Heavy Cream is Used in

Since heavy cream has a sweeter taste, it can be in numerous amounts of foods, whether they be the main course, appetizer, or even dessert. As an example, heavy cream can often be found in dishes such as pasta or chowder, or in desserts as pastry fillings or pipings.

Heavy cream is used to primarily hold the shape of whatever food it is being used in. Chowder, for example, is meant to be creamy, not watery. If one were to use something like low-fat milk in their chowder, the end result would be much thinner. The heavy cream being used in the chowder helps it set up and become creamy, giving it a distinct texture.

Heavy cream also curdles less easily when it is heated. Other milk-based ingredients will bubble under intense heat. The chowder, as previously mentioned, can have a thick consistency and still maintain is creaminess.

We are able to see another example of this in pasta sauce. There are many recipes for alfredo sauce that call for the use of heavy cream. The heavy cream helps the sauce set and become thick but retain its smooth feeling.

What Buttermilk is Used in

Buttermilk is often used in bread-based food because it is not as sweet as heavy cream. If both ingredients were as sweet, the use of one and not the other would not matter as much. The acid in the buttermilk allows for the buttermilk to be used in diverse ways, like the heavy cream.

Since bread rises, it is most common to find buttermilk in bread. The buttermilk leavens the bread, helping the bread rise, similar to yeast. We can also find buttermilk in pancakes and waffles.

Making Cheese With Buttermilk

Buttermilk can also even be found in cheese! While heavy cream does not curdle under intense heat, buttermilk does, making it perfect for producing cheese.

In cheese, buttermilk is used because of its acidic tendency. This helps the milk used to begin the curdling process. Since cheese is curdled milk, the buttermilk quite greatly assists in the making of cheese.

Are they too Different to Substitue for Each Other?

While baking, one can substitute different ingredients for some of the ingredients given. Heavy cream and buttermilk are two of the ingredients that can substitute for different ingredients or be substituted by different ingredients.

Substituting Buttermilk for Heavy Cream

Buttermilk can be substituted for heavy cream. Many people enjoy doing this substitution because it lowers the fat content in what they are making. You can substitute 1 cup of heavy cream for 2/3 cup of buttermilk and 1/3 cup of oil. You can also substitute 1 cup of heavy cream for 3/4 cup of milk and 1/3 cup of butter/margarine.

There are also many more different options to substitute for heavy cream, though. One can also use any of the following as a substitution: soy milk and olive oil, milk and cornstarch, half-and-half and butter, greek yogurt and milk, evaporated milk, or cream cheese. Substituting heavy cream with these ingredients can seriously lower the fat content in what you are making. These are also beneficial substitutes for anyone who cannot digest heavy cream as easily as some of these other options.

Substituting Heavy Cream for Buttermilk

Buttermilk cannot be substituted by heavy cream like heavy cream can be substituted for buttermilk. Because buttermilk is more tangy, using heavy cream as its substitute completely changes the texture and the flavor of what is being made. Heavy cream is too sweet to be used in a recipe for buttermilk.

Buttermilk, however, can be substituted by an acidic ingredient combined with milk. One possible substitution is lemon juice. Since the lemon juice is acidic, when combined with the milk, it has a similar reaction to when buttermilk is used.

Buttermilk and heavy cream are both useful in their own ways, so it is important to use each ingredient, or its substitute, as intended. Though buttermilk and heavy cream are both dairy products, they have very unique functions as ingredients.

Anna Silver

Anna Silver is the principal creator of CookForFolks.com, a website dedicated to new go-to original recipes. Inspired by her grandmother’s love of cooking, Anna has a passion for treating the people in her life to delicious homemade food and loves to share her family recipes with the rest of the world.

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