A Comprehensive Guide to Dairy Ingredient Substitutions

Got milk? How about sour cream, crème fraîche, or ricotta? If you're fresh out, here's what to use instead — without a trip to the store.

Fresh dairy products, board and towel on white wooden table, top view
Photo: Atlas Studio

We've all heard that cooking tip about reading the entire recipe before getting started. But it's easy to gloss over the ingredient list and start throwing things in a bowl because, hey, you know what you're doing, right? Then comes the moment of panic when you realize you're actually out of milk, or buttermilk, or sour cream, or whatever delectable dairy ingredient that's necessary to really make your pie, pancakes, sauce, or casserole really next level. If you need to find an ingredient substitution for a dairy item ASAP, read on for this essential guide to what works as an easy replacement (or will do in a pinch) with other dairy ingredients you probably do have on hand. We even cover a couple pantry staples that you don't have to refrigerate but that can stand in for a dairy ingredient in some instances.

Before substituting any dairy ingredient, be sure to take into consideration the different factors in cooking versus baking. Cooking tends to be a bit more forgiving (although, be mindful before subbing when you're heating dairy products), whereas baking is a science — so things like moisture content become more important to your treat coming out true to how the recipe was written. We talked with two pros, Katie Proctor, a registered dietitian with The a2 Milk Company, and Ann Ziata, a culinary arts chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, for pro tips on subbing dairy ingredients.


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The magical ingredient buttermilk is the secret to making pancakes light, biscuits fluffy, and quick breads tender. Thicker than regular milk and with a tart taste, buttermilk can also add body and zing to dips, salad dressings, and marinades. Buttermilk substitutes include milk mixed with white vinegar, lemon juice, cream of tartar, and more.

If you're out of these things, plain yogurt can also be subbed 1:1 for buttermilk while retaining moisture and texture in baking, says Proctor.

Cottage Cheese

bowl of cottage cheese on a blue placemat
Dera Burreson / Dotdash Meredith

This fresh cheese, made by acidifying milk that results in curds separating from the whey, can be polarizing to eat on its own (no offense to Little Miss Muffet). Yet cooks often reach for a container of cottage cheese when whipping up a batch of homemade lasagna, or add it to pancake batter or to scrambled eggs to make them extra-creamy.

A great substitute for cottage cheese is ricotta cheese, which packs the same amount of protein but can be more palatable for those who can't get over the texture of cottage cheese. If you're health-conscious, choose a part-skim ricotta when subbing into savory dishes to keep fat in check, says Proctor.

  • No cottage cheese? No problem: Try ricotta, or for a dairy-free substitution in baking, cook up some egg whites, then dice them up for a similar texture and mouthfeel, says Proctor. You can use the same amount, cup for cup, as called for in a recipe.


Whipping cream with a mixer. Bubbles on cream
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When considering substitutes for cream, first look at your recipe to see what type it calls for. Heavy cream or heavy whipping cream has about 36% milk fat, making it ideal for whipping into a rich finishing touch for desserts. Whipping cream, on the other hand, has slightly less fat, about 30%, which makes it better for using as a light, delicate topping or filling rather than super fluffy and stable whipped cream.

  • No cream? No problem: If you have regular milk on hand, blend ¾ cup milk with ¼ cup melted, unsalted butter for every 1 cup of cream your recipe calls for. This preparation is best for cooked dishes (such as casseroles or sauces), rather than desserts, as it won't whip equally as well as cream. For better whipping, try mixing equal parts silken tofu and your milk of choice.

Cream Cheese

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Soft and spreadable and with a relatively neutral flavor, cream cheese can kick up the decadence in anything you add it to, whether that's a dessert, a pasta dish, or a toasted bagel. Cream cheese has a mild tanginess and silky-smooth texture that can be tricky to replicate in recipes, but it's not impossible.

For baking, rich mascarpone cheese is a good substitute for cream cheese. You can also opt for reduced-fat cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese for spreading, topping, or mixing into a savory soup or dish, says Proctor.

Crème Fraiche

Creme Fraiche
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If you've never had a tub of crème fraiche inside your fridge, what are you thinking? Just kidding — but in all seriousness, this indulgent dairy ingredient is like sour cream's thicker, richer cousin, and is worth trying out in recipes. It has a higher fat content and less water than sour cream, plus a slightly nutty, tangy flavor that adds nice acidity to dishes. It's also a great thickener for sauces and soups, since it doesn't curdle when boiled.

The easiest substitute for crème fraiche is sour cream, which can be used 1:1 in most recipes, while lending a similar tangy, cultured note, says Proctor. In baking, try subbing full-fat Greek yogurt instead.

Evaporated Milk

evaporated milk
Kathy Dewar

Most of us know evaporated milk (not to be confused with condensed milk) as the lonely can that typically collects dust in our pantries until November, when we reach for it to whip up a creamy pumpkin pie. This humble dairy item can be used in so much more, though, including baking, custards, sauces, soups and ice cream. It's shelf-stable thanks to a heating process that evaporates about 60% of the milk, then homogenization, canning and sterilization.

Half-and-half, though slightly creamier, is an easy 1:1 swap for evaporated milk in both baking and cooking, says Proctor.

  • No evaporated milk? No problem: You can make your own from regular milk by simmering whole or reduced-fat milk on the stovetop until the liquid has been reduced by roughly 60%, or about 25 minutes. Keep in mind that most recipes are developed to use a can of evaporated milk, which equates to 2/3 cup in a 5-ounce can or 1.5 cups in a 12-ounce can. That means you'll need to start with more milk to ensure you have enough for your recipe after simmering down.


Glass pitcher of half and half

This curious dairy product is exactly as its name describes: half whole milk and half cream. At 12% butterfat, half-and-half is the perfect ingredient for when you need something richer than milk, but not as thick as cream. Think of it as the perfect middle (that also happens to be delicious in coffee).

  • No half-and-half? No problem: If you have whole milk and heavy cream at home, you can easily whip up a substitute for half-and-half by adding each in equal parts, or even water down your cream to your desired consistency, says Ziata. It will have slightly higher fat content than store-bought half-and-half, so just know your end result will be a little bit richer. You can also try mixing 1-2 tablespoons of melted butter into whole milk for similar results.


Mascarpone on green tablecloth
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Like so many other delicious food products, mascarpone cheese (or just "mascarpone" to those in the know) hails from Italy. It's made from heavy cream and citric or tartaric acid, resulting in a silky, delectable product that's heavenly in both savory and sweet dishes. Sub in another creamy cheese such as ricotta for cooking, or for baking, opt for cream cheese, says Ziata.

  • No mascarpone? No problem: It can be tricky to find in some grocery stores, but mascarpone is relatively easy to make at home if you have heavy cream and a lemon on hand. (You can also use cream of tartar.)


Bottle and glass of milk
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For many of us, milk is a staple ingredient in our weekly grocery haul. You may find that certain recipes call for different fat contents, leaving you wondering if it's easy to substitute one for another. The good news: Proctor says 2% and whole milk can typically be used interchangeably in most recipes (avoid skim milk if you can, as it will make your result too thin; you can use it in a pinch by also adding a little cornstarch or flour as a thickener). She cautions against substituting in non-dairy milks unless the recipe specifies it, too, as these won't always create the same mouthfeel or flavor as dairy milk.

  • No milk? No problem: Powdered milk, which is a dehydrated milk product common in areas that don't have easy access to fresh milk, is a handy item to keep in your pantry. If you're out of milk and in a pinch, you can reconstitute powdered milk by combining it with water and letting it sit in the refrigerator for 10 minutes. You can adjust how thick and flavorful your milk is by adding more or less water. Similarly, if your recipe calls for skim milk and you only have 2% or whole, water it down to the consistency you're looking for, says Ziata. (Note: This won't be exactly the same as actual skim milk, but it should work OK.)

Sour Cream

Sour cream on nachos
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Yes, sour cream will always be a match made in heaven with baked potatoes, but this intentionally soured, high-fat dairy ingredient lends its tang well to baking too. If your baking recipe calls for sour cream (in cakes, muffins, scones, and beyond), you really want to go for the real thing for maximum richness and moisture. Plus, there are plenty of ways to use up leftover sour cream.

  • No sour cream? No problem: If sour cream isn't something you typically have on hand, Greek yogurt (the full-fat kind!) is a texturally similar substitute. Your result will still be delicious, although not exactly the same: Sour cream will give you a more dense, rich treat, while Greek yogurt will yield a product that's more airy and moist. You can also try making your own sour cream, or subbing in and crème fraiche, says Ziata

Sweetened Condensed Milk

sweetened condensed milk dripping off spoon
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If you've never licked the back of a spatula after scraping out the thick, velvety contents of a can of sweetened condensed milk, you're missing out on one especially sweet nectar of the gods. Made quite literally by reducing and boiling milk, adding sugar to prolong its shelf life, and canning it, this stuff is the secret sauce that gives certain baked desserts like various bars, pies, and cookies their gooey goodness factor.

  • No sweetened condensed milk? No problem: Whatever you do, don't substitute plain evaporated milk, or any other kind of milk. It simply won't work and if you're following a savory recipe, this is a sure-fire way to ruin it. Instead, take a few minutes to make your own sweetened condensed milk, using either powdered milk or evaporated milk. Be sure to skim off any "skin" that forms, says Ziata, and let the homemade substitute cool before incorporating into your recipe.

Ricotta Cheese

Ricotta cheese in bowl on wood surface
Fotografia Basica

Akin to the shy girl at the high school dance who goes unnoticed until she busts a move when her jam comes on, ricotta is the subtly sweet, mellow cheese you never knew you needed — until you tried it. Long a staple for lasagna, ricotta cheese has also worked its way into everything from pancakes and desserts to playing a starring role in ricotta toast and whipped ricotta dips.

  • No ricotta cheese? No problem: Cottage cheese is your best bet for substituting ricotta, as it's a close match texturally. Just adjust the salt in your recipe accordingly, as cottage cheese may have a much higher sodium content. It's also incredibly easy to DIY ricotta with only three ingredients: whole milk, lemon juice and salt.


Healthy breakfast with Fresh greek yogurt on background
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Full-fat yogurt, whether it's regular or Greek, will always yield the creamiest results in cooking or baking. If your recipe calls for a lower-fat version, you can thin out whole-milk yogurt with a little water, says Ziata (for both cooking and baking). Don't use regular and Greek yogurts interchangeably without an important tweak, though. Greek yogurt is much thicker, so you'll need to strain your regular yogurt in cheesecloth in the fridge, ideally overnight, to thicken it to Greek yogurt consistency.

  • No yogurt? No problem: Sour cream would be an acceptable replacement for yogurt in cooking or baking recipes. If you have a little time on your hands, you can also use your Instant Pot to make your own Greek yogurt with milk.
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