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Perfect Pancake Recipe – When You Don’t Have Buttermilk

There are many dishes where an ingredient just cannot be substituted. For instance, take uni pasta….not sure what else you could use to really replicate the uni flavor. Sure, you can use foie gras and it may be just as delicious, but it’s not uni. It’s not even similar to uni.

I think most will acknowledge that buttermilk pancakes beat regular milk pancakes any day of the week. There’s a twist and nuance that buttermilk adds to your pancakes that simply doesn’t exist if you use plain milk. But I will guess that most of you, much like me, do not have buttermilk sitting in your refrigerator, unspoiled and ready to be used, at any given time. Hell, I don’t even have regular milk all of the time, never mind buttermilk!

When my kids were young and pancakes were a regular menu item for breakfast, I had buttermilk in stock in the fridge and would successfully go through a carton in time before the expiration date. But now, I just don’t make pancakes with any regularity. When I am having guests spend the night and plan to make pancakes, I’ll buy buttermilk. If I plan to fry chicken for dinner, I’ll buy buttermilk. But more often than not, when the craving strikes for pancakes–which at our house is any time between 10:30 P.M and 2:00 A.M., chances are likely I don’t have a carton of buttermilk on hand.

Now, there are a few different ways to instantly have a “buttermilk substitute” of some sort ready. There are actually buttermilk powders, but my pantry will never have it. I do keep a can of powdered milk on hand for emergencies when I need milk for whatever reason, but that has never extended to buttermilk. Mixing in vinegar with milk can get something similar to buttermilk, and while it can be used for other purposes, I have never been able to get real “buttermilk pancakes” out of mixing that up–nothing spectacular, anyway, even if they were good enough. I’ve tried sour cream mixes…I’ve tried yogurt. Many are good–but none were great.

Your mileage may vary–but for me, that’s a no go. It’s real buttermilk or bust–or so I thought.

best pancake recipe without buttermilk or milk

For years, I think I’ve taken my regular recipe and tried all kinds of variations. We enjoy late-night pancakes more so than during breakfast, and being able to make that amazing pancake at any given time was crucial. Once in awhile, I’d get buttermilk just to be sure to get the real thing, but it seems ridiculous that I can’t make delicious pancakes without buttermilk. It took over a year, but I’ve come to one recipe of various ingredients I have thrown in at varying amounts to come to one that actually beats buttermilk pancakes.

While I was looking for a substitute, I didn’t really imagine finding something as good or better, but I’ve now tried this recipe enough times to believe it is really as good, if not better, than authentic buttermilk pancakes.

Pancake Recipe without Buttermilk

Pancakes are, in general, very easy to make. It doesn’t take any particular skill –but knowing how to fry well can make all the difference. What kind of pancake a person prefers will be subjective–some like them thick and dense, and others like them thin and soft. This recipe adheres to what I like–medium thickness, completely crispy on the outside (I want to hear it “break” when I cut or bite into it) and a soft, fluffy, light but moist middle. I can’t stand dense pancakes, and I absolutely cannot stand flimsy ones like behave like crepes. If I wanted a crepe, I’d have ordered a crepe.

This recipe is capable of being altered to make slightly thinner ones, or slightly thicker ones. For the purpose of this recipe post, I’m going somewhere in the middle that would please most parties, but take away a little bit of the moisture and you have a thicker, puffier pancake; drizzle in a little more moisture and you have a thinner but still crispy pancake.

I always try to break down my recipes into the actual steps, but for those of you who are experts–feel free to scroll down to the recipe at the bottom of the post if you don’t need to photos.

Alright — let’s get started.

First — prepare the butter.

I actually have quite a few different butter varieties in my refrigerator that I use for different purposes, or sometimes on a whim. I’ve tried different kinds of butter for this pancake recipe and there wasn’t any difference in taste or texture. Today, I’m using Tillamook Sweet Cream Butter – this is salted, it’s creamy and superb on taste.

For this recipe, which should serve at least 4-6 people (assuming each person has 3-4 pancakes of the size shown), I use 4T of butter. Because I need it in liquid form, I simply microwave it for 1 minute–or will let this melt down in a pot on the stove while I prepare. Either way works fine–but since it’s easier to nuke it, I’ve done so for this recipe post.

As you begin preparing — just microwave it on high for one minute and then put it aside. Once it’s been melted down, don’t worry about it getting cooler, because you’ll use it once you’re done prepping the batter.

Next up — we make the batter.

pancake recipe without buttermilk
Required: FLOUR

My entire pantry is chock full of King Arthur’s flour. For pancakes, I use their Unbleached Organic Flour –I’ll interchange between this and their organic version, though I can’t tell the difference at all so basically, I stick with their regular unbleached flour. I get mine on Amazon–which is actually cheaper than their main website, and good heavens, shipping is fast.

Take a measuring cup and put 2 cups of this into a bowl.

best pancake recipe without buttermilk
As I always say — SALT!


Add all of the remaining dry ingredients to the batter first. That would be as follows:

  1. 1 t salt
  2. 3.5 T sugar
  3. 2T Baking Powder
  4. 1.25 T Baking Soda

Most important of all is the salt. For this portion, I use a full teaspoon of salt. As a rule, if you have very flavorful maple syrup — then this amount of salt will suffice. The less delicious your maple syrup, the more I’d up the salt content of the batter to increase the flavor. I’d recommend kosher salt or even regular Morton’s salt, but don’t get into the flaky salts or chunkier sea salts because you won’t be mixing this batter that much–which means the salt needs to quickly incorporate into the mix and not remain in chunks.

Put all of the ingredients on top of the flour that’s already in the big bowl.

evaporated milk in pancakes
Carnation Evaporated Milk — whole, not fat-free

Now here is where this recipe begins to shine.

The problem I was trying to solve here in the dairy products have an expiration date, and many of us don’t have buttermilk, and sometimes, we don’t have regular milk in the fridge. I knew condensed milk is just too sweet regardless–but I wanted to use evaporated milk to provide the moisture. I tried powdered milk, too, because lots of us can buy cans of that and keep it in the pantry indefinitely, but none of the combinations worked to my liking. I started doing variations of evaporated milk, and surprisingly, for me, I find this to work better than regular milk, and at a dollar or so per can of evaporated milk, it’s cost effective, too! Best of all, you can stock up your pantry will canned evaporated milk to the end of time and it remains usable for infinitely longer than regular milk. They take up little space, pile nicely and should there be a natural disaster—you’re set, my friend. When I look at my pantry, I know that should Armageddon come, my house would be one of the last to starve to death based on my pantry ingredients.

But back to the pancake recipe….now, we add the liquid portion of the batter: eggs, evaporated milk and water.

evaporated milk in pancake recipe
Evaporated Milk to the Rescue!

A regular can of evaporated milk — full size– is 14 ounces. For this recipe, I’m using 8 ounces, which is the equivalent of 1 CUP. (You can pour the remaining four ounces into a plastic container and store in the fridge to use in your coffee, or for your baking.) If you use an ounce or two more here, you’ll have to decrease the water you’ll be using below.

Evaporated milk is—well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s milk that’s been evaporated with heat–meaning much of the liquid content has been evaporated–which makes it a much denser form of milk. It’s denser in texture as well as in taste–more concentrated, if you will. Therefore, if you use evaporated milk alone, it would take a lot more milk to get the right consistency in the batter, but it would also increase the milky flavor– which is why the next step is crucial.

best pancake recipe without buttermilk
1 C of plain bottled water

To keep it simple, I use water to normalize the evaporated milk–or reconstitute it back to milk. Therefore, if you want to use plain milk, it’s doable–but for the purpose of this recipe, and frankly, even when I have milk in my refrigerator, I use evaporated milk instead.

As previously mentioned, if you want to control the thickness of your pancakes — this is the step where you would adjust. You add the same amount of evaporated milk, then adjust how much water you put in to control the thickness of the final pancake. Putting in a 3/4 C of water would make for a denser pancake–and 1 C of water makes for medium denseness, and I would never go over 1.25 C of water or you’re making crepes. But — as is the case whenever you use flour and water, much of this can depend on the humidity or lack thereof in your kitchen and your area, so this requires a little trial on your part. When I say 1 C of water in California — it could be a tad less or a tad more in your kitchen. (If you cook this and find that your pancakes, despite following my instructions, were too thick–then you need to add a little more water next time.) I always use bottled water for this part; because there’s baking soda in this mix that reacts with a multitude of things, I want to keep the water as clean and pure as possible so as not to create a reaction.

Also — note that I’ve now cracked in two eggs into the mix. What order you do this part in doesn’t matter at all.

Also note that the only ingredient you have not added at this point is the VINEGAR. Do not add the vinegar yet.

best pancake recipe
Give it a quick mix

Quickly but loosely stir the mix, being sure to break up the eggs and create a chunky batter.

best-pancake-recipe-without-buttermilk-(11-of-38)Then, if the butter you melted is still HOT, then pour in four separate times so as not to begin cooking any part of the batter. If it’s cool enough to dip your finger into without burning, then you can pour it all in at once. Mix it in thoroughly but slowly.

best pancake recipe without buttermilk
Batter is done!


Now, your batter is done. It’s a lot of parts but technically simple. It’s completely mixed in but not a completely smooth consistency. I’m not completely set on batter needing to be lumpy because I’ve made plenty of good pancakes using a Vitamix, even, but for this particular pancake recipe, I mix only to this level. Slowly, but thoroughly, you mix the ingredients so that they’re completely incorporated.

best pancake recipe without buttermilk

Now, finally — take 4 T of apple cider vinegar and pour into the mix. This part is definitely going to react with the baking soda in the mix, and is responsible for what makes pancakes airy in the middle as well as how much it rises in the hot pan. Mix that in well and let the mix sit.

best pancake recipe without buttermilk
Preparing to cook pancakes

Here is what you will need to cook the pancakes.

I use Wesson Canola Oil for most of my frying needs except deep frying. For regular frying needs, I absolutely love canola oil–and this particular brand is modestly priced, very clean in flavor and extremely light—well, for oil, anyway. It’s also very clear in color.

I’m using a 1 C measuring cup here, but technically, you need a 1/2 C sized cup if you have one on hand since you’ll be measuring 1/3-1/2 C at a time unless you want a large pancake. (I usually keep them two to a 12″ pan, so if I use a 1/3C, I spread it out a little more and if I use a 1/2 C, I spread it out less– but the size of the pancake remains the same. I keep a bowl (in this case, the one that had the melted butter in it) by the stove as a spoon rest for the measuring spoon to rest on while the pancakes cook.

And of course, you want to keep the batter close by.

best pancake recipe without buttermilk
Oil is the most important thing in cooking pancakes!

First, let me emphasize here how much I love, love, love my Curtis Stone frying pans I purchased last year. I didn’t buy the whole set–just two frypans, and because compared to my All-Clad set, they were so cheap–I purchased a set for me and sent one to my mom as on my last visit, I didn’t like the state of her pans. It was my first–and thus far, my last—Home Shopping Network purchase. (I can see now why people go crazy watching these shows at night, though–everything looks good!) 

These Curtis Stone pans are rock solid, heat up incredibly well despite my ridiculous electric stove I’m having to work with these days, and sear like no other non-stick pan I’ve owned. At $59.95 for two 12″ pans, it can’t be beat. I guarantee it. If you need a new set of frying pans–get this one. I’d buy this one over many of my other pans in my cabinets.

Back to the pancakes…

I put about 1.5 T of oil in the pan to start and the heat is on high to get the pan hot. Once the pan is hot enough, I decrease to medium-high (or about a 8/10 on an electric stove, depending on your heat levels) and cook in that range for pancakes. The idea is to make sure it sizzles but doesn’t burn before you can cook 1/2 of the pancake through.

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Remember: if you a drop of batter in your pan and is doesn’t sizzle up immediately, your pan is too cold. This is very important, and after the batter, the pan heat is probably most important of all.


best pancake recipe without buttermilk

Take your measuring cup and scoop up the batter–up to 1/2 C at a time.

best pancake recipe without buttermilk
Spread with the back of your measuring cup into shape

Carefully pour the batter into the frying pan; depending on the denseness of your batter (i.e., how much water you used to combine with the evaporated milk), your mix will either flatten out on its own and will only need some shaping with the back of the cup, or it won’t slide down and  you must shape it with your spoon in a circular fashion. Wherever your batter hits the pan will set into a shape so you have to be fast about it.’

(Note: you see the bubbles on the left side of the cake? That’s good. You see the lack of bubbles on the right side? That’s not good–it has to be hotter.)

best pancake recipe without buttermilk
Two pancakes per pan

Quickly pour two pancakes into a hot pan in this manner and they should begin to bubble all around the edges. This process is really fast and timing is important; you will only flip them once so you want to do it at the right time. It’s spends more time on this half than the other–so carefully watch how hot your pan is. If you see it beginning to brown or blacken as soon as you put your batter in — it’s too hot, so remove the pan from the heat, turn down the stove and wait a minute before you continue.

As you can see, I care none at all how perfectly round they are. If you do– then you’ll have to be a little more precise.

For me, the only thing I care about at this instance is keeping the right thickness and browning them all perfectly.

best pancake recipe without buttermilk
Frying technique: using oil well

Now here’s another tip. When it comes to frying anything, the key is to use the oil to your advantage. Remember this batter has plenty of butter in it to provide flavor, but compared to the amount of batter, the butter portion is only 4 tablespoons. Using oil in this case is not about keeping the pancake from sticking (especially with this pan, because nothing will stick to it!), but to fry the batter up beautifully. To do this, the oil has to hit every part of the pancake.

Tilt the pan forward, backwards, sideways to make sure each rim of the pancake is being sizzled by oil.

Keep in mind that I will almost always add a 1/2 T of additional canola oil each time I add new batter, and sometimes after I flip.

best pancake recipe without buttermilk
Look closely at the browned edges–this is when you flip.

Within 40-45 seconds, depending on the heat level you’re using, you will see the edges of each pancake brown. Generally speaking, the first one you poured out is the first one you will flip. Once you see this amount of browning, you can be sure that the pancake is (1) cooked on the lower side, and (2) browned beautifully, assuming you did tilt the oil in the pan to evenly distribute the oil.

Ready to flip?

best pancake recipe without buttermilk
Crispy and perfectly colored pancakes!

I love this part when you can time it perfectly. Invariably, there will be some that aren’t quite as beautifully “crispified” but if you follow these instructions–with a little practice–you should be able to get at least 90-95% of them browning beautifully once you find that right heat level and learn to move the oil properly. I don’t mind it being a little browner than what’s shown above, but I do not want it whiter/lighter overall, since that will not make for a crispy crunch when you cut into it.

best pancake recipe without buttermilk

If you use the two to a pan size pancakes–they will make about 14-16 individual pancakes. Obviously, if you make a large 10″+ pancake, they’ll make less than half that number. I personally plan out 3-4 per person and this pancake recipe will easily feed four good eaters, or a family of 4-5 if you have kids.

That dark rim you see around each pancake — that is what tilting the oil will get you. The yummiest are actually the slightly darker edges–but the entire flat surface will crunch as you cut into it. It’s heaven to the ears.

best pancake recipe without buttermilk
Yummy time!

A good test on how you fried your pancakes will be how much (or how little) your pancake crunches after you pour on the syrup. This pancake does not need any additional butter — believe me — so skip the melted butter on top and just use a premium maple syrup on top.

best pancake recipe without buttermilk
Crispy edges

You can almost smell it, can’t you? Because there’s a decent amount of salt and sugar in the batter, the flavors come alive–but that spark of vinegar in the batter makes for a beautiful interior while also really helping to make the exterior crispy.

best syrup for pancakes
Hidden Springs Vermont Maple Syrup — my favorite

Now, the only thing you do need on this fantastic pancake is a top-notch maple syrup. For maple syrup, you want a Grade B syrup — something dark and intense in flavor. We didn’t use any vanilla in this recipe because I have such a great maple syrup. I always have the Hidden Springs Maple Syrup on hand in my pantry. If you know of better syrups — I’d be interested to hear about it.

Be it pancakes, French toast or making a creamy and delicious frosting, this particular syrup will enrich any dish. It’s a 32-ounce size bottle, but given how intense the flavor is, you only need a little for each pancake. You can buy it on Amazon with prime delivery. You’ll be whipping these up by the weekend!


No Buttermilk Perfect Pancake Recipe
Here's a great recipe for you--one that I've been working on for years. You only need to stock evaporated milk in the pantry, which last a good, long time, and have the basics to make this amazing batter. Crisy and delicious!
Cuisine: American
Recipe type: Breakfast
Serves: 16 pancakes
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
  • 2 C All-Purpose Flour (we use King Arthur's Flour)
  • 4 T Butter (salted, or increase salt by 1 tsp if you're using unsalted)
  • 4 T Sugar
  • 2 T Baking Powder
  • 1.25 T Baking Soda
  • 1 tsp Salt
  • 2 Eggs
  • 1 C (8-ounces) Evaporated Milk (Carnation)
  • Up to 1 C of bottled water / drinking water
  • 4 T Apple Cider Vinegar (or brown rice vinegar); use 0.5 T less if using regular white vinegar)
  1. Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl.
  2. Put in all of the liquid ingredients EXCEPT vinegar.
  3. Mix up the ingredients thoroughly but slowly.
  4. Heat pan, drizzle about 1.5 T of canola oil in the pan when ready.
  5. When ready to cook, pour in 4T of vinegar and stir in thoroughly.
  6. Scoop out ⅓C-1/2 C, depending on pancake size preference, and make a circular pancake in the pan.
  7. When browned around the edges, flip over and cook for an additional 20 seconds until browned also, adding additional oil as needed to crisp the edges.
  8. Remove from pan and repeat until the batter is gone.
Nutrition Information
Serving size: 3 pancakes per person
Grace Keh

Managing Editor

Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.


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San Francisco Food® has been providing trusted restaurant reviews and recipes since 2009, led by food author Grace Keh & read by food lovers worldwide.


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