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Can I soak my chicken in milk instead of buttermilk?

Buttermilk is often called for in recipes for fried chicken, as it helps to tenderize the meat and promotes browning. If you don’t have buttermilk on hand, you may be wondering if you can soak the chicken in regular milk instead. The short answer is yes, you can use milk as a substitute for buttermilk when soaking chicken, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

Why Soak Chicken in Buttermilk?

Before looking at using milk as a substitute, let’s first understand the purpose of soaking chicken in buttermilk. There are two primary reasons this is done:

  1. To tenderize the meat – Buttermilk contains lactic acid, which helps to break down tough muscle fibers in the chicken, resulting in a more tender texture.
  2. To promote browning/crisping – The proteins and lactose (milk sugar) in buttermilk assist with Maillard reactions, which produce browning when the chicken is fried. Buttermilk helps to achieve that signature crunchy fried chicken coating.

So in using a substitute like milk, we want to make sure it can provide similar tenderizing and browning effects.

Using Milk as a Substitute

Regular milk can be used as a substitute for buttermilk when soaking chicken. Here are some pointers for using milk effectively:

  • Use whole milk – The higher fat content will help promote browning similarly to buttermilk.
  • Consider adding lemon juice or vinegar – The acidity helps replicate the tenderizing effects of buttermilk’s lactic acid. About 1 tablespoon per cup of milk.
  • Soak for 30 minutes or more – Give the milk time to properly penetrate and tenderize the meat.
  • Use cold milk – This prevents the chicken from partially cooking while soaking.

The proteins and sugars in milk can help achieve the browning you get with buttermilk. While milk on its own doesn’t contain as much acid, adding lemon juice or vinegar provides the acidity needed to tenderize the chicken. With proper soaking time in cold, whole milk, you can expect similar end results as using buttermilk.

Considerations for Using Milk

There are a couple additional points to consider when using milk as a buttermilk substitute:

  • May need more seasoning – Since milk doesn’t contain buttermilk’s tangy flavor, you may need to increase seasonings like salt, pepper, spices, or hot sauce.
  • Won’t be exact – Milk can get close to buttermilk’s effects but may not be quite as effective for tenderizing and browning. The fried chicken may turn out slightly less crispy.
  • Works for soaking only – Wouldn’t sub milk 1:1 in a buttermilk ranch recipe, for example. Buttermilk provides unique flavor and thickness.

While milk can work great for pre-soaking chicken, buttermilk is still ideal when it’s an ingredient that gets coated directly onto the chicken or baked into a recipe. For best results, use buttermilk if you have it available, but milk makes a suitable alternative in a pinch.

Recipe for Soaking Chicken in Milk

To summarize the steps for effectively soaking chicken in milk:

  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together 1 cup cold whole milk with 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice or white vinegar.
  2. Add 1 pound of chicken pieces and toss to coat.
  3. Cover bowl and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, up to overnight.
  4. Remove chicken from milk mixture and pat dry.
  5. Season chicken as desired and proceed with your favorite fried chicken cooking method.

The milk soak helps ensure juicy, tender chicken that gets beautifully browned and crispy when fried. Be sure to allow time for the milk to properly penetrate the meat. And seasoning is still important for flavor – consider seasoning the milk as well as seasoning the chicken after soaking.

The Difference Between Buttermilk and Milk

To understand why buttermilk and milk produce somewhat different results, let’s compare their main differences:

Buttermilk Milk
Higher acidity due to lactic acid content (pH around 4.5) Lower acidity (pH around 6.7)
Thicker texture from milk solids Thinner texture
Tangy, sour flavor Mild, creamy flavor
Higher levels of phosphorus and riboflavin Higher levels of vitamin D and calcium
Contains milk proteins and lactose Contains milk proteins and lactose
Typically cultured and fermented Not fermented

The higher acidity in buttermilk is key for tenderizing chicken. Its thicker texture and tangy flavor also lend specific qualities when used in recipes. Milk can work surprisingly well as a substitute in some applications, but for best results, buttermilk is still the better choice.

Nutrition Comparison

Buttermilk and milk also differ in their nutrition profiles. Here is a comparison of the main nutrients per 1 cup serving:

Nutrient Buttermilk 2% Milk
Calories 100 122
Fat 2.2 g 5 g
Protein 8 g 8 g
Carbs 12 g 12 g
Calcium 28% DV 30% DV
Vitamin D 3% DV 24% DV
Vitamin A 4% DV 10% DV

While both provide protein, carbs, and important nutrients like calcium, vitamin D is highest in regular milk. Buttermilk has slightly fewer calories per serving. Either can provide valuable nutrients as part of a balanced diet.

The Best Uses for Buttermilk vs. Milk

Due to their differences, buttermilk and milk each shine in certain applications. Here are some of the best uses for each:


  • Marinating chicken or fish
  • Making ranch dressing and dips
  • Baking biscuits, pancakes, and other baked goods
  • Adding tangy flavor to smoothies or milkshakes
  • Making buttermilk bread or waffles


  • Drinking plain or flavored with cereals, cookies, etc.
  • Making cream sauces, soups, and creamy dishes
  • Adding to coffee, tea, hot chocolate
  • Making custards, puddings, ice cream
  • Used in cooked dishes like oatmeal, mashed potatoes

As a drink, for adding creaminess, and when a neutral flavor is desired, milk is usually the better choice. But for marinades, baking, and tangy dairy flavor, buttermilk’s unique properties make it the winner.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does milk tenderize chicken as well as buttermilk?

Milk can help tenderize chicken, but buttermilk usually does it better. Milk lacks the acidity of buttermilk, so it doesn’t break down tough chicken fibers as effectively. Adding lemon juice or vinegar to milk before soaking can help improve its tenderizing ability.

Can I use milk instead of buttermilk for fried chicken batter?

It’s best to use buttermilk for fried chicken batter. Milk won’t provide the same thickness to coat the chicken. The tangy flavor of buttermilk is also an important component in fried chicken batter. Using milk instead may result in thinner, less flavorful coating.

What’s the best milk to use as a buttermilk substitute?

Whole milk works best, as the higher fat content promotes browning similarly to buttermilk. Low-fat or skim milk won’t provide the same level of browning. For baked goods, you may also have success with half and half or heavy cream combined with milk.

How long can I soak chicken in milk?

At least 30 minutes is recommended to properly tenderize the chicken. You can soak for several hours in the fridge up to overnight. Make sure to keep it chilled at 40°F or below. Leaving the chicken soaking in milk for longer than 12-24 hours can result in too much liquid absorption.

Does milk soak make chicken more juicy?

Yes, soaking chicken in milk can help lead to a more juicy, moist result after cooking. The milk penetrates and tenderizes the meat while also adding moisture. Be sure to pat off excess liquid before cooking so the coating browns properly.

The Bottom Line

Milk makes a convenient substitute for soaking chicken when you’re out of buttermilk. While it may not be quite as effective for tenderizing, browning, and flavor, milk can still do the job fairly well. For best results, go with cold whole milk and add lemon juice or vinegar. Buttermilk reigns supreme, but milk is a handy alternative for marinating chicken.