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Culinary Arts

Crème Fraîche vs. Sour Cream: 3 Key Differences

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jun 15, 2020 • 3 min read

Sour cream and crème fraîche are similar, but they’re suited to slightly different culinary applications.

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What Is Crème Fraîche?

Crème fraîche, French for “fresh cream” and sometimes anglicized simply as “creme fraiche,” is a thick cultured cream with origins in France. Crème fraîche has a nutty, tangy, slightly sour flavor and a fat content of around 30 percent. The high-fat content makes crème fraîche an excellent thickening agent for sauces and soups. Sweetened, it works well as a dessert topping.

What Is Sour Cream?

Sour cream is a cultured cream first developed in Eastern Europe. Early sour cream was made from cream that had gone sour due to the presence of lactic acid-producing bacteria. This soured cream was prized for its custard-like texture. Beginning in the 1950s, the low-fat diet craze spawned low-fat (and even fat-free) sour creams thickened with stabilizers such as gelatin and set with rennet to prevent the natural runoff of whey. In order to be officially designated as sour cream by the FDA, sour cream must have a minimum of 18 percent butterfat.

How Are Crème Fraîche and Sour Cream Made?

Traditionally, both crème fraîche and sour cream are made in the same way: By allowing raw heavy cream to ripen, or sour. At warm temperatures (about 70°F to 90°F), bacteria convert lactose (milk sugar) into lactic acid, which both thickens the cream and adds a pleasantly sour tang. The texture and flavor of traditional-style sour cream depends on the temperature and the length of fermentation.

In industrial settings, both crème fraîchee and sour cream are made with pasteurized milk inoculated with specific bacterial cultures, with the main difference being that crème fraîche is fattier and thicker, and sour cream is tangier, lower in fat, and has a more liquid texture.

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How to Make Your Own Crème Fraîche and Sour Cream

You can make your own crème fraîche at home by combining one cup heavy whipping cream with one tablespoon buttermilk in a glass jar and leaving at room temperature (72°F to 78°F) for 12 to 24 hours. For sour cream, increase the amount of buttermilk to a quarter cup and leave to ripen for 24 to 48 hours. Refrigerate at least one day before serving.

Sour Cream vs. Crème Fraîche: 3 Key Differences

Although sour cream and crème fraîche are both soured dairy products, their slight differences mean they behave differently in the kitchen.

  1. Fat content: Sour cream has a low fat content and more protein than crème fraîche, and it therefore curdles when heated. For this reason, sour cream is most often used as a condiment or added to hot dishes at the last moment. Crème fraîche is more stable, and you can add it as a thickener to hot soups and sauces without fear of curdling.
  2. Acidity: Sour cream also tends to be more acidic than crème fraîche. In baked goods, the acidity of sour cream weakens gluten structures, keeping the bread or dessert moist. This makes it perfect for cakes and muffins. Crème fraîche is mild enough that it blends well with scrambled eggs without adding too much acidity. Try it in Gordon Ramsay’s perfect scrambled eggs recipe here.
  3. Flavor: In uncooked preparations, sour cream’s tang has a savory note, which makes it perfect as a condiment for Tex-Mex favorites such as nachos, tacos, burritos, and chili, as well as Russian dishes such as pelmeni and blinis. Crème fraîche has a milder, creamier flavor that is perfectly suited to raw dessert preparations, whipped with sugar and vanilla, and served with fresh fruit, scones, and other desserts. You can also blend it with herbs and citrus as a topping for meat.

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