You're in the middle of throwing together a great recipe that calls for sour cream, so you go to get it from the fridge—but it's not there.
Don't ditch the dish; it can easily be rescued. There are plenty of substitutes for sour cream, including those without dairy. Whether you're out of sour cream or you're looking to reduce or eliminate your dairy intake, you have several great options at your disposal.
What Is Sour Cream?
Sour cream is a rich, tangy, thick cream that's become a go-to ingredient in American kitchens and has been a staple in Central European cuisines for years. It is produced when lactic acid is added to dairy cream, which thickens and sours the cream. It's a pretty versatile ingredient, ideal for dips, sauces, and even frosting.
What Does Sour Cream Taste Like?
Sour cream tastes a bit like a mixture of cream cheese and yogurt. It's tangy but also creamy and fatty. The lactic acid is what gives sour cream its characteristic sour flavor.
Sour cream can be used as a garnish or condiment when served plain atop baked potatoes, nachos, or chili. When seasoned with herbs and spices, it can be the base of a ranch dressing or warm spinach artichoke dip. Sour cream can also be used to make frosting when mixed with powdered sugar. Since it adds richness, moistness, and also lightens up a recipe, it is sometimes used in cakes and meat dishes, like goulash. Note that because of the acid it contains, sour cream can curdle or break down when heated; it's advisable to add it toward the end of a recipe or use the tempering method.
Reasons You May Need a Substitute
The obvious reason for needing a sour cream substitute is that your recipe calls for some but you are out. But there are actually many other instances when someone would need a sour cream alternative. A Harris Poll conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group in 2019 reported that over 5 million Americans follow a vegan diet. However, even some people who choose to eat animal products have dietary issues that prevent them from being able to eat sour cream. Those with lactose intolerance have a hard time digesting certain fresh milk products, and for people who have a milk allergy, sour cream is not an option.
Sour cream also has a high-fat content, so those who are looking to cut back on their fat intake may want to use an alternative. Whatever the reason for needing a sour cream substitute, there are plenty of options from which to choose.
If you're simply out of sour cream and need a quick solution, there are plenty of ingredients to choose from, some of which you probably have in your refrigerator. If you have more time, you can make your own sour cream with buttermilk and heavy cream.
Yogurt is the easiest substitute for sour cream. Just replace the sour cream called for in the recipe with an equal amount of plain yogurt. There shouldn't be any noticeable difference in flavor or texture when you make the swap in baked goods, though you might find that dips or dressings made with yogurt taste slightly tangier than usual. Greek yogurt and whole milk yogurt are thicker than nonfat or fat-free yogurt, so they make the best substitutes, but any plain yogurt will do in a pinch.
- To substitute 1 cup of sour cream in a baking recipe, use 1 cup yogurt plus 1 teaspoon baking soda.
- If you are making a dip, it is an even swap—just make sure you use Greek yogurt or drain regular yogurt before adding. (You can strain plain, nonfat, or fat-free yogurt through cheesecloth to make it thicker.)
- For a cooked sauce, use a combination of 1 cup yogurt, 1 tablespoon flour, and 2 teaspoons water for 1 cup of sour cream.
Buttermilk or Sour Milk
Buttermilk and sour milk are the next-best options to swap for sour cream, but they are not quite as thick; adding some softened butter can improve the texture. If you are baking, use 3/4 cup buttermilk or sour milk plus 1/3 cup of softened unsalted butter for 1 cup sour cream.
Cottage Cheese and Cream Cheese
Although their tastes are somewhat similar, the textures of cottage cheese and cream cheese are quite different from sour cream. Thus, it is best to blend either ingredient—along with some liquid—to achieve a similar consistency and "rid" the cottage cheese of the curds.
- If you are making a dip, use a blender to combine 1 cup cottage cheese with 1/4 cup yogurt or buttermilk.
- For a lower-fat alternative to sour cream, mix 1 cup low-fat cottage cheese with 1 tablespoon lemon juice and 2 tablespoons skim milk, and whip in a blender until smooth.
- To use cream cheese instead of sour cream in a dip, add 6 ounces (3/4 cup) cream cheese plus 3 tablespoons milk to a blender and briefly whirl to process to the right consistency.
This unsweetened, condensed milk has had about 60 percent of the water removed, resulting in milk with a thick consistency. Make sure you are using unsweetened evaporated milk and not sweetened condensed milk, which has added sugar.
- For cooked sauces, combine 1 cup evaporated milk with 1 tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice. Let the mixture stand 5 minutes to thicken.
- For a lower-fat option to sour cream, mix 1 can of chilled evaporated milk whipped with 1 teaspoon lemon juice.
It is challenging to match the flavor of sour cream with a non-dairy option, but there are products on the market that come close.
Vegan Sour Cream
With the vegan lifestyle becoming more common, there are several dairy-free sour cream products available. A popular commercial brand of vegan sour cream is Tofutti Better Than Sour Cream. This product tastes similar to the real thing without that heavy feeling that dairy can impart.
You can also make your own dairy-free sour cream with soy yogurt, soy milk, cornstarch, and lemon juice. Just allow time for the mixture to chill well before using.
Vegan yogurt can substitute for sour cream the same way it substitutes for dairy yogurt. You can make your own vegan yogurt using nuts, water, and lemon juice. The mixture needs to ferment for several hours before chilling in the refrigerator. Substitute in the same way as when using regular yogurt for sour cream.
Alternatively, you can blend 1 cup of tofu (silken is best) with a 1/2 tablespoon of lemon juice and then salt to taste. Add water as needed until you get a mixture that's the consistency of sour cream. Substitute 1 cup of this mixture for 1 cup of sour cream.
Best Sour Cream Substitute for Baking
If you have yogurt on hand, 1 cup of yogurt and 1 teaspoon of baking soda make a great sour cream substitute for baking recipes. If you're looking for a dairy-free option, Tofutti Better Than Sour Cream is a well-loved product that works beautifully in baked goods.
- When using other products to substitute for sour cream, it is important to take note of the texture; ingredients that are not as thick as sour cream may make a recipe runny or change the structure of a baked good.
- When adding sour cream or a substitute to a hot mixture, it is best to temper the dairy ingredient first to avoid curdling. Remove a small amount of the hot liquid and mix with the sour cream or substitute; then add this mixture to the hot liquid.
- Use caution when making sauces with yogurt. Since yogurt has less fat, it can curdle when simmered.
Stahler, Charles. How Many People Are Vegan? How Many People Eat Vegan When Eating Out? The Vegetarian Resource Group. https://www.vrg.org/nutshell/Polls/2019_adults_veg.htm.