Crème fraîche (pronounced "krem fresh") is a version of sour cream with a higher fat content, which makes it good for cooking because it is less prone to curdling when you simmer it. While it looks similar to sour cream, crème fraîche is thicker, richer, and tastes less tangy than sour cream. A common dairy staple throughout Europe, crème fraîche is far more exotic in the United States.
Crème fraîche can be spooned over fresh fruits or cooked vegetables and is often used as a garnish with soups. Additionally, it can be used anywhere you might use sour cream, like over a baked potato for instance.
You can purchase crème fraîche in specialty food stores or even some supermarkets. It is often found in the dairy aisle or mixed in with specialty cheeses. Crème fraîche is usually more expensive than sour cream and it can be easy to make your own at home with just a few simple ingredients.
Making Crème Fraîche
You will need heavy cream and a little buttermilk. This needs to be real cultured buttermilk, not the kind of buttermilk that you can make by adding lemon juice to regular milk. The friendly microbes in real buttermilk are a critical component, and these are missing from milk.
To make a simple crème fraîche at home, follow these steps:
- In a saucepan, mix 1 tablespoon of buttermilk into 1 cup heavy cream.
- Gently heat the mixture until it is slightly warm, and then transfer the warmed mixture into a glass bowl.
- Cover the bowl with a clean dishcloth and let it stand at room temperature for 24 hours.
- Stir and refrigerate until chilled. Now your crème fraîche is ready to eat.
Why Doesn't Crème Fraîche Curdle?
Crème fraîche can be used for enriching soups and sauces without it curdling, whereas ordinary sour cream can't be used (because it would curdle). Cream is made from an emulsion of fat and water, mixed with a small amount of milk proteins. Curdling happens when those proteins coagulate and separate from the water. In crème fraîche, there is a higher amount of fat and a smaller amount of proteins, which makes it less likely to curdle.
Storing Crème Fraîche
Crème fraîche should be stored in the refrigerator and used up to the use by date on the container. Once it is opened, use the crème fraîche within three days. Homemade crème fraîche should be kept in a sealed container in the refrigerator and used within the same time frame as store-bought, about two weeks. Crème fraîche should not be frozen.
When to Use Crème Fraîche
If a recipe calls for crème fraîche and you do not have it, ordinary sour cream or Mexican crema (crema Mexicana) are adequate substitutes for most recipes.
These substitutes work best if you are serving the crème fraîche cool, as either a dip or topping. If you are planning on heating the crème fraîche substitute, avoid boiling the dish to prevent curdling the dairy.
Feel free to experiment with crème fraîche and use it in place of yogurt, sour cream, and even mayonnaise. It works well in a potato salad, incorporated into a fish cake, or as a sweet or savory base for a dip. Because crème fraîche can be added to heated dishes without fear of curdling, it can help thicken a stew or add some creaminess to a rich sauce.