What Is Sour Cream?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Baked Potato With Sour Cream

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Sour cream is made when lactic acid-producing bacteria is added to dairy cream, resulting in a slightly tart, thick substance. It has long been an ingredient in Eastern and Central Europe cuisines and moved west as people immigrated to other countries. Known as soured cream in the U.K., sour cream has become a staple in most kitchens, including in the U.S. It is kept on hand to make quick dips, thicken sauces, create creamy frosting, and garnish baked potatoes and soups. It's generally added at the end of cooking or when serving but can also tenderize and soften baked goods.

Fast Facts

  • Taste: Thick, rich, and tangy
  • Varieties: Regular, light (lite or reduced-fat), fat-free, dairy-free
  • Shelf Life: Refrigerated three weeks after the sell-by date
  • Substitutes: Yogurt, buttermilk, cottage cheese, cream cheese, evaporated milk

Sour Cream vs. Crème Fraîche

Sour cream is similar to the French ingredient crème fraîche. Both are white dairy products made with bacteria that thicken the cream and give it a tangy flavor. The primary difference is that crème fraîche has more fat, which makes it suitable for high-heat cooking that would cause sour cream to curdle. Additionally, sour cream tends to be more tart and crème fraîche can be either very thick or somewhat runny.

Varieties

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards dictate the milkfat content may not be less than 18 percent for products labeled as sour cream. It's considered a high-fat product. Lighter varieties of sour cream made with half and half (10.5 percent milkfat) and non-fat milk are available as well.

Fat-free (and low-fat, depending on the recipe) versions may not be suitable for cooking or baking. They use different types of stabilizers to create a sour cream-like product and the loss of fat can affect the way the dish cooks. Soy sour cream is made from soy milk, making it a non-dairy alternative for vegan and other specialty diets. It's interchangeable in most recipes but may also cause issues in some.

Sour Cream Uses

Sour cream is ready to use right out of the container. If you notice some separation, pour off the liquid or simply stir it back into the sour cream. It can be eaten or used as an ingredient without cooking, which is why it's popular as a garnish, condiment, and raw dip, spread, sauce, or frosting ingredient. Sour cream is sensitive to heat and will curdle, so it is often added toward the end of the cooking time. However, it does stand up well in baked goods. Adding a tablespoon or two to a standard biscuit, pancake, cake, or muffin recipe can boost the flavor and texture.

How to Cook With Sour Cream

There are a few tricks to cooking with sour cream. Bring it to room temperature before adding it to any hot foods, especially warm liquids. You can also add 1 tablespoon of flour for every 1/2 cup of sour cream. This will thicken things like sauces and help prevent curdling.

If you have a slow cooker recipe that calls for sour cream, consider using a mock sour cream instead. It combines milk, lemon juice, and cottage cheese and won't break down or curdle under a lot of heat or during long cooking times.

When using it as a condiment, avoid using the storage container to serve sour cream. Spoon out as much as you need into a separate dish and refrigerate the remainder.

What Does It Taste Like?

Sour cream has a tangy, tart taste backed by a rich, thick creaminess.

Sour Cream Substitutes

Yogurt is the best sour cream substitute; Greek yogurt is thicker and the better choice. Generally, you can use the same measurement with a few exceptions. When baking, add 1 teaspoon of baking soda for 1 cup of yogurt. Add 1 tablespoon of flour and 2 tablespoons of water to 1 cup of yogurt for a cooked sauce to ensure it thickens.

Buttermilk and soy milk can be used instead of sour cream. You can add softened butter to thicken it up. Cottage cheese and cream cheese are good substitutes—especially for dips—if you blend them up to replicate sour cream's texture. Unsweetened evaporated milk can also work for sauces; combine 1 cup of evaporated milk and 1 tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice, let it stand for 5 minutes and cook according to the recipe. A homemade vegan sour cream is a viable option for many recipes as well.

Sour Cream Recipes

Sour cream is often used as a garnish or topping for chili, soups, and stews, as well as Mexican favorites like nachos and burritos. Sour cream dips work well for potato chips and fruit and vegetable platters. It's a common ingredient in baked goods, including cookies, scones, and cakes. The cream can also be found in savory baked dishes like casseroles and salad dressings.

Where to Buy Sour Cream

You'll find sour cream available in supermarkets, grocery stores, and even other stores that stock basic dairy products. Look in the dairy cooler section. Containers of sour cream are generally inexpensive and the standard 16-ounce container is equivalent to 2 cups, which is more than enough for most recipes. Powdered sour cream is another option that allows you to always have it on hand without the need to worry about spoilage. A specialty item you might have to buy online, it's reconstituted with water and you can mix up just as much as you need.

Storage

Whether it's open or not, sour cream should always be refrigerated and used within three weeks of the sell-by date on the container. Watch for signs of spoilage: a moldy, rancid smell, mold growth on the surface, and yellow or discolored cream. If you notice any of these, discard the entire container.

Sour cream can be frozen in the container for up to six months as well. The texture will change because it separates as it freezes and it's best reserved for cooking and baking rather than raw preparations. Thaw it in the refrigerator for a day or two; it can be added directly to some dishes, such as soups.

Nutrition and Benefits

While sour cream is a popular condiment, it doesn't have a wide variety of health benefits. It contains 1 percent vitamin A and calcium but only trace amounts of other vitamins and minerals. Some kinds of sour cream contain the bacteria and yeasts known as probiotics, which can help the digestion process.

Commercial sour cream may also include rennet, gelatin, flavoring agents, vegetable enzymes, sodium citrate, and salt. Check the label if you have food allergies to avoid coming into contact with an allergen.