The Europeans were onto something when they discovered crème fraîche, which is a fancy type of sour cream. Whereas sour cream has 18-30 percent butterfat, crème fraîche has a higher butterfat content (30-45 percent), it’s not as thick as sour cream, it’s not as sour, and it’s so much tastier and more versatile than traditional sour cream.
Basically, once you go crème fraîche you’ll never go back to sour cream, and why should you? You’ll start craving it, and you’ll start putting it in everything: potato dishes, salad dressing, fish, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find yourself taking a spoonful of it and licking it like it was ice cream—I admit to having done this on several occasions—but keep in mind two tablespoons clocks in at about 100 calories and 7 grams of fat.
Sour cream is a fermented dairy product made by adding lactic acid-producing bacteria to heavy cream.. Crème fraîche is made a similar way, but it uses cultured milk (buttermilk), and doesn’t require guar gum thickeners that sour cream needs. Making crème fraîche is the easiest thing ever, especially if you fall into the Ron Popeil camp of “set it and forget it.” Crème fraîche is composed of only two ingredients: heavy cream and cultured milk. The cultured part contains all of the good bacteria and is what causes the reaction and makes the stuff sour.
Most recipes agree on using an 8:1 ratio—one cup of cream to one tablespoon of cultured buttermilk, but you can mess around with the proportions. At The Splendid Table, Lynn Rosetto Kasper mentions warming the buttermilk and cream in a sauce pan before storing it, but I don’t think that’s necessary, and, well, that just adds another step. You can also decrease the portions and ratios and it’ll turn out the same. If you’re using raw cream that hasn’t been pasteurized, you can even skip adding the buttermilk—the cream will ferment on its own. Some recipes mention keeping the lid ajar, while others say to keep the lid closed. Either way works.
So, all you do is pour some cream (Organic Valley is good) into a mason jar or a bottle and add one to two tablespoons of buttermilk. Shake it for a few seconds, then just let it set on your kitchen counter for about 24 hours. Don’t worry about the mixture spoiling—the bacteria in the buttermilk feeds off the lactose and transforms it into lactic acid, which then lowers the pH. Think of the buttermilk as a preservative. Some recipes say the crème fraîche should thicken after eight hours or so, but they’re wrong. If you do want it to thicken faster, just add a little more buttermilk. After a day, you should magically have a thickened crème fraîche. It really is miraculous how the liquid transforms into a viscous custard-like blob of goodness. Your version will taste creamier and better than any store-bought variety, cost less than half as much, and once refrigerated should remain fresh for two weeks or longer.
Now that you have “fresh cream,” what the hell do you do with it besides shoving it directly into your maw? My favorite thing is to use it as a condiment. A couple of years ago I found myself at The Patterson House in Nashville. They served tater tots with a horseradish-chive crème fraiche dipping sauce, and ever since then I cannot eat fries or tots without this dip. At home, bake some fries, then mix your crème fraîche with horseradish and fresh chives, and dip away. You can also drizzle crème fraîche on tacos, or on fish, or on fish tacos (you may first need to thin the crème fraiche with a little water to get it to drizzling consistency). Place a dollop in a lentil or butternut squash soup, or use it in a salad dressing. It also can be made into a frosting, and used in fruit dishes. You can (and should) even whip it like whipped cream, and sweetening it first if you’re so inclined.
But if you do decide to go the store-bought route—which from time to time is okay—the best crème fraîche on the market is from Pomeroy, Ohio’s Snowville Creamery. They’re a dairy farm based in Southeast Ohio that produces milk from happy grass-fed cows, which they use to make fantastic milk products including, heavy cream and yogurts sold in stores around Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland. Their crème fraîche comes in a 7.5 ounce container and has a slightly yellowish hue, so it looks and tastes like butter. It seriously melts in your mouth. They add some of their regular milk to reduce the butterfat from 40-percent down to 36-percent, which gives it a nuanced flavor profile. On their website, you’ll find a lot great things to do with the fraîche, such as adding it to scrambled eggs, latkes, or Beef Stroganoff.
With each passing year, crème fraîche is becoming more of a thing. It’s appearing more frequently on restaurant menus (yeah, but how many restaurants make their own?), and even Trader Joe’s sells their own brand, but it has preservatives in it and comes with a superfluous amount of packaging (tsk, tsk). But making your own crème fraîche should become a thing, too, and what you will hopefully find—like I have—is it’s a very good thing.
Garin Pirnia, who has a weird, made-up name, is a freelance arts and culture writer and has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, Mental Floss, and many other publications. She considers herself to be a beer cheese aficionado, and wants people to know it’s more than just a cheese spread. Twitter: @gpirnia.