Sour Cream: That One of a Kind Tang

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Sour cream is perhaps one of the most influential and necessary toppings in the world of savory and even sweet confections. Perhaps more than anything else, what makes sour cream unique is its taste and texture. It forms thick, dense peaks that are higher than many dairy products. But what exactly is sour cream?

Sour cream is made when lactic acid-producing bacteria is added to dairy cream, resulting in a slightly tart, thick substance. Additional flavorings can be added to sour cream to create many different varieties for use across a wide range of foods. 

In this article, we are going to learn all about this versatile product. Although sour cream is a fairly self-explanatory food topping, its various consistencies, and flavors, in addition to multiple styles, make for a very versatile tangy, and pleasing topping. Read on to learn more. 

Sour cream
sour cream

What Is Sour Cream?

As mentioned, 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.

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.

Sour Cream 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 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

This tasty dairy 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, 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 cream. 

This will thicken things like sauces and help prevent curdling.

If you have a slow cooker recipe that calls for the product, consider using a mock version 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. 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 to 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 as good alternatives. 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.

Yogurt (a sour cream substitute)
Yogurt (a sour cream substitute)

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. Its 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 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.


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.

Is Sour Cream Healthy?

Sour cream has been used widely for its health benefits for many years. While it has numerous health benefits, try not to use it as a primary source of nutrition. The main health benefits come from probiotics. Probiotics are healthy to live bacteria that live in the human gut. 

Probiotics help people with lactose intolerance break down lactose in the small intestine before it reaches the colon (large intestine).

The probiotics in the cream can also help manage irritable bowel syndrome. They also control the growth of Helicobacter pylori bacteria (bacteria that colonize the stomach, causing ulcers). Probiotics have also been shown to have an impact on several gastrointestinal disorders. 

Finally, probiotics help improve the overall immunity of your body against several medical conditions. Studies have shown that people who consume food rich in probiotics have reduced upper respiratory infections and flu-like symptoms.

What Is the Nutritional Value of Sour Cream?

Regular sour cream is fairly high in fat and calories. Here are some of the nutrients in a 100 g serving:

  • Total calories, 198
  • Total fat, 19.4 grams
  • Saturated fat, 10.1 grams
  • Cholesterol, 59 milligrams
  • Sodium, 31 milligrams
  • Carbohydrates, 4.63 grams
  • Protein, 2.44 grams
  • Calcium, 101 milligrams
  • Potassium, 125 milligrams

What Can You Substitute for Sour Cream?

Sometimes you may need a substitute for reasons such as:

  • Fat content. When trying to lose weight, most people will try to avoid sour cream, despite the essential nutrients it provides. It has a high-fat content, contributing up to 90% of its calories.
  • Lactose intolerance. Some people are lactose intolerant. This means they lack the enzyme (lactase) that helps digest lactose. Milk products, including sour cream, contain lactose. 
  • Vegan diet. Some people choose to follow a strict vegan diet that only allows plant-based food.

Other reasons include milk allergies, personal preferences, missing ingredients, and health. Here are some of the best substitutes:

  • Cream. If you’re out of sour cream, add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar to 1 cup of cream. The result will be… sour cream.
  • Milk (or powdered milk). Put milk in a jar or bowl, add 1 teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar, and stir until you get your desired consistency. Adjust lemon juice depending on the amount of milk you’re using. The result contains less fat but is similar to sour cream.
  • Buttermilk. Buttermilk is one of the best substitutes, but it’s more watery. To make buttermilk thicker, you can try adding some butter.
  • Cashew. Cashew is an excellent substitute for people with lactose intolerance or on a vegan diet. To make sour cream from cashew nuts, put cashews in a blender (consider soaking the cashew nuts for four days first). Add lemon juice, water, salt, and mustard. Blend the mix, adding water bit by bit to avoid making it too thin. 
  • Soy. Soy yogurt is also an excellent substitute for people on vegan diets. Soy has the same calorie and fat content as sour cream. You can make sour cream using soy yogurt. Put soy yogurt in a bowl, add lemon juice or vinegar, and mix.
  • Cottage cheese. Also known as curds, cottage cheese is high in protein and low in calories and fats, making it an ideal substitute. To make sour cream using cottage cream, blend 1 cup of cottage cream, 1/4 cup of low-fat yogurt, and 1 teaspoon of lemon juice.
Cottage cheese
Cottage cheese

Sour Cream vs Similar Creams

Sour cream may be prepared from cream with different fat contents, according to its intended culinary use. The cream is fermented using a DL starter culture and should contain diacetyl as the major flavor compound. Because of the high-fat content, the mouth-feel is smooth and the acidity seems milder than in a low-fat product, even though the pH in the water phase is the same in all of these products.

Buttermilk and Cultured Buttermilk

Buttermilk is a byproduct of butter making. When butter is made from fermented cream, the residual is low-fat, flavorful milk with a viscosity greater than fresh milk. Real buttermilk, however, contains phospholipids from the fat globule membrane, which ruptures during butter churning. The phospholipids are readily oxidized, and a metallic taste develops in the milk within a short time. For this reason, real buttermilk is not suitable as a commercial product.

Cultured buttermilk is produced as a commercial alternative to so-called ‘real’ buttermilk. 

Cultured buttermilk is produced from low-fat or skimmed milk and has a stable shelf-life of about 4 weeks. It is fermented with a DL culture and the fermentation takes place at approximately 22 °C for about 20 h. This temperature is well below the optimum temperature of 30 °C for both lactococci and leuconostocs. 

If a higher temperature is used, however, the lactococci dominate over the leuconostocs, leading to an accumulation of acetaldehyde, giving the product an undesirable yogurt (also known as ‘green’) taste. Higher temperatures also promote faster fermentation (about 12 h) but result in the formation of a coarse acid gel that readily separates, giving a layer of whey on the surface.

Cultured Milk

Cultured milk is similar to cultured buttermilk, but it is prepared from whole milk using a DL starter. The fat content gives the product a much thicker consistency than cultured buttermilk. The origin of this product is spontaneously fermented whole milk.

Chemical changes that occur during the storage of buttermilk at refrigerated temperatures are shown in Table 2. The increase in acetaldehyde and the decrease in diacetyl are perhaps the most noteworthy changes. Loss of diacetyl is a result of its conversion (enzymatic reduction) to acetoin by diacetyl reductase (from Ln. mesenteroides subsp. cremoris). The increase in acetaldehyde and the decrease in diacetyl can result in an OF that is commonly described as the “green flavor defect”.

Sour Cream and Yogurt

Imitation sour cream has much the same fat composition as coffee cream but is often emulsified with skim milk powder. It is acidified to about pH 4.5 with citric or lactic acid and can be thickened with gelatin, guar gum, or carrageenan. Yogurts can be made from any imitation milk, including vegetable milk substitutes, by the addition of the appropriate bacterial culture and proper fermentation. They can also be made by direct acidification. 

When the protein content is low, the texture of the yogurt can be improved by the addition of thickeners such as pregelatinized starch or gelatin.

Normally, souring is achieved by inoculation with mesophilic lactic acid bacteria. Less frequently produced, the acidified version is soured chemically, often by a blend of lactic and citric acid or by gluconic acid-δ-lactone. Lactic acid has bacteriostatic effects, while citric acid can be fermented by many organisms. 

The most common mesophilic cultures comprise Lactococcus lactis subsp. lactis, Lc. lactis subsp. cremoris, citrate-positive strains of lactococci, and Leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. cremoris. Lactobacillus acidophilus plays an important role, owing to its perceived health benefits. Incubation may take place after filling in the retail package, or in a fermentation tank before filling. It takes about 14–24 h at temperatures between 20 and 24 ° C. 

This temperature range produces a good balance between organic acids and aromatic flavor compounds. Raising the temperature up to 30 °C shortens incubation time, but produces more acid flavor and less aromatic flavor. When the desired pH is almost reached, the microbiological process is interrupted by rapid cooling to 5 °C. 

A freshly produced cultured cream shall have a pH value of about 4.5 resulting in a slightly acidic, mild ‘cheesy’ or ‘buttery’ flavor. The texture of cultured cream should be uniform (without creaming), creamy, and viscous.

Cultured creams (possibly in a modified composition) may also obtain a nearly plastic consistency by appropriate processing conditions and may then be used as low-fat spreads.