As much as I love the salty, sour tang of vegetable ferments like sauerkraut and kimchi, there are few foods that satisfy me more than dairy fat in its various forms. When that fat takes on the complexity that comes from fermentation, I’m eager to indulge.
For the purpose of this recipe, I am treating sour cream and crème fraîche as functionally the same. I refer to them both simply as sour cream since I’m more interested in illuminating the incredibly simple process for transforming fresh, high-fat dairy (cream or even half-and-half) into a slightly sour, thickened cream. Although there certainly are differences between the two ferments – including – the degree of sourness, fat content, and thickness of the finished product I see them as existing quite closely on a fermented dairy spectrum and shy away from focusing on the binary of one versus the other.
Reading through numerous sour cream recipes, I noticed that many – but not all – advise against using ultra-high-temperature pasteurized cream (also known as ultra-pasteurized or UHT cream) and none of them suggest that you can get by with half-and-half. A few even suggest you need to buy a special sour cream culture. The reality is that you don’t need a specialized starter culture and that any of these fresh creams will work; I’ve had good results with every combination listed below.
A selection of starter cultures, clockwise from top left: cultured buttermilk, pasteurized sour cream, plain yogurt, sour cream
In my experience, for the base, heavy cream produced the smoothest, creamiest sour cream while half-and-half was generally thinner. For the starter, yogurt tended to produce a thinner but very smooth sour cream. Despite all this variation, don’t be surprised if your sour cream turns out a little thinner than store-bought versions, which often include thickeners such as guar gum and carrageenan. But really, they all work well. Take advantage of the simplicity of this recipe, use what you have available, and enjoy the satiating pleasures of the fat.
A selection of base creams, from left to right: pasteurized heavy cream, UHT heavy cream, and pasteurized half & half
You can easily increase or decrease the size of the recipe, just keep in mind the general ratio of approximately 1 tablespoon starter for each half cup of base cream.
- The base: 1 cup cream (just about any will do: heavy cream, pasteurized cream, half-and-half, UHT cream)
- The starter: 2 tablespoons plain yogurt, sour cream (pasteurized or not) or cultured buttermilk
- A glass or plastic container (avoid metal unless you know it’s stainless steel)
- Lid or cover for the container
- Mix the cream and starter in the container until combined.
- Place a lid or clean cloth over the top to keep dust and flies out.
- Leave the container out at room temperature for anywhere from 12 hours to a few days, until a desired texture and consistency is reached. If the whey (a translucent liquid) separates out, just stir it back in. Enjoy!
Yields about one cup. You can easily halve or multiply it to your liking.
Various finished sour creams