Crème Fraîche is a cream that is thickened and rendered slightly acidic by the bacterial cultures present (imagine a less thick and tangy sour cream). As you can guess by the name, which translates to “fresh cream”, this was originally a French specialty, but it can now be found all over the world.
There are two huge benefits (apart from the lovely flavor) of crème fraîche, one, it can be made into whipped cream or butter (uh, yes! more on that in a few weeks), and, two, it doesn’t break (i.e., separate/curdle) when heated. This makes it an ideal treat whipped with sugar and served with strawberries or dolloped in soups and stews (much tastier than sour cream). Anything sour cream does, crème fraîche does better.
The main flavors in this thick velvety cream are a slight sour tang and a mild nuttiness. The thickness of most brands available in the US is similar to that of sour cream, but the texture can range from that of a heavy, slow-moving cream to a shortening-like paste.
It gets it’s distinct flavor and texture from the lactobacillus cultures found in nonpasteurized dairy products. This “good” bacteria is allowed to develop until the cream thickens and acidifies. Once it reaches the correct consistency, many commercial products are commonly pastureland to halt the process. (If you make it at home, all you can do is slow it down by refrigerating it.)
Don’t be concerned or get squeamish by this talk of bacteria in the cream. It’s actually because of this bacteria that the cream does not spoil. It’s the same principals that keep sourdough cultures from going bad. Essentially, the good bacteria crowds out the bad.
I’ve already given a few ideas for how to use it (whipped served with fresh fruits or dolloped in soups), but there are many more. Consider serving it with smoked salmon (instead of the customary cream cheese) or using it to thicken pan sauces. You can try replacing some of the butter in mashed potatoes with a bit of creme fraiche. Essentially any place where you see heavy cream, sour cream, or even butter used, you can replace some–or all–of it with crème fraîche.
As mentioned above, the bacteria in the cream actually helps preserve the creme fraiche so it tends to keep a bit longer than regular milk or cream would. Store bought brands generally keep well for several weeks well covered in the refrigerator. Homemade versions should be stored the same way but used more quickly as quality control is a bit more difficult.
Make your own
Where unpasteurized cream is available, heavy cream containing natural bacteria (lactobacillus cultures) is allowed to sit at room temperature to encourage the growth of these cultures. After it enough of the bacteria has grown, it should be refrigerated to slow/stop the continued growth of the bacteria.
This method is not possible in the US as the required pasteurization process kills the lactobacillus cultures. Creating crème fraîche involves seeding heavy cream with buttermilk (preferred method) or sour cream.
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons buttermilk (live culture yogurt or sour cream will also work)
Combine both in a glass container. Cover and let stand at room temperature (about 70°F) for 12 to 24 hours. Once it becomes very think, you will have crème fraîche! Refrigerate or use immediately.
These are just estimates, actual values may vary by brand or by the type of cream you use to make your own.
Most contain about 28% butterfat and have a pH close to 4.5.
One tablespoon (about 15g, or 1/2 ounces) contains approximately the following:
Total Fat: 5.5g
Saturated Fat: 3.5g
The closest off-the-shelf substitute available in the US is likely sour cream. In the southern United States, clabber is sometimes available and is similar. Plain full-fat yogurt can often be used as a substitute in cooking, but care must be taken to heat it gently as it can often separate.