This rich, thick cream is slightly sour and just a tad sweet, making it an ingredient you can add to so many different types of dishes.
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If you're wondering what is in crème fraîche—that is, the kind that you would make at home—the straightforward answer is just two ingredients: heavy cream and buttermilk (or yogurt). And it only takes about 10 minutes to make, although you will have to wait at least 24 hours before it's ready to enjoy. 

The French language has a certain je ne sais quoi that can make even the simplest things sound fancy. Maybe that's how a two-ingredient dairy product like crème fraîche can command a high price. Or maybe it's just because it's absolutely delicious. And here's a little secret that gourmet purveyors won't tell you: you can make your own crème fraîche at home for a fraction of the cost.

Try not to be disappointed, but when translated into English, crème fraîche literally means fresh cream, which isn't exactly fancy. And it's not the sort of fresh cream you might be imagining, either—like the type you'd whip into soft peaks and spoon over summer berries. That's a wonderful kind of cream too, but you can think of crème fraîche as sour cream's richer, less tart sister that loves the company of savory sauces and soups.

What Is Crème Fraîche and Where Does It Come From?

Crème fraîche is believed to have its origins in Normandy, a region in France famous for its dairy and seafood products. The process for making crème fraîche was born from a simple process of leaving cow's milk out at room temperature, allowing the cream to separate and form a top layer. The microorganisms (bacteria) that develop during the process act as a natural defense against spoiling, while also thickening and acidifying the cream.

What makes crème fraîche ideal for cooking is its higher fat content (about 40%) which means it is less likely to curdle when coming into contact with heat or acidic ingredients. This perhaps serendipitous advantage explains why crème fraîche is ideal for making creamy soups and sauces, creating a thick and velvety texture.

a photo of creme fraiche in a bowl
Credit: Getty Images

What Does Crème Fraîche Taste Like?

When compared to sour cream, crème fraîche is noticeably less sour. It's also thicker, giving it a luxurious feel in the mouth, and it has a mild sweetness and nutty undernote.

What Is Crème Fraîche Used For?

Crème fraîche can be used in much the same way that you would use any thickened cream product, and it goes well with a variety of dishes, both sweet and savory. It can be incorporated into baked goods and used like traditional whipped cream to top seasonal desserts. And, as mentioned, adding crème fraîche to sauces creates a smooth, thick texture that can take any sauce from good to great.

It's important to note that even though crème fraîche does have a low tendency to curdle, it's not curdle-resistant. In fact, over-cultured crème fraîche can be prone to curdling. That likely won't happen with store-bought crème fraîche, but it's something to be aware of when making your own.

What Is a Substitute for Crème Fraîche?

Because crème fraîche is mildly sour, it makes a versatile substitution for other sour dairy products. But, for the same reason, the opposite isn't always true. In general, the best crème fraîche substitutes are sour cream, Mexican crema, whole-milk plain Greek yogurt, cream cheese and mascarpone cheese. Sweet recipes that call for crème fraîche would do best with the less tart of the group—mascarpone cheese, cream cheese and Mexican crema—while savory recipes that call for crème fraîche are likely to better mingle with the tangier flavor profile found in Greek yogurt and sour cream.

What Is the Difference Between Sour Cream and Crème Fraîche?

The main differences between sour cream and crème fraîche are fat content, thickness and degree of tanginess. The blend of bacterial cultures added to the pasteurized cream used in making conventional crème fraîche is what gives it its unique flavor that's not too sour and just a tad sweet.

As mentioned, the higher fat content in crème fraîche is what makes it particularly useful in cooking applications, as opposed to sour cream that is more prone to curdling. And its less sour, slightly sweet flavor makes it a more delicate choice for desserts.

How to Make Crème Fraîche

Crème fraîche is really easy to make at home. You simply heat heavy cream and buttermilk or yogurt in a saucepan (the ratio is 1 tablespoon of buttermilk or yogurt for every 1 cup of cream). Once it's warm to the touch, transfer the mixture to a nonreactive bowl, like a glass or ceramic bowl. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours. Then just give the mixture a stir and use it, or refrigerate for up to a week. It's best to use room temperature crème fraîche when adding it to sauces and soups, while chilled crème fraîche is ideal for toppings and dips.