At first glance, sour cream, crème fraîche, and mascarpone are easily interchangeable. All three are thick white condiments, typically seen posing atop soups in a rounded dollop, or used as an integral natural sweetener in desserts. They’re even packaged in similar-looking circular containers in the grocery store, so it’s not all that surprising that it can be a bit confusing when it comes to separating the three as similar—yet quite different—individual ingredients.
For starters, each condiment has its own geographic origin. Sour cream originated in Eastern Europe and Russia before migrating into North American cuisine, where it found its footing in an array of sweet and savory recipes (like sour cream doughnuts and beef stroganoff). Crème fraîche hails from France, where it’s still heavily produced and is often used as a final ingredient to finish off sauces. Mascarpone originated in Lodi and Abbiategrasso, Italy in the 16th and 17th century, and just like sour cream and crème fraîche, it’s incorporated into both sweet and savory dishes.
On the manufacturing side, all three share the same base ingredient: cream. While talk of cream tends to be met with wrinkled noses and heated “no thank yous,” these days it’s an integral foundational ingredient and the first listed on the back of the container. While sour cream, crème fraîche, and mascarpone all boast this shared ingredient, it’s the addition of different bacteria that turn it from its original cream form into a totally different food.
Sour cream is made by fermenting cream with a lactic acid bacteria culture, which naturally sours and thicken the cream. Common stabilizers are generally added during the fermenting process, such as polysaccharides (basically complex carbohydrates made of sugar molecules) and gelatin, which ultimately creates a smooth texture that is inherently part of sour cream’s DNA.
Like sour cream, mascarpone’s main ingredient is cream. But it’s the addition of acidic elements like vinegar, lemon juice, and citric acid that thickens the cream into mascarpone. Mascarpone’s uniquely rich and buttery flavor is derived from its high butterfat content, and the reason why it stars in desserts.
While the French traditionally make crème fraîche from unpasteurized cream—which naturally contains the necessary bacteria to thicken it—those living within the bounds of pasteurization laws must cope with incorporating a starter culture (a mix of bacterial agents) into heavy cream and processing until thickened. Unlike sour cream, there aren’t any thickening agents, and crème fraîche has a much higher fat content (30% compared to 18-20% for sour cream and 25% for mascarpone).
Go crazy for these mascarpone muffins, featuring mascarpone both in the batter—which produces a thicker and denser muffin—and injected in the center. Get the recipe.
Ah, mascarpone’s classically known purpose in dessert: tiramisu. The Italian cake gets its fame from coffee-soaked ladyfingers layered with mascarpone filling and dusted with cocoa powder. Get the recipe.
Mascarpone can star just as well in dinner as it does in dessert. This lemon risotto boasts a creamy sauce from the Italian cheese and its bright yellow color from lemon juice and saffron. Get the recipe.
Sour Cream Recipes
Gear up for cold weather with this beef stroganoff. Just toss meat, mushrooms, beef broth, and some spices, and cook for eight hours. When it’s ready, stir in sour cream for a creamy, sweater weather meal. Get the recipe.
Adding sour cream to mashed potatoes not only thickens the potatoes, but gives the finished product a tangy flavor and fluffy texture. Get the recipe.
Crème Fraîche Recipes
Switch up your classic cheesecake recipe for something a bit more untraditional. Instead of garnering creaminess from just cream cheese, this recipe calls for the addition of crème fraîche, which makes the base sharper and more tangy. The instant coffee and espresso in the filling, and chocolate ganache on top make it a stand-out dessert. Get the recipe.
Memorialize summer with these tomatoes that soften and burst in the oven. Stuffed with a filling made of goat cheese, crème fraîche, and a myriad of herbs, they’ll instantly melt in your mouth. Get the recipe.
Caviar and crème fraîche are the epitome of perfect unions; the pungent salty and fishy flavors of caviar are balanced out by the docile smoothness of crème fraîche. Pair the two with scrambled eggs for a decadent take on a weekend breakfast. Get the recipe.
Header image courtesy of Cheesemaking.com.