Crème Fraîche: Biology and Cooking

Have you ever taken cream out of the refrigerator to use a bit of it, and then when, a few hours later, you notice that you never put it back, said to yourself, “I wonder how long that stuff can sit out for?” Well, that turns out to be an interesting question.

"Crème Fraîche," from Make It Like a Man!

Milk contains a sugar called “lactose,” which is found almost nowhere else in nature. Because lactose is unique, most microbes have evolved to eat other kinds of things that are easier to find. There are only a few types that can digest lactose, and they happen to be human-friendly. They produce lactic acid – as well as other antibacterial substances – which retard the growth of other types of microbes, many of which are harmful to humans. Lactic acid also has a duel effect of thickening milk while creating a pleasantly tart taste. What I’m describing is a family of foods with which you’re quite familiar: sour cream, buttermilk, and – if you’re a foodie – crème fraîche.

Lactose-eating microbes are abundant in nature. They live in and on plants and animals (including you). Back when daily life and nature were more homogenous, if you left milk out, chances were decent that these microbes would find it. Today, in the relatively unnatural environment of climate-controlled high-rise condos and Lysol, we tend not to want to leave it to chance.

That’s where buttermilk comes in. You might notice that your container of buttermilk doesn’t say merely “buttermilk,” but it says “cultured buttermilk.” That’s because commercial buttermilk is not – contrary to common opinion – the byproduct of making butter. Instead, it is skim milk that has been fermented with lactose-eating microbes, to produce something very similar to the byproduct of butter-making. These microbes are still alive and very much at work in the buttermilk you buy at the store. If you introduce them to a cup of cream, you’ll make their little lives joyful, and they’ll reward you by turning that cream into crème fraîche.

"Crème Fraîche," from Make It Like a Man!

So, although you might not want to leave a cup of cream out overnight, add a tablespoon or two of cultured buttermilk, and you can and should leave it out. As with other types of fermentation – like yeast-risen breads – introducing fewer microbes will cause the process to take longer, but it generally results in better flavor. And, like bread-making, doing it by hand at home produces so many variables that you can’t expect exactly the same results every time. Although it hasn’t ever not worked, I sometimes get crèmes that are thicker or thinner, or anywhere from pretty tasty to very tasty.

If I had all the time in the world, I’d make everything at home that I conceivably could: yogurt, sour cream, cheese, beer, robots … you name it. But I don’t have all the time in the world. I have just small fractions of each day, in fact. I fell into bread-making many years ago, and I still love that. But most other things, I’m content to buy from the store. Crème fraîche, however, is not easy to find. Most groceries don’t carry it. So I do make it at home.

Although it’s great for cooking, I typically use it as a garnish or accompaniment. I think of crème fraîche as something half-way between whipped cream and sour cream, and I use it with cakes, pastries, and fruit – or I’ll splash a dollop into a serving of a thick soup. It is especially delicious with anything you’d normally garnish with whipped cream, but to which you’d like to add a hint of tang: spice cake, pumpkin pie, dark chocolate pudding. Of note: if you have buttermilk and heavy cream, and you turn the cream into crème fraîche, you could substitute the crème fraîche for sour cream in a Buttermilk Ranch salad dressing.

Homemade crème fraîche:

What you need to make 1 cup :

8 oz. heavy cream
1-2 Tbs buttermilk

How to do it:

So simple: pour cream into a glass container. Add buttermilk. Stir. Cover, and allow to stand at room temperature for 12-24 hours. Then, refrigerate. Pretty easy!

"Crème Fraîche," from Make It Like a Man!

Crème Fraîche

Credit for images on this page: Make It Like a Man! This content was not solicited – not by the American Dairy Association, nor the Culinary Institute of America’s Fresh Cheese Boot Camp … not even the International Association for the Advancement of È and Î – nor was it written in exchange for anything, like a special keyboard with è and î keys. In doing research for this recipe, I relied on articles by Epicurious, Serious Eats, and “On Food and Cooking,” by Harold McGee. Scribner, NY, 2004. Regarding the latter, if you love to cook and you have a curious mind, you absolutely must read this book.

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"Crème Fraîche," from Make It Like a Man!

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32 thoughts on “Crème Fraîche: Biology and Cooking

    • i hope you do. The batch I made for this post wound up going over blueberry preserves on buttermilk pancakes ] so delicious!

  1. Interesting! I agree that creme fraiche is a real pain to find in the store…and I had no idea it was so easy to make at home! Now that I think about it, I guess I have made creme fraiche before. I used Alton Brown’s recipe for crema when making Mexican street corn…and man was that stuff delicious! Thanks for the info and tips here, Jeff!
    David @ Spiced recently posted…Grilled Jerk Chicken Sandwich

  2. Woo hoo homemade Crème Fraîche! I have mozzarella on my wish list but I’ll be using this one. I just love how they just transform.

    • I’ve always wanted to make mozzarella too. I’ll be curious to hear about it if you do.

  3. I love the buttermilk you get when you make butter — much tastier than store bought. But I doubt if you could use it to make crème fraîche (since it’s not cultured). I haven’t made crème fraîche in ages — usually just buy it. You have me itching to make it again — thanks! 🙂
    John/Kitchen Riffs recently posted…Quick and Easy Shrimp Creole

    • This whole thing started for me because I don’t really know where to buy it!

  4. Nice post Jeff – – I was also amazed at the price of crème fraîche when I lived in the US. Here, in Sweden it’s very common, you can even buy it at the local Circle K. Price here is about the same as sour cream.

  5. Crème fraîche is extremely expensive here in Toronto, it’s usually found beside the cheese section not the cream or yogurt or sour cream area. A small jar sells for $6-7! I’ve made it many times in the past but I haven’t made it in a very long time, thank you for the reminder. The simple things are often the best.

  6. Good tip + these home made experiments are always fun and one always ends up learning something.

    I tried few times and never managed to get a creme fraiche that was as good as the real French one /the St Isigny St Mère one, which, actually, is not expensive at all here in London). I was just curious and I tried it. I had better results with some sort of obscure Italian curd cheese, actually

    But it is something worth knowing, for sure (like the so called home-made ricotta: not at all similar to the real thing, but the next best thing when real ricotta is impossible to find – here in London, fresh ricotta still very, very difficult to get)

    • Oh, that’s very interesting about the ricotta. I’ve always been curious to try it.

    • You know, I can never find it in the store, so I don’t know, but people say it’s quite expensive.

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