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Sour cream might just be the most overlooked condiment.
It’s required for tons of baking and dessert recipes, and it’s a great addition to almost anything because of its creamy consistency and neutral flavor profile. Yet somehow, people tend to forget about it at the grocery store.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted or needed to use sour cream in a recipe and not had it.
I’ve done some first-hand testing with sour cream substitutes and put together this guide about exactly why we love sour cream and what other ingredients we can use as sour cream substitutes to achieve the same effects as the real thing.
About Sour Cream
What is sour cream and what is it used for?
Sour cream is what you get when you add a certain bacteria (which poses no health risks) to regular pasteurized cream. The bacteria multiply rapidly, changing the taste and consistency of the cream. The result is a zesty and slightly sour condiment that’s somewhere between a solid and a liquid.
My favorite thing about sour cream is that it always feels cool and refreshing on your tongue, no matter what food you put it on. That fact makes it very popular as an addition to go on top of rich foods that have already been cooked, especially spicy foods like much of Mexican cuisine, because it is a nice way to counteract the heat.
What makes sour cream sour?
To make sour cream, a lactic acid bacteria is added to normal cream. Other foods with high lactic acid content include yogurt, pickles, kimchi, tofu, and beer. It is what gives those things their tart, fermented tastes, and it does the same with sour cream.
Why would you need a sour cream substitute?
Reasons might include:
- The most common reason is that you ran out of sour cream and need to use something that approximates the taste and consistency.
- There are some people who genuinely do not like the zesty taste of sour cream and want to substitute something with a similar consistency but a different flavor.
- Some people choose not to eat sour cream because of ethical reasons, like being vegan or not wanting to consume products from dairy cows.
- Others avoid sour cream for health reasons, like lactose intolerance or milk allergy.
- Still others don’t want to eat sour cream because of its high fat content; the FDA dictates that sour cream must contain at least 18% milk fat.
Dairy Sour Cream Substitutes
Over the past few months, I’ve tested many of the most popular sour cream substitutes. I used them both as condiments to put on already-cooked meals and as additions to baking I’ve done. The best ones that contain dairy, as determined by my own personal taste and by that of friends and family I used as guinea pigs, are listed below.
Before the lactic acid bacteria is added, regular cream has a much more liquid consistency. It’s still more viscous than milk, but it feels a bit silly to try to dollop it over food like you might do with sour cream because it will just run off the food like water. It’s a great addition to batters, though, providing a bit of a denser creaminess than the fluffiness of sour cream. It’s a good alternative for those who like sour cream’s creaminess but not its sour tang.
Yogurt is a much lower fat alternative to sour cream, and it’s probably my personal pick for best sour cream substitute. It’s not as “fluffy” as sour cream, but it can still be dolloped on top of food and will stay there. It also has that cooling property of sour cream because the lactic acid is still present.
Buttermilk also has lactic acid and so boasts the same tart taste as sour cream, but it has even less fat than yogurt and so is even thinner. It’s almost the consistency of milk, in fact, so it’s not great for spooning overcooked food. It will, however, provide batters with the same tangy and creamy taste as sour cream while adding much less saturated fat.
Regular milk is the lowest-fat sour cream substitute there is. It obviously will not bring the same sour taste as sour cream will because it doesn’t have the lactic acid bacteria, nor will it provide much creaminess. It is a dairy product, though, so it will lend baking recipes a certain je ne sais quoi.
5. Cottage cheese
Cottage cheese has the same creamy texture and the same fluffiness of sour cream. It’s also a lot healthier, containing more protein and less calories. The taste is a lot different, though. I suggest adding a few tablespoons of milk and a teaspoon of lemon juice, and then you can use cottage cheese interchangeably with regular sour cream.
6. Cream Cheese
Cream cheese is a great sour cream substitute. It is thick enough to be spread or dolloped on food, and it gives baking a rich creamy taste surpassing any other sour cream alternative I tested. It contains much less lactic acid than sour cream, though, so you may miss out on that tart flavor. It also contains a lot of fat, nearly twice as much as sour cream. That being said, it also contains a lot of antioxidants and other nutrients.
7. Creme Fraiche
Among all these sour cream substitutes, creme fraiche is closest to the real thing. It’s made using a similar process to sour cream, but the fat content is higher and the lactic acid content is lower. That means it is thicker and fluffier but isn’t quite as tangy. It doesn’t curdle nearly as easily as sour cream, so it may even be a better choice for soups and cooked sauces.
8. DIY Sour Cream
Making your own sour cream takes a while since it will have to ferment for a day or two, but it’s often a healthier and tastier alternative to the store-bought stuff. It also utilizes ingredients many people already have in the fridge.
To start, mix together a cup of pasteurized cream and a teaspoon of distilled white vinegar in a mason jar. Let that sit for 10 minutes and then mix in a quarter cup of regular milk. Now cover the jar with a lid and let it sit at room temperature for a day or two. After that, stick the jar in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to let the ingredients congeal. And voila! You’ve got sour cream.
Non-Dairy Sour Cream Substitutes
Did you know that 65% of the human population is lactose intolerant to some degree? Some people obviously have it worse than others, but the truth is that most of us will just feel better not eating lactose. So nobody has to miss out on the richness of sour cream, here are a few good dairy-free sour cream substitutes.
9. Coconut Milk
Coconut milk is just as creamy as regular pasteurized cream and even more flavorful. It’s definitely not as fluffy as sour cream, but it’s quite good drizzled over foods as long as you don’t mind the sweet earthy flavor. It’s also fantastic in almost any batter if you like the taste of coconut.
Believe it or not, cashews contain lactic acid so they have the same tart taste as sour cream (although not as strong) when mashed up into a paste. To make them into a good sour cream substitute, I’d recommend soaking them to soften them up and then blending them together with a bit of apple cider vinegar, salt, and lemon juice or apple cider vinegar.
The soy-based tofu also contains lactic acid. So just like with cashews, you can blend it together with apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, and salt to make a non-dairy sour cream substitute. Also like the cashew-based substitute, it’s good spread on food and delicious in batters.
Recipes Using Sour Cream
When you want to try out one of the sour cream substitutes mentioned above (or if you just have a craving for regular sour cream), here are some of my favorite recipes you can try:
It is my belief that everyone should be using sour cream more often. The texture is heavenly, and the taste is unlike any other food.
Nothing is identical to the real thing, but the 11 substitutes mentioned above are pretty darn close.