by Penny Cherubino
Crème fraîche is one more old thing that is becoming new again as home cooks add this versatile ingredient to their pantry. It has been one of my favorite go-tos for adding richness, moisture, and creaminess to dishes for years. I often use it where someone else would use mayonnaise. I find the taste and texture lighter and more appealing.
What Is Crème Fraîche?
The Larousse Gastronomique defines crème fraîche as “… cream to which a lactic bacteria culture has been added, which thickens the cream and gives it a distinctive sharp flavour without souring the cream.”
If you had access to unpasteurized cream, you could make crème fraîche by simply letting the cream sit out until the naturally occurring good bacteria thicken, acidify, and turn it into a longer lasting dairy product. This is the traditional French method that’s been used in Normandy, Alsace, Franche-Comté, and the northern Loire through the years.
In the United States, pasteurized cream is what is readily available, so we must add something that already contains a culture like buttermilk. Today it’s easy to find crème fraîche in stores but many of these products have unnecessary, added ingredients that I would rather avoid.
By making it yourself, you can control the ingredients, the thickness, and the quality. You put heavy cream in a glass jar, add one tablespoon of butter milk per cup of cream, partially cover it, and let it sit at room temperature for 8-24 hours. When it reaches the thickness of crème fraîche you desire, stir it and refrigerate it.
Whenever I do buy a commercial crème fraîche, I prefer a version with nothing but cream and a natural culture. I see some with citric acid and ascorbic acid added as preservatives. But crème fraîche already has a long shelf life. It was invented as a preservation method to extend the usable life of cream. Why add preservatives?
Using Crème Fraîche
You can use it, as I do, to replace mayonnaise in recipes for tuna salad, lobster rolls, or to make an incredible potato salad.
You can substitute it for sour cream or yogurt. Unlike those dairy products, it won’t curdle if heated because it has a higher fat content. That makes it perfect to stir into sauces, gravies, soups, or add as a topping on hot food. You can use it to make a rich mac & cheese or add it to casseroles.
For a quick, no-cook pasta sauce, mix crème fraîche with Parmesan cheese and season with salt, pepper, and a bit of nutmeg. You can change up the cheese to your own favorite and season it with whatever herbs you have on hand. As the summer progresses, add some diced and drained fresh tomato to the mix.
You can also use it for sweet applications. It will whip like whipping cream and is more stable when it is made ahead. You can use it as a topping or for a simple, quick dessert, fold cut-up fruit into it and serve in pretty glasses with some cookies on the side.
If you’ve been using crème fraîche for one particular purpose, try expanding your repertoire. If you haven’t tried it yet, buy a small container, look up a recipe or two, and give it a try. Soon you may move on to make your own and use it often from the appetizer course right through to dessert.
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