Crème Fraîche (pronounced krem fresh, for those whose French is rusty) is a thick cream with between 30 to 40% butterfat in it, usually more towards 40 than 30. It’s so thick that you would generally spoon it rather than pour it.
It has a slightly sour taste, contrary to what the “fresh” part of its name might indicate. The taste comes from the bacteria culture used to thicken it. It tastes something like Sour Cream, though not with so pronounced a tang.
Crème Fraîche has been widely used in France for a long time, and in Britain has become such a commonplace ingredient that there are even half-fat versions (15% fat) to chuck into your Mac & Cheese. In North America, though, Crème Fraîche remains an exotic ingredient, and you would definitely be over-ambitious if you asked the 16 year old stockboy at Safeway’s what part of the cooler it was in.
Crème Fraîche evolved in the days before refrigeration (and pasteurization.) Milk fresh from a cow was left in pails to cool down overnight. The cream would be collected off the top the next day (note: in warm weather, this might happen overnight; in cooler weather, this could take up to 2 or 3 days) and added to previously-collected cream kept in a separate pot at a cool, cellar temperature. The cream would ferment and develop a natural lactic acid that thickened the cream and matured it, giving it a slightly-tangy taste. At the end of which, when you had enough cream collected from several milkings to suit your purposes, perhaps half the cream would be used to make butter, and the other half used as cream. The cream could be stored without refrigeration for up to a week, because the lactic acid also helped to preserve it (the bacteria that produced the lactic acid consumed the milk proteins which, if present, speeds up dairy products going rancid.)
Ironically, another French discovery — pasteurization — killed off this process, because in halting the natural maturation process with pasteurization, cream left out no longer matures — it just goes bad. The pasteurization process destroys the bacteria that would have consumed the milk proteins.
But never mind — the farmhouse production techniques wouldn’t make enough to meet market demand today, anyway. So, cream at factories is processed in large stainless steel vats to which a small amount of culture is introduced, and the cream is allowed to mature at room temperature for 18 hours to create the same thickness and tangy-ness as was created before.
The closest equivalent in the English-speaking world to Crème Fraîche is Clabber Cream.
Crème Fraîche doesn’t curdle when heated, so it is great for making cream sauces and for adding to soups.
Crème Fraîche is good on its own with sweet fruit and desserts, and as a base for making salad dressings and dips.
Crème Fraîche can be whipped.
Sour cream (though be aware that because Sour Cream has a lower fat content, it is more likely to curdle if boiled, so don’t let whatever you are cooking boil);
- Half Sour Cream / half Heavy Cream lightly whipped, then let stand at room temperature for about 8 hours (then refrigerate);
- Equal portions of lightly-whipped Double Cream with a very thick yoghurt such as Greek (but be careful when heating);
- Lightly whipped cream with a few drops of lemon juice.
You can make your own Crème Fraîche if you have handy any Sour Cream, Cultured Buttermilk or plain yoghurt (make sure that the yoghurt has active cultures) to use as the starter. Warm up one cup (8 oz / 250 ml) of heavy cream to about 100 F (38 C), then add a tablespoon or two of your starter. Let sit at room temperature for about 9 hours, then refrigerate. Or, add 1 cup (8 oz / 250 ml) of buttermilk to 2 cups (16 oz / 500 ml) of heavy cream, and let it stand somewhere between 8 to 24 hours until it thickens, then refrigerate. With both methods, it should continue to thicken a bit more in the refrigerator.
Store Crème Fraîche in the fridge up to the use-by date. Once opened, use within 3 days.
Crème Fraîche cannot be frozen.