Buttermilk Is The Essential Ingredient For Easy Homemade Crème Fraîche

Crème fraîche may look just like everyday sour cream, but it's actually something very special. The smooth and creamy mixture is milder and less sour than sour cream, a quality that makes it versatile as a topping for both savory and sweet dishes. 

Hailing from France, crème fraîche is made with fresh cream – that's the literal translation of the name — which is cultured with bacteria to create a thicker texture and develop the flavor. The mild, slightly sweet flavor of crème fraîche makes it a delicious topping for fresh fruit and pastries. Because it resists curdling when added to hot mixtures, it's also an ideal ingredient to create creamy sauces, soups, and scrambled eggs.

Authentic crème fraîche can cost a pretty penny: an eight-ounce container from Kroger costs $5.99 as compared to a similarly-sized container of sour cream that costs just $1.25, and that's assuming stores in your area even carry it. No matter, because the good news is that it's very easy to make crème fraîche at home. No dairy farm experience or fancy equipment is necessary — just a big bowl, some heavy cream, a little patience, and a container of buttermilk. The buttermilk is the most important ingredient because it provides the cultures that transform cream into crème fraîche.

A tasty hack that's worth the wait

The thick and silky texture of crème fraîche is all thanks to the cultures added to fresh cream; in some cases, the cream is left exposed to the air to allow airborne bacterial cultures to do the work. Making crème fraîche at home is also a matter of adding cultures to cream and giving the mixture time to rest so those microbes can do their work. 

Food scientist and chef J. Kenji López-Alt shared on Serious Eats that buttermilk can be used to create a delicious crème fraîche that will last in the fridge for up to two weeks, and it takes a surprisingly small amount. Pour 16 ounces of heavy cream into a large bowl. Look for cartons in the dairy case; heavy cream contains at least 36% milk fat. To this add just two tablespoons of cultured buttermilk, bottles of which are also stocked in the dairy case. 

Combine the cream and buttermilk, and then let it rest at room temperature for roughly twelve hours. The active cultures present in the buttermilk will thicken the cream, and as it rests the mixture will retain some sweetness and develop a light tang, too. That's it! That's all you need to do to make a big batch of creamy crème fraîche.

Made at home, crème fraîche can be as thick or thin as you like

Even though twelve hours is the recommended time to allow the cream and buttermilk mixture to rest, that timeframe can be changed up as you'd like. López-Alt shares that around 12 hours produces the characteristic, thick consistency you'd expect to find in store-bought crème fraîche, and once refrigerated it will become even thicker still. If the rest time is shortened, the crème fraîche will have a more pourable consistency. This makes it ideal for drizzling over finished dishes like tacos, nachos, and slices of cake, or to use it as the base for creamy salad dressings. 

To ensure your homemade crème fraîche is a success, look for pasteurized buttermilk at the store — avoid bottles labeled as ultra-pasteurized as these will have fewer active cultures, the necessary microbes for transforming the cream. While combining regular milk with lemon juice is a popular buttermilk hack for those times when there's no real stuff in the house, that shortcut won't work here. The active cultures in real buttermilk are crucial to make crème fraîche.

The long rest time for homemade crème fraîche provides ample hours to dream of all the ways you'll enjoy the thick, lightly sweet, and tangy topping. Slice up your favorite, in-season fruits, bake a batch of scones, or choose a pasta shape perfectly suited to a rich, creamy sauce — then, make all of these dishes infinitely more delicious with a dollop of your own crème fraîche.