Creme Fraiche vs. Sour Cream: What's the Difference?

Crème fraiche vs. sour cream – is there really a difference? The same can be asked when comparing these two dairy products with cream cheese and even mascarpone. If they look so similar, can they be used interchangeably? Can they be stored in the same bakery refrigeration setups? Do they require the same types of mixers to create similar textures?

Before you can decide what to include in your bakery equipment list and how you can include these various products in your recipes, you'll need to first understand the difference between these four commonly confused dairy products. 

Frequently Confused Dairy Products

Creme fraiche vs. sour cream? Sour cream vs. cream cheese? Mascarpone vs. creme fraiche?

Each of these dairy products are often confused with one another. Why? Primarily because they closely resemble one another in their coloring and their consistency. For the inexperienced cook or someone just entering their culinary education, you may be asking yourself what the difference is between each of these four dairy products. 

To understand their similarities and differences, you have to look at them side by side. 

Sour Cream

This is a popular dairy product added to dozens, if not hundreds, of different recipes. Sour cream has been fermented by adding bacteria that produce lactic acid. This fermentation process causes the cream to thicken, which is also referred to as the "souring" process. 

Typically, sour cream has a fat content of about 20%, and it is made with a variety of additives to give it an even thicker texture and is seasoned to taste.  

Crème Fraiche

Pronounced krem fresh, this is a type of sour cream. Crème fraiche has a fat content of approximately 30% and doesn't have any additional additives. It's also known to be much thicker than traditional sour cream and has a less tangy flavor. It's often preferred to sour cream when cooking because its higher fat content is less prone to curdling when heated.

Cream Cheese

Cream cheese is another dairy product often confused with sour cream and crème fraiche. However, one of the primary differences is that sour cream and crème fraiche are considered creams, while cream cheese is actually a type of cheese. 

Cream cheese is made by combining cow's milk and cream, giving it a slightly higher fat content than crème fraiche at about 33%. It's known for its smooth texture and rich flavor. 

Mascarpone 

The final dairy product that falls into this mass of confusion is mascarpone. Again, it shares some similarities with the three above-mentioned dairy products. However, like cream cheese, mascarpone isn't a type of cream – it's a type of cheese. 

Mascarpone is typically made using pasteurized cow's milk and has a fat content of 60%-75%

While you can purchase mascarpone from many stores, most people prefer to make their own, and it's much simpler than you may think. A classic mascarpone recipe looks similar to this recipe, courtesy of The Daring Gourmet:

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup of heavy cream or heavy whipping cream
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 1/16 teaspoon of calcium chloride (mixed in two tablespoons of water before adding to your cream)
  • 1/8 teaspoon of tartaric acid (mixed in two tablespoons of water before adding to your cream)

Directions:

  • Combine milk and heavy cream in a saucepan.
  • Thoroughly stir in your calcium chloride and water mixture.
  • Slowly heat the cream mixture over medium heat until it reaches 185-190 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Once heated, adjust the flame to maintain that temperature for approximately five minutes.
  • Dilute your tartaric acid with water and mix it into your cream mixture. Make sure to stir continuously for approximately one minute.
  • Let cool for five minutes.
  • Pour the cooled mixture into a colander lined with cheesecloth.
  • Place in the refrigerator to drain for a minimum of four hours until you reach your desired consistency.

Mascarpone can then be transferred to your desired container and refrigerated for 3-5 days.

Sour Cream vs. Crème Fraiche: How to Best Use These Various Dairy Products

When trying to choose between crème fraiche vs. sour cream, sour cream vs. cream cheese, mascarpone vs. crème fraiche for each of your favorite recipes, it can be difficult to know what works best. That's why we've listed a few ideas for you:

Warm Recipes

Now, when we refer to warm recipes, we want you to think outside of the box. For instance, many people use mascarpone and cream cheese on a warm bagel. However, these four products can be used throughout a variety of warm recipes, including:

Cream Cheese Uses:

  • Mac and cheese
  • French toast 
  • Scrambled eggs
  • Brownies 

Crème Fraiche Uses:

  • Often made into a sauce for warm dishes
  • In scrambled eggs to give them a creamy texture
  • To make smooth, creamy mashed potatoes 
  • Mixed with your favorite BBQ sauce to make pulled pork

Sour Cream Uses:

  • Often made into a sauce for warm dishes, such as casseroles and beef stroganoff 
  • To top off favorites, including taco and burritos
  • In chili
  • Sour cream soups

Mascarpone Uses:

  • In pizza sauces
  • Often made into a cream sauce for casseroles
  • Used in creamy soups and to top them off

Bakery Recipes

All four dairy products are often used within the bakery industry, thanks to their sweet and savory flavors. Some of the most frequent uses of these items include:

Cream Cheese Uses:

  • Cream cheese frosting
  • Danish filling
  • Cream cheese cookies
  • No-bake cheesecake/standard cheesecake

Crème Fraiche Uses:

  • In different types of frostings
  • In cakes to give them a richer taste

Sour Cream Uses:

  • Coffee cake
  • Sour cream pound cake
  • To make sour cream muffins
  • Sour cream biscuits

Mascarpone Uses:

  • Cheesecakes 
  • Tart recipes 
  • Ice cream cakes
  • Banana bread 

Cold Recipes 

We're going to refer to cold recipes as recipes that don't require additional heating when you use it or used in recipes that will result in a chilled dish, such as ice cream. 

Cream Cheese Uses:

  • As a spread or made into a dip
  • Cheese balls

Crème Fraiche Uses:

  • Pie topping
  • To make a creamy dip
  • Salad dressings
  • Ice cream

Sour Cream Uses:

  • As a sandwich spread – a frequent alternative to mayo
  • Salad dressings
  • Ice creams
  • Smoothies

Mascarpone Uses:

  • Substitute for whipped cream
  • As a dip for fruits
  • As a spread
  • To top off pizzas (when used fresh)


Knowing the Difference is the First Step

Once you know the differences between crème fraiche, sour cream, cream cheese, and mascarpone, you'll start to see that they are extremely similar, yet different in many aspects. 

The good news is that they can often be used interchangeably, especially crème fraiche vs. sour cream and cream cheese vs. mascarpone. It's also important to keep in mind that some swap easier than others. 

Here are a few frequently asked questions:

    • Can I use cream cheese instead of mascarpone? Yes, they are very similar.
  • Can I use sour cream instead of crème fraiche? Yes, they are very similar.
  • Can I use crème fraiche instead of mascarpone? Yes, they are the most similar in flavor and texture.
  • Can I use sour cream instead of cream cheese? In some instances, maybe. However, they have very different consistencies, so you may want to try a different alternative.

Although they may be similar, you always want to double-check your recipes to see if swapping one out for another will alter your dish in any significant way.