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ingredients and techniques

Building a better pantry: crème fraîche and buttermilk

meg's picture

Do you ever find a recipe that you really want to try, and you end up not making it because it calls for crème fraîche?

I've been there.

It's gotten easier and easier to find crème fraîche in most supermarkets, but it's still expensive, and calling for it, flippantly, in a recipe is unhelpful and can be exclusive.

In reality, crème fraîche is something you can make at home with very little effort. The process takes about 12 to 18 hours, and the only thing you have to do is stir for 30 seconds.

Of course, what you'll end up with is not exactly like authentic French crème fraîche, but in my book, it's close enough.

What do you do with crème fraîche? I use it as I would use sour cream. It makes a fine topping for a variety of dishes including baked potatoes, black beans, or a cucumber salad. You can also use it alongside main dishes like shallow fried soft-shell crabs or borscht.

You can combine crème fraîche with whole grain mustard, herbs, garlic, citrus zest, or spices for different applications, and few desserts are as luxurious as crème fraîche with seasonal berries and little shortcakes. One of my favorite uses for it is to combine it with an equal amount of heavy cream, a little sugar, and vanilla, and whip as I would plain whipped cream. It makes for a luxurious and slightly tangy topping for everything from butterscotch pudding to a fancy ice cream sundae.

Crème Fraîche
Makes about 1 cup

1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons buttermilk or plain yogurt with live cultures
Allow to sit, at room temperature, until the cream thickens considerably and smells slightly sour, about 12 to 36 hours. Refrigerate.


Buttermilk follows roughly the same principle: stir and wait. The only difference is that instead of using heavy cream as you did for crème fraîche, just use whole, lowfat, or skim milk. If you use, say, half a gallon of milk, plan on using 1/4 cup buttermilk or yogurt to culture the whole half gallon. As with other cultured dairy, the higher the fat content in the milk you use, the thicker the final product will be. In my estimation, you're better off making full-fat buttermilk anyway since most people use it in cooking rather than drinking it straight.

One of my favorite ways to use buttermilk is to fill a glass with it and crumble a thick slice of cornbread into the glass. Best eaten with a spoon. Of course, this belies my roots, and I know it's an acquired taste. That said, buttermilk is absolutely crucial for cornbread, biscuits, scones, and many desserts. In Anne Mendelson's book, Milk, there is a recipe for an Indian soup containing buttermilk that's really delicious. I'm sure there are many ways of using buttermilk that I'm not aware of, but my point is that there's no reason you should have to throw away a half gallon of buttermilk ever again. 

Now, please understand that cultured buttermilk is not real buttermilk. Real buttermilk is a byproduct of making butter. It's essentially the skim milk left behind when the butten clumps together. Real buttermilk is a special treat because there are still little flakes of butter floating in it, making it especially delicious.


Veronica's picture

I have never been successful in making creme fraiche at home but I now make butter at home - and I want to know if I'd be more successful using 'real' buttermilk to make creme fraiche. Also - I've been told that the whipping cream/heavy cream available in stores will not make good creme fraiche. I need to us un-pasteurized cream (which of course is not legally available in Canada). Any thoughts on this?

Would appreciate any tips ... as I am truly longing to make good creme fraiche for all the recipes I used to make in the past in England, and which are too expensive to make due to the extremely high cost of creme fraiche in Vancouver.

meg's picture

Hi Veronica,
As wonderful as true buttermilk is, I'm not sure it would be acidic enough to culture cream. If you're making cultured butter, the resulting buttermilk might be acidic enough.

While it is wonderful to have raw cream for crème fraîche, it isn't absolutely necessary. We make it at the restaurant I work at, and we just use conventional, pasteurized cream and buttermilk. If you want some added insurance, add a couple tablespoons of yogurt along with the buttermilk. Don't be afraid to leave the cream out at room temp until it thickens and starts to taste sour--as it acidifies, it will become safer and safer, as most of the "bad" bacteria do not thrive in an acidic environment. This may be overnight or it may take longer depending on how warm your kitchen is.
Don't give up! With a little time, you can make awesome crème fraîche. Please let me know how it goes. Best of luck!

Mike's picture

True buttermilk certainly won't work, because it doesn't have a culture. Modern cultured buttermilk works to make the creme fraiche substitute, only because it contains a bacterial culture that will grow in cream after inoculation and leaving it out at room temp for a day or so.

Pam Gilbert 's picture

I made creme fraiche with heavy whipping cream and the buttermilk. The cream was ultra pasteurized and it was re markedly thick, even firm like. Recipe emeril lagase. 1 cup cream, 2 tbls buttermilk. Was mild but wonderful. Most recipes say do not use ultra pasteurized, but I tried it and it worked. I am now trying it with half and half. Let's see if IT works!

john's picture

Yup, that's pretty much the recipe we give here...

Brandy's picture

I but a small container of Bellweather Creme Fraiche, like 5 oz. I use 2-3 TB stirred into a quart of heavy cream in a quart Mason jar. I let it sit 24 hours, stirring gently once at 12 hours. I get a whole quart of lovely Creme Fraiche to cook or bake with. I can even use some of the homemade to cultivate the next batch or the second half of the store bought and do it all again.

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