What was intended to be a short post with an even shorter recipe has exploded into a mountain of crème. Who knew that something as mundane as dairy could trigger such heated arguments. Debate over pasteurized dairy is near the boiling point, pardon the pun. I discovered that and more in my search for the origins of that moderately mysterious ingredient listed in the brioche tart recipe, crème fraîche.
What the heck is that?! Although the French translation is “fresh cream” this is actually a sour cream, that isn’t, but with just a little tang. Despite the schizophrenic classifications, the steady murmurs of appreciation that can be heard o’er hill and dale all sound basically the same…velvety, creamy, smooth. Regan Daley recounts it as, “… France’s most generous contribution to the world of dairy products,” in her book In the Sweet Kitchen.
To call this France’s version of sour cream really doesn’t do it justice. While both are cultivated in a similar fashion and they may be substituted for one another (generally speaking), they are quite varied. One telling factor is the fat content. Regular sour cream, not the corrupted low-fat and *gah!* fat-free versions, averages out to about 14% butterfat. Crème fraîche’s got around 40% butterFAT. Wow!
Unfortunately most of us who get our dairy in North America are unlikely to realize what all that pristine unpasteurized butterfat really tastes like unless we travel across the pond, or know a farmer with a cow. I don’t really want to get into the whole pasteurized vs. unpasteurized debate much. Still, I wouldn’t want milk or any other dairy to be unpasteurized on scale until a dramatic overhaul of the food manufacturing industry occurred. Industrial food production strikes me as a scary business these days, and I’d rather anything they tried to produce be heated to destroy any nastiness within. That said, if I personally knew a guy with a cow, well, he and I would have to have a chat.
The same process that creates booze, vinegar, lots of cheeses, dill pickles even is responsible for crème fraîche…fermentation, in this case lactic acid fermentation. This is going to sound a bit ominous (at least it does to me, any time someone mentions the word bacteria I OCD-out), but it involves introducing some culture, a.k.a. bacteria, into your food-stuffs, in this case heavy cream. The bacteria converts lactose, a.k.a. sugar, in the cream into lactate, a.k.a. lactic acid or milk acid, giving the cream a zesty flavor as well as a thick, velvety texture.
I couldn’t find an exact history of crème fraîche, like when it was first discovered, although many trace its origins to the preeminent dairy region of the world, Normandy. Chances are the discovery was made soon after the first cow was milked because of the inherent composition of milk, not to mention a lack of refrigeration. For instance in France, and other places which allow unpasteurized food-stuffs, cream is left to ferment on its own since the nature of fresh, unprocessed milk is chockablock with bacteria. In North America we must supply the culture to get the alchemy going. This most often is accomplished in the form of an addition of buttermilk which is a fermented dairy product in its own right. Either way, given enough time in a moderately warm place the cream is transformed into a rich yet light, luxurious crème.
Don’t get me wrong, despite the one or two ingredient list, crème fraîche can be a complicated production. It seems that everything from the cow breed, what it’s fed, to probably the weather can modify the flavor. Apparently Jersey cow milk produces more diacetyl, a metabolic product of lactic acid , in the fermentation process. Diacetyl is responsible for the renowned flavor of butter and gives cream a golden glow. Butter is all well and good if that’s a flavor you’re after. But what if you’re looking for something that packs all of that velvety texture but is unadulterated in flavor? Then Holstein milk would be a better choice with its lighter diacetyl yield that delivers a restrained flavor in a lofty cream. Aside from the diacetyl content, Jersey cows tend to bring everything up to 11. They have higher percentage rates than Holsteins in total milk solids, fat, protein and lactose.
As you can see, crème fraîche production makes for a serious business. The French even have an award for the crème de la crème (and I mean that literally) of crème fraîche called the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée label which was awarded to Isigny-sur-Mere, a commune (no kidding!) located in Normandy. So if you’re shopping in Europe hunt for crème fraîche d’Isigny.
What makes crème fraîche so special? According to Kendall Farms, crème fraîche is an ingredient, not simply a garnish. Aside from its distinctive taste and texture, crème fraîche has the distinction of not only having the ability to be whipped but also may be cooked to a boil without separating or curdling. As long as the heavy cream you used is at least 30% butterfat, the fat will prevent fusing of the milk proteins. The uses for this divine crème run the gamut from savory to sweet and everything in between.
Rose Levy Beranbaum thinks it’s wonderful in a ganache and uses it in scrambled eggs, chicken paprikash, potato salad, a finishing swirl in soups, and a dollop on pies and tarts. The epicurean magnum opus Larousse Gastronomique reports that it can be combined with Calvados. Hmmm, sounds like the perfect embellishment for apple pie! Emma Christensen at The Kitchn suggests substituting crème fraîche, “for yogurt, sour cream, or even mayonnaise in most recipes.” Vermont Creamery, which manufactures a crème fraîche with 42% butterfat, whips it with honey and candied ginger to spice up the ubiquitous fruit pairing. Chase Blackwell outlines a number of recipes that spike crème fraîche with a variety of flavors. Eleven Madison Park apparently once conjured up a crème brûlée with it. And Regan Daley adds it to sauces and stews as well as alongside nearly everything made in a pastry kitchen. According to her, “Once you have tried it, I promise, you will find uses for it you never dreamed of…”. Personally, I may never go back to sour cream again.
As far as the recipe goes it’s pretty straight forward. Some sources recommend using pasteurized vs. ultra-pasteurized heavy cream. If you can find it, have at it. Ultra-pasteurized worked just fine for me since I’ve yet to come across a non-ultra version. As with anything in life, use the best quality ingredients you can afford. If you want check out Danlac or the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company for your very own bacterial cultures to go the mad scientist route with your crème fraîche.
From Baking with Julia:
Makes about 1 cup
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon buttermilk
Put the heavy cream and buttermilk in a jar or container with a tight-fitting lid and shake it a couple of times to blend the two liquids. Let the jar sit at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours, or until it thickens. (Keep an eye on it: Crème fraîche will thicken faster in a warm room than a cool one.) Once thickened, chill the crème fraîche for at least 1 day before using. As it ages, the flavor will intensify and it will continue to thicken. Keeps anywhere between 2 to 4 weeks in the refrigerator.