Not sure what crème fraiche is or why you should care?
Consider it a relative of sour cream. Except that while both are white, thick and creamy, crème fraiche is the richer, sexier and more talented relative.
Here’s the deal. Like yogurt, sour cream and crème fraiche are dairy products produced thanks to the miracle of beneficial bacteria.
But while yogurt is made by adding those bacteria to milk, sour cream and crème fraiche are made from cream.
So what’s the difference? Sour cream is made from cream that is 20 percent fat; crème fraiche sports an even more succulent 30 percent. That may not sound like a big difference, but it matters in both taste and versatility. That extra fat turns crème fraiche into a kitchen workhorse.
But first, taste. While sour cream tastes, well, sour, crème fraiche is rich and tart. And as a byproduct of the bacteria added to produce it, crème fraiche tends to make other foods taste buttery. But unlike yogurt, crème fraiche isn’t particularly acidic (so it’s not great for marinades).
The trouble with sour cream is that you have to be very careful when cooking with it. Heat it too much and it curdles: ditto for yogurt.
But the higher fat content of crème fraiche means you can boil with abandon and it won’t separate. This makes it ideal for soups, sauces and simmers.
It will, however, liquefy. That means that if you add it to the top of something, then toss it under the broiler (as in the recipe for Croquet Monsieur below), or even just dollop it onto something hot, it will melt.
In France, where it originates, crème fraiche often is used in sauces for vegetables, particularly green beans and cauliflower, as well as in salad dressings, soups and pastries, and to top fresh fruit. It’s sometimes used to make caramels and even is added to coffee and cocktails.
It’s easy to make your own (though admit it — most of us won’t). Add a tablespoon of cultured buttermilk to 1 cup of cream and let it sit in a cool room for up to 24 hours, or until very thick. Refrigerate for several weeks.
Crème fraiche is widely available at most grocers in the U.S. It usually is found alongside the better cheeses, though it sometimes will be near the sour cream. It keeps, refrigerated, for about a month.
So what should you do with it?
• Make the best mac and cheese. Ever. Boil pasta, then toss it with a healthy blob of crème fraiche and as much grated cheese as you can handle.
• Spoon it in place of whipped cream over chocolate pudding, fruit pies, cobblers, coffee cake and fruit crisps.
• Dollop it onto smoked salmon served on bagels or rye bread. Add a bit of caviar, too, if you roll that way.
• Serve it over fruit salad or grilled apples and pears dusted with cinnamon.
• Stir it into warmed crushed tomatoes and your favorite Italian herbs for a creamy pasta sauce. Or even easier, warm up jarred sauce, then stir some into that.
• Stir jarred salsa into crème fraiche and use it to dress a plate of nachos (or just use it as a dip for chips).
• Mix it with bottled barbecue sauce, then use that blend to season pulled pork.
Adding cornstarch to the crème fraiche allows you to broil it without it liquefying. It’s an easy and delicious substitute for the traditional roux-based sauce used in Croque Monsieur.
Start to finish: 15 minutes
½ cup crème fraiche
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
¼ cup grated cheddar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon hot sauce
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 slices sandwich bread
4 slices Gruyere cheese
8 slices smoked deli ham
1 tablespoon butter, softened
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
In a small bowl, mix together the crème fraiche, ¼ cup of the Parmesan, the cheddar, cornstarch, garlic powder, hot sauce, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Set aside.
Spread a quarter of the mustard evenly over one side of each slice of bread. Top each with 1 slice of cheese and 2 slices of ham.
Overturn 2 of the stacks onto the others to make 2 sandwiches. Spread the butter over one side of each sandwich.
Bake for 5 minutes. Remove the baking sheet from the oven. Set the oven to broil.
Flip the sandwiches and spoon half of the crème fraiche mixture over the untoasted side of each sandwich. Top with the remaining Parmesan.
Broil for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and just starts to brown.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 820 calories; 410 calories from fat (0 percent of total calories); 46 g fat (25 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 160 mg cholesterol; 43 g carbohydrate; 61 g protein; 4 g fiber; 2,620 mg sodium.
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is the author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking. He also blogs at LunchBoxBlues.com.