Sour Cream vs. Cream Cheese

Whether you’re making a pound cake for Sunday dinner or a dip for game day, you’re likely going to have to break out one of these dairy products. However, the day rolls around for preparing your food, and you can’t remember which one you’re supposed to be using.

Both are sour-tasting milk products. They’re typically used in different places: sour cream in Mexican food and cream cheese in desserts or on bagels. But what actually is the difference between sour cream and cream cheese?

The main difference between sour cream and cream cheese is what they’re made of. Sour cream is made using only heavy cream while cream cheese is made with a mixture of milk and cream. The processes which make them give sour cream a sour taste and smooth texture and cream cheese a tangy taste and thick texture.

Sour Cream and Cream Cheese Differences

If you were to look at pictures of the two, they might be hard to differentiate. Here are the main differences between sour cream and cream cheese.

Sour Cream – How It’s Made

Sour cream, sometimes called cultured cream, is made by fermenting high-fat pasteurized cream. Lactic acid and the bacteria within it begin to ferment the cream, altering its taste and texture.

Over the fermentation period, the cream thickens. The lactic acid added and produced in the fermentation process gives the pleasant sour flavor associated with sour cream. When produced, thickening agents may be added to ensure the sour cream has the right texture.

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Cream Cheese – How It’s Made

Cream cheese is also produced using fermentation. However, the components and the process are slightly different.

Cream cheese is made using a mixture of milk and cream. Lactic acid is added to the mix which is then put under low heat. The mixture of heat and lactic acid begins a fermentation process which will then curdle the dairy mix.

When curdled, the dairy splits into curds and whey, a liquid leftover from the process. The curds are strained, smoothed, and seasoned. That mixture is cream cheese.

Taste and Texture Differences

Once their respective fermentation and thickening processes are done, sour cream and cream cheese may look rather similar, but they have totally different texture and flavor profiles.

Since it’s made only using cream and lactic acid, sour cream is relatively smooth and light with a fat content of around 20%. While called sour cream, its flavor is less sour and more tangy and mild.

Cream cheese is made from the curds of whole milk and heavy cream. This results in cream cheese having a higher fat content at around 33%. Cream cheese has a thicker texture, a more pronounced tangy flavor, and is typically seasoned with salt.

Different Uses

Sour cream and cream cheese have so many uses it’s never a bad idea to have some of both in the fridge. Here’s a shortlist of some of their uses.

Tip: People who are allergic to sour cream can use sour cream substitutes for a similar taste.  

Sour Cream Uses

  • Dips: Sour cream is a staple base for dips of all kinds for everything from roasted vegetables to chips for a Sunday game. Sour cream is a foundational flavor in every good ranch dressing.
  • Soups: A dollop of sour cream is an excellent finisher for almost any soup. The smooth texture and light, sour flavor help round out the flavors of most soups. Sour cream does an especially good job mellowing out spicy flavors in items like chili or tortilla soup.
  • Sauces: Where any kind of milk or cream can be added to a pasta sauce, sour cream can be added in its place. It provides a soft, silky texture and slight tang that will be sure to liven up your weeknight meals. Sour cream can even be the foundation of a sauce like it is in beef stroganoff.
  • Baked potato: Nothing beats a piping hot loaded potato. Make one by splitting open a freshly baked potato and topping it with bacon bits, onion, shredded cheese, and, you guessed it, sour cream.
  • Baking: Sour cream is used widely in baking. It can be folded into everything from donut doughs to pancake batter to biscuits. Talking about donuts, learn how to reheat donuts.. Add sour cream into your next cake batter and see how the outside gets a nice golden color while the interior remains fluffy and moist.
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Cream Cheese Uses

  • Bagels: Nothing is more iconic than a bagel with cream cheese. Whether it be plain or whipped with seasonings, vegetables, even with sugar and fruit, cream cheese spread onto a toasted bagel can’t be beaten.
  • Dips: Cream cheese is another staple of party dips. Everything from seven-layer to spinach and artichoke gets at least a scoop of cream cheese in it, and each dip is all the better for it.
  • Frosting: When buttercream isn’t quite cutting it, cream cheese frosting comes in to save the day. With its rich texture and delicious tang, cream cheese frosting elevates everything it touches.
  • Soups: Whereas sour cream garnishes soups, cream cheese can be mixed and blended into soups. Cream cheese provides soups with a smoother and richer finish.

Conclusion

While they may look similar, sour cream and cream cheese are different products. Sour cream is a thickened, fermented cream while cream cheese is produced from curdled dairy products.

Though they are different products, they have sizeable overlaps in their versatile uses. They can elevate soups, make great dips, and are excellent additions to many desserts.